US Religious Freedom Commission Report: A Case Built To Peddle Hinduphobia
Karamat Cheema’s half-baked research aims to mislead and paint a dire picture for India’s religious minorities
Last Friday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a quasi-governmental advisory body, released a new report, Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India, authored by Dr Iqtidar Karamat Cheema. Beyond Cheema’s questionable motivations and affiliations, the report proffers misleading arguments and “alternative facts” to paint a dire picture for India’s religious minorities. Worse yet, it delves into stereotypical anti-Hindu polemics and calls for a witch hunt of Hindu organisations in the US.
One of Cheema’s primary contentions is that India is not a truly secular nation based on the fact that its brand of secularism does not exactly replicate the American or French conceptions. Indian secularism is indeed unique and distinct from these countries, as it goes beyond the traditional separation of church and state to provide unprecedented accommodations, and in some instances, preferences for religious minorities.
In addition to the Indian constitution’s multiple provisions on equality and religious freedom, the government (both central and state) has provided generous funding and quotas for religious minorities. In the 2016–2017 central government budget, for example, nearly $600 million was earmarked for the Minorities Affairs Ministry to benefit the country’s religious minorities. Similarly, the government has been providing annual subsidies for Muslims to complete the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, including funding for airfare, domestic travel, meals, medical care, and lodging assistance.
All religious minorities also enjoy autonomy over their institutions and places of worship, free from government intrusion, while many Hindu institutions do not, thus falling victim to governmental corruption, mismanagement, and illegal sale of property. Several temples in southern India and the Kashmir Valley, for instance, are managed by government appointed administrative bodies — a burden never placed on minority religious places of worship.
Personal Status Laws And Legal Assimilation of Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism
Muslims and Christians, the nation’s two largest religious minorities, are afforded their own personal status laws, along with Hindus, governing family law matters in accordance with their respective religious beliefs.
Cheema claims, however, that the absence of separate personal laws for Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, who come under the purview of Hindu personal law, is discriminatory. Ironically, this contradicts and undermines its own position on secularism by arguing for the expansion of religious based personal laws. As the well-known Shah Bano case demonstrated years ago, separate family codes have not guaranteed equal protection to women and can raise the specter of archaic ironies at various junctures in civil society.
To be sure, many of India’s personal laws are problematic across the board, including those created for Hindus. Accordingly, wouldn’t a better solution and the more principled argument be, if Cheema truly is an advocate for a secular democracy, that India establish one uniform civil code that would govern family law matters for all Indians regardless of religious identity?
In regard to Article 25 (2) (b), though it is a limited rule of construction that only includes Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains as Hindus in reference to opening religious institutions to all social classes (an attempt at reform not a religious preference for Hindus) and not an explicit statement on their religious identity, I have no argument with Cheema on the need to amend this section. These religious communities should indeed be accorded separate status under the constitution in the absence of a uniform civil code. But to allege that subsection (2) (b) under Article 25 has resulted in an egregious denial of rights is simply not supported by facts on the ground.
And to further impugn the motives behind this section and claim that it was intended to erase the identities of these religious groups is not accurate, as can be seen from a letter written by the personal secretary of the late prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to a Jain delegation, assuring them that Article 25(2)(b) in no way was meant to deny their separate religious identity.
Notably, Article 25(2) (b) also provides Sikhs the right to carry kirpans (ceremonial knife) as an article of their faith, a religious privilege they’re still advocating for in the US.
Constitutional Neutrality And Defining Minorities
Cheema also asserts that the constitution explicitly favours Hinduism, relying solely on an obscure provision (Article 290A) that provides a fund for the maintenance of specific Hindu temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu that were under the domain of the previous Princely State of Travancore-Cochin. What he conveniently forgets to mention, however, is that similar legislation exists to provide state funding for religious minority institutions, such as for State Waqf Boards (for Sunni Muslims) in addition to central government funding grants under the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
And not one other clause in India’s constitution establishes a state religion or expresses preference for one particular religion, unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other neighbours.
Cheema similarly laments the fact that the constitution does not clearly define what constitutes a religious or linguistic minority and that the determination is left to the states. He fails to convincingly explain how that translates into any deprivation of rights or a lack of protections for minorities. In fact, given India’s complex religious demographics and the state’s role in providing quotas and benefits, it makes perfect sense.
Communities which are religious minorities nationally comprise the majority population in eight states — Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Lakshadweep, and Meghalaya. In Jammu & Kashmir, for instance, Muslims comprise an outright majority, while Sikhs represent a majority in Punjab, as do Christians in Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. The demographics of several districts in West Bengal and Assam are also quickly changing due to illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
Freedom of Religion Acts
In 2006, 27 representatives of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Yoruba communities gathered in Geneva on the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City and the Office on Interreligious Relations & Dialogue of the World Council of Churches. There they discussed a host of issues, including the aggressive and commodified conversion tactics that have proliferated in the past 25 years. They agreed that humanitarian assistance should be provided with no ulterior motives, and encouraged reform against unethical means to seek conversion. They called for “discernment in ministries of healing” in which the vulnerabilities of people in need not be exploited.
And in 2011, the World Council of Churches, “aware of the tensions between people and communities of different religious convictions and the varied interpretations of Christian witness,” met over five years, the product of which was a set of recommendations for ethical conduct for Christian Witness (sharing one’s faith in Christ with others) in a multi-religious world. In their recommendations, they noted, “The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service.”
Cheema’s discussion of the Freedom of Religion Acts is almost entirely bereft of this context and draws false equivalencies between centuries of aggressive conversion activities by Christian missionaries and the very recent Ghar Wapsi (homecoming or reconversion) programmes by Hindu groups.
What he has benignly described as Christian humanitarian efforts have in reality been a systematic campaign to “harvest souls” through mass conversion and church planting initiatives, disrupting indigenous communities and inflaming religious tensions along the way. The Central India Christian Mission, a small US-based group, alone has built over 1,600 churches since 1982.
Converts are often asked to repudiate their community and family, reject traditions and customs that have been passed down for generations, and instructed to avoid attending religious ceremonies and celebrations that are the very basis of daily life. In some instances, converts are paid visits from church volunteers to ensure that the convert, who may have received a seat for their child in a church-run school, or much needed medical treatment at a faith-based clinic for their sick spouse, isn’t reverting to the practice of their original faith.
The Freedom of Religion laws were primarily formulated as a reaction to this type of religious imperialism, and were intended to prevent vulnerable populations from being preyed upon and falling victim to predatory efforts seeking religious conversion in exchange for or with the allurement of medical and humanitarian aid, education, or employment. Ghar Wapsi, on the other hand, pales in scope and magnitude to the conversion activities and predatory proselytisation of missionary groups.
Cheema has failed to show that the Freedom of Religion laws have been consistently enforced and resulted in inequitable treatment for religious minorities.
Cow Protection Laws
Cheema insinuates that cow protection laws (and constitutional provision) in India restrict the rights of minorities and are motivated by or “mixed” with anti-Muslim sentiment. Throughout the world, laws are often formulated based on the moral and cultural norms or judgments of a country’s population. It is illegal to sell dog or cat meat in the US and six states prohibit the raising of dogs for meat, while initiatives are underway to expand these laws to other states. Even in China and Vietnam, where some segments of the population eat dog meat, there are movements to ban such practices due to shifting cultural norms.
Similarly, in India, Hindus view the cow as a generous, ever-giving source, which takes nothing but that which is necessary for its own sustenance in return. Hindus treat the cow with the same respect accorded to the mother, as the cow is a vital sustainer of life, providing milk and a means of ploughing the earth to grow crops. The cow received such status as a result of the historical need of early agrarian Hindu civilisation. Cow protection laws have thus evolved from these cultural and moral precepts and not any anti-Muslim sentiment.
Violence committed against individuals for eating beef or slaughtering cows, however, is unacceptable. And the attack on Mohammad Akhlaq and others are deplorable and should be unequivocally condemned. Such incidents run contrary to Hindu teachings regarding the sanctity of all life and ahimsa, or non-harming, and Hinduism’s history of mutual respect and pluralism.
Moreover, the cow protection laws do not impinge on the religious rights of others. In the same case Cheema cited, Mohd. Hanif Qureshi and Others v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court found that the Muslim butchers in their petition did not put forth any scriptural or factual evidence that the Quran specifically requires the slaughter of cows or that there is a Muslim religious obligation to eat beef. The decision stated, in part:
No reference is made in the petition to any particular Surah of the Holy Quran which, in terms, requires the sacrifice of a cow. All that was placed before us during the argument were Surah XXII, Verses 28 and 33, and Surah CVIII. What the Holy book enjoins is that people should pray unto the Lord and make sacrifice…It is therefore, optional for a Muslim to sacrifice a goat for one person or a cow or a camel for seven persons. It does not appear to be obligatory that a person must sacrifice a cow…
And Muslims are free to legally slaughter goats or other animals during religious festivals and frequently do so. Moreover, the argument that the inability to eat beef deprives certain communities access to critical sources of nutrition is baseless, when access to other types of meat is easily available.
Cheema then goes on to recommend that if legislation on cow protection is maintained, India should also introduce legislation to recognise any hate crimes for the desecration and mockery of sacred texts of any religion, places of worship, or prophets of any religion. Perhaps unbeknown to him, such acts are already criminalized and have been prosecuted under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 295(A), which provides:
Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4 [three years], or with fine, or with both.]
The law was enacted in 1927 by the British to accommodate Muslims, who were upset when a Hindu man, Mahashe Rajpal was acquitted by the Lahore High Court of causing enmity or hatred between religious communities after he published Rangila Rasula criticising the personal life of Prophet Mohammed. His acquittal caused outrage in the Muslim community and he was murdered in court, leading to the enactment of Section 295(A) which has continued in post-independence India. Most recently, in January 2016, a Hindu activist was arrested in Uttar Pradesh under this law for allegedly making derogatory comments about Prophet Mohammed. Several other Indians of all religious backgrounds have been charged under 295(A), including the leader of a religious sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, who was arrested in Punjab for dressing in attire resembling a Sikh guru.
Foreign Contribution Regulation Act
It is within the purview of every nation to regulate and monitor the activities of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) operating within its borders. The US, for instance, places strict requirements on 501(c) (3) charitable organisations, including limiting their political activities and lobbying efforts, as well as providing guidelines for donations and fundraising. These organisations are also subject to anti-discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, national origin, race or color, and disability, with some limited exceptions.
Similarly, the Indian government utilises the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to ensure funds are received from legitimate sources and utilized for legitimate purposes. It also requires quarterly and annual reports to be filed with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). FCRA NGOs can also only redistribute to other FCRA-NGOs (FCRA Ch.II.7a — b). FCRA and other applicable laws also prohibit certain uses of funds, such as the use of funds which may infringe upon (i) the sovereignty and integrity of India; or (ii) public interest;…or (v) harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic or regional groups, castes or communities.
If an FCRA-NGO is found to have violated FCRA rules, the Ministry of Home Affairs may opt to either revoke its FCRA eligibility or place the organization on what is termed a Prior Permission List, which requires prior clearance from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs for a foreign donor to transfer money to any recipient in India. This clearance procedure is purportedly to ensure compliance with the requirement that foreign funds be diverted to only FCRA registered NGOs, which also in turn abide by the law of the land.
There are over three million NGOs operating in India, of which approximately 30,000 are registered under the FCRA. Twenty are on the GoI’s Prior Permission List. Ten were put on the list by the current government. The remaining were already under watch since the time of the previous UPA government. More recent additions include Islamic Research Foundation, Open Society Foundation, World Movement for Democracy, and National Endowment for Democracy.
The reasons for an NGO being placed on the Prior Permission list have ranged from diverting funds to other non-FCRA NGOs, to engaging in activities detrimental to the national interest or utilising foreign funds for religious conversions, political activities, and other activities prohibited by the FCRA rules. The Ministry of Home Affairs also cracked down on non-complying NGOs last year and cancelled some 10,000 FCRA NGO registration for failure to submit financial reports for three consecutive years.
In criticising the FCRA, Cheema alleges that it is being used as a weapon to suppress dissent and target religious minority groups. He highlights the cancellation of FCRA status of controversial social activist Teesta Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust as an example, presumably due to her activism around the 2002 Gujarat riots. Setalvad has been investigated for a number of illegal activities ranging from submitting falsified evidence in court complaints, manipulating witnesses to make falsified statements, and most egregiously illegally misappropriating funds intended to benefit Muslim victims of the 2002 riots. Specifically, Muslim residents of Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society, who were attacked during the riots, recently claimed that Teesta Setalvad and two of her organizations, including Sabrang Trust, have misused funds collected on their behalf. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that FCRA status has been rescinded for the likes of Setalvad.
Further, Cheema’s assertion that religious minorities are discriminated against under the Act is contrary to the fact that the top FCRA approved donors and FCRA recipients of foreign funds in India are Christian, and that Christian NGOs comprise a significant portion of the FCRA organisations in the country.
It is in this section, too, that Cheema raises the bogey of Hindu “nationalist” organisations operating in the United States, that ostensibly send funds to India without restrictions under FCRA. Indeed, Cheema lists “banning” of such groups as a direct recommendation to the United States government. To substantiate this provocative claim, Cheema cites a non-existent entity, South Asian Citizen Web (SACW). When SACW released its overt attack on several Hindu American organizations that Cheema cites in 2014, a detailed rebuttal exposed the site as an amalgamation of shell and expired organisations, and also enumerated factual errors in the report.
Every Hindu American organisation listed by Cheema not only is a duly registered 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organisations, but is also fiscally independent from any Indian entity. So contrary to what Cheema states, these organisations would not be considered foreign owned entities, and would be constrained to disburse funds in compliance with FCRA rules as with any non-Hindu organization in India. Cheema’s demand for the Unites States to ban several Hindu American organisations — a highly inflammatory position shockingly substantiated by USCIRF in publishing Cheema’s report — can only be seen as a crude witch-hunt seeking to marginalise and suppress Hindu civil rights and religious expression in the United States.
Constitutional Prohibition On Untouchability And Caste-Based Reservations
While more certainly needs to be done, India should be lauded for taking steps to explicitly ban and criminalise caste-based discrimination and untouchability, a social evil that continues to plague all religious communities in the country. Its efforts to uplift disadvantaged communities through caste-based reservations for Scheduled Castes (Dalits), Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Castes should similarly be commended.
Instead, Cheema makes an incoherent and disingenuous argument about the caste system and caste-based reservations.
On one hand, he emphatically claims that the caste system is a fundamental aspect of Hinduism. On the other hand, he asserts that the failure to accord Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims with caste-based reservations on the Scheduled Caste list (currently includes Dalits Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists) denies them religious freedom.
But if an inherently unequal caste system is intrinsic to Hinduism, shouldn’t Dalits lose their caste identity and escape discrimination if they convert to Christianity or Islam? Not according to a recent policy document from the Indian Catholic Church, which admits that Dalit Christians face pervasive discrimination and untouchability within the Church.
Moreover, Cheema’s Hinduphobic views aside, there is no basis for a discriminatory caste system in revealed Hindu scripture. The Manu Smriti that Cheema quotes from is not one of those scriptures and was only a code of conduct given by a king during a specific period of time. Vedic and non-Vedic scripture advance the concept of equality of all mankind as demonstrated in the ancient hymn:
Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya
No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.
He also deceptively references the Bhagavad Gita to support his assertion on caste and Hinduism. Contrary to his misleading suggestion, the Gita does not refer to a hierarchical birth-based caste system, but rather mentions the four varnas based on the actions an individual performs according to their own nature.
Ultimately, Cheema’s report boils down to nothing more than a convenient opportunity to vilify Hindus in India, Hindu American organisations, and peddle in Hinduphobia under the pretext of objectively analysing legal challenges for minorities in India. Of course, India’s legal system is not perfect and discrimination exists, as seen in any diverse nation. But to assert that India systematically discriminates against minorities, deprives them of their basic religious freedom, and declares a constitutional preference for Hindus is inexplicable and unfounded. Unfortunately, Cheema employs alternative facts to make his case, all with the imprimatur of a United States taxpayer funded governmental advisory body.
Samir Kalra, Esq. is the senior director and Human Rights Fellow at the Hindu American Foundation.
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