NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.
The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.
“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”
The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.
The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.
In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.
The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.
“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.
Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.
“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.
The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”
“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”
What USCIRF Would Have Found
The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.
According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.
The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.
Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.
Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.
“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”
Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.
“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.
In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.
The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.
The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.
The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.
“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.
A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.
Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.
Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.
“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”
Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.
“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”
Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.
Why Visas Were Denied
Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.
Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.
According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.
Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.
“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”
The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”
Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.
The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.
Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”
Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”
“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”
The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.
“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”
Report from Compass Direct News