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USCIRF India Report: IRFA 1998 & Need for Reforms

By: Mayank Patel
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"The USCIRF is only cursing the darkness...that which was conceived in error and delivered in chaos has now been consigned to irrelevancy. Unless the Commission finds some candles soon, Congress ought to turn out the lights." Robert Seiple (First ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Major Concerns
1. Conflict of Interest
2. Inconsistent Reporting
3. Error of Omission
3. Minor Concern
1. Error of Commission
4. Reform Recommendations


What are USCIRF and IRFA?

In 1998, The United States Congress passed International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and created The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to advocate "Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion" detailed in IRFA 1998. Congress has vested its "symbolic capital" and right to exercise "symbolic violence" in hands of USCIRF. It is USCIRFs obligation to prepare each and every report in compliance with section 202(a) (2) of the IRFA 1998. Every formal submission of USCIRF report carries an IRFA 1998 compliance statement. [(1)] [(2)]

Advocacy is an act of arguing or pleading on behalf of a cause. Sectional advocacy groups represent interest of all members and its report should plead on behalf of all members. In an intra-member conflict, Sectional group"s advocacy report is obligated to present both sides in fair and balanced manner. The easiest way for a sectional advocacy group to lose credibility is to appear one-sided in an intra-member conflict. Many sectional groups fall apart because it is hijacked by dominant members and it is used as a tool to further their interest at cost of other members.

USCIRF is a sectional advocacy group championing "Freedom of Religion" on behalf of all religions. In a conflict between two religious groups, it is obligated to present views of both sides in a fair and balanced manner. IRFA 1998 compliance is to ensure that USCIRF is championing "Freedom of all Religions".

What is the purpose of this article?

This article is a report advocating reforms at USCIRF. It highlights current shortcoming like Lack of standard structure and consistency across reports, Conflict of Interest, Lack of transparency and disclosure, Quality of content, Lack of independent verification of IRFA compliance, Faulty premise, Failure to represent both sides in an intra-member conflict etc.
This article is not about commission"s conclusion and decision with respect to India. It offers no opinion on that matter. USCIRF 2009 India report is used because it serves as an excellent illustration highlighting most of the shortcomings. Removal of shortcomings may not have any effect on commission"s conclusion.

Major Concerns:

Conflict of Interest:

Majority of present commissioners are current or former high ranking executive of religious entities like Southern Baptist Convention, National Association of Evangelicals, Islamic Institute of Boston, Evangelicals in Civic Life etc. [(2)]. Collectively they have significant knowledge and advocacy experience. However, Advocacy style of some of these entities may not be appropriate at USCIRF. For Instance, "Hyperlink to Hinduphobia: Online Hatred, Extremism and Bigotry against Hindus" lists Southern Baptist Convention"s affiliate International Mission Board"s website as a major offender.

Commissioner"s duel public and private role can produce conflict of interest resulting in noncompliance with IRFA 1998. USCIRFs website states "Commissioners are supposed to act as individuals on the commission"s behalf and not as representative of their private sector or religious organizations". [(2)] However, there is no published procedure to avoid conflict of interest and no independent audit or verification of IRFA 1998 compliance.

For instance, USCIRFs one-sided reporting not only fails to stand up for the very cause it is suppose to champion namely "Freedom of worship without fear" but also lends voice to those who want to curtail it . USCIRFs 2009 India report"s description of "Sri Amarnath Shrine land for temporary shelter controversy" makes no mention of continuous terror attack on Hindu pilgrims and pilgrim shelter, regular massacres of pilgrims [(5)] and necessity of providing safe, secure shelter and fear-free pilgrimage. On the contrary, it lends voice to myopic view and fictitious claims of those who want to curtail "Freedom of Worship". [(6)] [(7)] [(8)] Is this in compliance with IRFA 1998? If Sri Amarnath was a Church then would USCIRF lend voice to those who want to curtail Amarnath pilgrimage?

Inconsistent Reporting:

USCIRF 2009 annual report [(9)] covering other countries is significantly different then 2009 India report [(8)]in term of coverage of major themes, selection of content, presentation, balance and overall advocacy.
Following table summarizes the difference between other country report and India report:-

Major themes found in most USCIRF report Covered in other reportCovered in India ReportIndia report explanation
Constitutional ProvisionsYes NoOnly Hindu entities suffer due to asymmetric provisions in India"s constitution.
Government confiscation and control of religious entities and property right.YesNoIn India, Only Hindu temples are confiscated and controlled by government.
Religion based discrimination in providing government benefits.YesPartial India report omits discrimination faced by Hindus.
Communal RiotingYesYes Almost entire India report is devoted to this theme.
India is the second largest victim of terror in the world after Iraq. However, India report partially covers terrorism from the prism of prevention of communal violence.
Covers problem faced by all religions regardless of majority and minority statusYesNoProblems faced by Hindu entities are mostly omitted in India report.

Both India and Turkey are secular democracies. Major political debate in both countries is around interpretation of secularism which in Turkey results in violation of freedom of all religion and in India results in violation of freedom of Hindu religion. Both have history of banning opposition parties and jailing opposition leaders. In both countries, Establishment is challenged by controversial political party. In turkey, AKP wants reintegration of Islam into public life in a manner consistent with modernity and democracy but its true motives are questioned. In India, BJP wants to remove pseudo from what it calls pseudo-secularism, bring cultural nationalism aka hindutva and integral humanism in public life but its true motives are questioned. Two very similar situations receive radically different treatment in USCIRF 2009 reports. [(8)]

Quality of Madrassa education is more or less similar in Pakistan and India. [(37)] USCIRF 2009 Pakistan report is critical of Madrassa curricula and stresses need for oversight and changes. On the other hand, USCIRF 2009 India report displays no such concerns. More-over, it positively notes Government of India"s announcement that Madrassa degrees would be equivalent to university degrees. [(8)] [(9)]

Error of Omission:

Government violation of freedom of religion by Constitutional provisions, Confiscation of houses of worship and property right is the largest theme found in most USCIRF country report. However, It is completely omitted from 2009 India report.

Here is an overview of omitted problem:

For past 700 years, India was ruled by non Hindu"s. Many rulers promoted and propagated their own non-Hindu faith at cost of Hinduism. For instance, India"s Muslim rulers promoted Islam by generously donating properties to Waqf. [(10)] Quite often the property in question is a destroyed Hindu temple or confiscated from Hindu owner. Another instance is the forced conversion of faith for 200+ years during Inquisition of Goa.[(11)]

Although the Indian government allows for freedom of religion, its constitution provides lesser rights and protection to Hindus vs. non-Hindus paving way for hostile government take-over of Hindu institutes and misappropriation of its assets and income. More-over, Minority institutes also receive government patronage in form of Exemption from 2005 Amendment to the Article 15, 95% grant-in-aid, College Scholarship to pursue higher education, thus perpetuating 700 year old injustice. [(12)] [(18)] [(19)] [(20)]

Due to Government confiscation, most sacred and holy sites of Hinduism are today under government control. There is rampant mismanagement, corruption, misappropriation of temple income and stripping of temple assets. In many states, temple donations are appropriated as government revenue and significant portion of it is allocated for non-Hindu purpose like maintaining non-Hindu place of worship. [(13)]

What makes matters worse is that ruling political parties often subscribe to ideologies which are inherently hostile or prejudiced towards Hinduism. Thus, Hindu institutes live under constant threat of ideologically motivated government take-over and subsequent destruction. For instance, State of Tamil Nadu is ruled by Dravidian parties for over two decades. Dravidian ideology believes in discredited racial theory of Aryan Invasion. It is openly anti Shri Ram, anti Sanskrit and anti Brahmin. Ruling ideology has a history of publicly issuing threats and has carried out those threats in many instances. [(14)] [(15)] [(16)]

Many organizations feel that Hindu label is a liability. It exposes them to ideologically inspired attacks, places them at a financial disadvantage and paves way for government confiscation. As a result, several entities like Rama-Krishna Mission, Arya Samaj, and Jains etc. have filed law-suits and done intense lobbying to declare them self a non-Hindu minority religion. For Instance, in west Bengal, Rama Krishna Mission whose colleges and schools were in danger of hostile take-over by Marxist government petitioned the courts to have their organization and movement declared a non-Hindu minority religion. [(17)] [(18)] [(19)] [(20)]

Article 30 of Indian Constitution discriminates on grounds of religion. Article 30 should be made inclusive. It should be expanded to include all religions and groups. Government control of Hindu Institutes violates Article 25 and 26 of Indian Constitution which bestow freedom of religion, and freedom to manage religious affairs. More-over, it often leaves Hindu Institutes at mercy of ruling political party subscribing to atheist, un-Hindu and/or anti-Hindu ideology. Thus, all religious institutes should be freed from clutches of government.

Article 29 of Indian Constitution provides extra protection of minority interest. This is a good provision. However, Based on India"s unique history of Hindu persecution, Current status of Hindu religion"s freedom and prevalence of extremist political ideologies, it would be prudent to expand article 29 and make it inclusive.

Government of India"s confiscation and control of Hindu temple not only violates freedom of religion but also handicaps Hindu freedom to propagate faith, thus, tilting religious conversion field in favor of non-Hindu faiths. Why USCIRF made an exception and omitted not only its largest theme but also most significant violation from 2009 India report? Is it due to conflict of interest? If Churches were discriminated, confiscated and controlled by Government of India then would USCIRF stay silent? This deviant exception and dubious omission is a colossal failure to stand up for "Freedom of Religion" placing entire USCIRF 2009 India report out of compliance with IRFA 1998.

Minor Concern:

Error of Commission:

Error of Commission is a relatively minor issue. It has little bearing on Reform Recommendations. Those who are not interested in India"s communal violence and terrorism problem may want to skip this section and go to Reform Recommendations.

India Report starts with premise that in India, all religious communities have historically coexisted peacefully until rise of organizations with Hindu nationalist agenda. In order to buttress its premise, Majority of the remaining report is devoted to description of five events of communal riots. However, Commission chose to omit many facts about those five events. Those omitted facts undermine commission"s premise. Following paragraphs list few such omissions.

Rise of so called Hindu nationalist organization started in 1990s. However, Anti-Sikh riot the largest of the five events described by USCIRF happened in 1984. USCIRF choose to omit critical role played by then small Hindu nationalist organizations in saving hundreds of Sikh lives and restoring peace. This well known role has been noted in Judicial Inquiry report submitted by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Nanavati and was also praised by Late President of India Giani Zail Singh who was a Sikh and leader of rival congress party.[(21)] [(22)]

Both the second and third largest event as well as rise of Hindu nationalist organizations it-self is the result of what happened in 1528AD and justice delayed on a court petition filed in 1948AD. In fact, Ground zero of second largest event Godhra city has witnessed communal riots in the years 1925, 1928, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1953, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 2002 . Godhra communal riot which had taken place in the year 1948 was very serious. Initially the Muslims had burnt 869 houses of Hindus. Thereafter the Hindus had burnt 3071 houses of Muslims. This well known history is also stated in Judicial Inquiry report on USCIRF"s second largest event. Report was prepared by Justice Nanavati and Justice Mehta inquiry commission. [(23)] However, USCIRF chose to omit and ignore entire report and its findings.

USCIRF"s premise of historically peaceful coexistent until rise of Hindu Nationalist organization is not true. Neither India"s blood soaked history of religious persecution, separatism and partition nor five events listed by commission support it.

USCIRF report under sub-title Gujarat Violence in 2002 states "In February 2002 in the state of Gujarat, a fire on a train resulted in the death of 58 Hindus returning from Ayodhya. Following this, 2,000 Muslims were killed across Gujarat by Hindu mobs, thousands of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were looted or destroyed, and more than 100,000 people fled their homes. Christians were also victims in Gujarat, and many churches were destroyed."

However, Different picture emerges based on judicial report submitted by Justice Nanavati & Mehta Panel [(23)], rival congress government"s Official statement in parliament [(24)] and other national news sources: On 27th February 2002 in the state of Gujarat, Sabarmati Express train was forcibly stopped and attacked by about 500+ strong Muslim mob. As a result, 59 Hindus passengers mostly Women, Children and seniors returning from holy city of Ayodhya were burned alive. Following this, Resulting riots killed 790 Muslims and additional 254 Hindus. 223 people were reported missing and 2548 sustained injuries. 523 places of worship damaged, 298 were dargahs, 205 mosques, 17 temples and 3 churches. Muslim-owned businesses suffered bulk of damage. 61,000 Muslims and 10,000Hindus fled their homes. Preventive arrests of 17,947 Hindus and 3,616 Muslims were made. In total 27,901 Hindus and 7,651 Muslims were arrested. Nearly 10,000 rounds of bullets were fired by the police killing 170 persons and injuring many more.[(25)] [(27)] [(28)]
This indeed is a ghastly set of events. However, USCIRF repeats the pattern of glaring omission of Hindu suffering and killing. It not only hides identity of train-attackers but also omits the attack itself. This goes against the very spirit of sectional advocacy and IRFA 1998. Is USCIRFs statement of Christian victims a misleading Hyperbole driven by conflict of interest?

USCIRF report under sub-title Orissa Violence in 2007 and 2008 states "In December 2007 in Orissa"s Kandhamal district, violence between Christians and Hindus resulted in several deaths, dozens of injuries, the destruction of at least 20 churches and hundreds of homes, and the displacement of hundreds, many from minority religious communities. According to reports by India"s National Commission for Minorities [(NCM)] the tensions between the Christians, many of whom are from low-caste communities, and the Hindus, many of whom are from tribal communities, were well-known and longstanding. According to Christian groups and news reports, the influential local VHP leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati played a central role in fomenting and encouraging the December 2007 violence against Christians. "

Firstly, USCIRF mostly omitted the details of well-known and longstanding historic tension. Here is the detail and background based on Judicial Inquiry report submitted by Justice Mohapatra [(29)], Home ministry of India"s annual report [(31)] and other national news sources: Riots happened in remote forest region of Kandhamal. Parts of Kandhamal is tribal reservation where only tribal can own land. The largest community in Kandhamal is Kandha tribe. Most Kandha tribal follow tribal religion which according USCIRF 2001 report is distinct from Hinduism. Most Kandha tribal are Follow multiple faiths. However, Socio Economic and Political landscape is dominated by second largest community low-caste Panna who are mostly Christian. Region is also home of Maoist terror group which is the largest terror group operating against India and responsible for 3338 deaths in India in 5 years from 2004 to 2008. Maoist has pro-claimed Hindu nationalist organizations as their natural enemy and many local Kandhamal terrorists are Panna-Caste-Christians. Major Issues in Kandhamal are illegal and forcible occupation of tribal land, fake issuance of tribal certificates, illegal building of places of worship mostly churches and temples on tribal and government land, religious conversions and re-conversions. This has also resulted in Communal tension in 1986, 1994 and 2001. [(30)] [(32)]

Secondly, USCIRF omitted the immediate cause of violence and how Late Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati fomented and encouraged it. Here are the details and background based on reports by India"s National Commission for Minorities (NCM), NGO and national news sources: Long simmering dispute between Kandha tribe and Panna caste Christians took a turn for worse when Pannas started lobbying for their categorization as Tribal. Tribal categorization would allow Pannas to buy tribal land and help regularize existing illegal occupation. Kandha Tribe launched a mass movement against Panna categorization as Tribal which lead to minor conflicts. Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati was on his way to visit trouble spot. However, a bus belonging to Mr. Sugriba Singh, BJD Member of Parliament (Lower House) and Panna Christian obstructed the road and Swami was attacked on that spot seriously injuring him, driver and security guard. In his victim"s statement Swami blamed Mr. Radha Kanta Nayak, Congress Member of Parliament (Upper House) and chief of Christian group World Vision. He further stated that this was for the seventh time that they failed to kill him. This victim"s statement caused more inflammation. [(33)] [(34)] [(35)]

Communal riots are actually a larger, older and much more complex problem then USCIRF portrays. As per annual report of Home ministry of India [(31)] on an average approx. 700 communal incidents occur every year. Government and law enforcement"s response regardless of political party in power is pathetic. All political parties show equal reluctance in taking action against its support base in cases of communal riots and terrorism. Most rioters regardless of religious or anti-religious affiliation are acquitted. However, Due to stand taken by India"s Supreme Court Christian and Muslim chances has improved.

For Instance, India"s secular Supreme Court has ordered destruction of hundreds of places of worship mostly Hindu temples illegally constructed on government land. It has firmly rejected pleas for compensation and leniency in such matters. However, In case of churches built on disputed tribal or government land it asked Orissa government to take a lenient view and provide riot damage compensation. This dualistic approach sends strong signal to lower courts. [(30)]

In another Instance, In Best Bakery riot case Supreme Court of India made several pronouncement including unprecedented step of moving court venue outside Gujarat based on an affidavit of "star witness" Zahira Sheikh. Later on the affidavit was found false. An inquiry was ordered by the Supreme Court, proceedings were initiated against Zahira Sheikh and she was sentenced to one year"s imprisonment. However, the pronouncements made on basis of false affidavit were not annulled. [(36)]

USCIRF report under misleading sub-title "Responses to Terrorism and the Prevention of Communal Violence" describes terror attacks on Indian soil and government"s successful efforts to maintain prevention of communal violence. There is no actual description or comments on Government"s response or non-response to terrorism. The entire terrorism is described from the prism of prevention of communal violence. USCIRF other country report [(9)] provides detailed description of terror groups and violation of freedom of religion carried out by them. However, USCIRF chose to omit those details from India report even though India is the largest victim of terror outside Iraq. Significant violation of freedom of religion is carried out by terror groups and most terror groups are either fueled by religion based separatism or anti-religion Maoism.

USCIRF India report did make several useful recommendations and highlighted the need to prevent misuse of law. However, it draws a very simplistic picture of an extremely complex and a very old problem.

Reform Recommendations based on Major Concerns:

. US Congress must trust but verify. Setup Independent audit and verification of IRFA 1998 compliance.

. Create standard report template which will cover all major causes of violation of freedom of religion like Constitutional Provisions, Government Confiscation and Control of places of worship, property rights etc. All reports should follow prescribed template and specifically state "None" where no violations are found.

. Improve quality and transparency of reports. USCIRF must vet and disclose source of all facts and figures cited in its report. Vague terms like "many" can easily be used to create misleading hyperbole. Such terms should be replaced with approximate number.

. Current make-up of USCIRF is unrepresentative of its members whose rights it is suppose to champion. Make USCIRF a democratic sectional advocacy group. In other words, all members are represented and have exactly 1 vote. Alternatively, all commissioners should be un-affiliated.

. In an intra-member conflict, Report must represent both sides. Standard of fairness and balance must be significantly high. To prevent hijacking such reports must be approved by two-third majority.

. Commission should make an extra effort to champion latent, oppressed or unpopular interest. This cannot be done without questioning popular premise built on prevailing prejudice. For Instance, Hypothetically if this commission was setup in 1829AD than it should not only refrain from painting popular "Wild Wild West Indian Savage" portrait but also take an unpopular stand of championing freedom of both religions namely Native American faith and Christianity.

. USA has witnessed more than 250 incidents of civil unrest and rioting.[(39)] USCIRF should study government handling, police response, arrest rate and court conviction rate in few such events. There are several ways to respond ranging from communist response at Tiananmen Square, J. Edgar Hoover"s suggestion to shoot the rioters during 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, Walter Washington"s refusal to shoot the rioters during 1968 Washington, D.C. riots etc. Based on its study, USCIRF should publish a framework of acceptable level of police killing, arrest rate and court conviction rate. USCIRF should consistently apply that framework in all cases of civil unrest and riots.

Reforms are required for following reasons:

1. Protect the credibility of USCIRF and by extension USA.
2. Compliance with IRFA 1998 law.
3. Ensure that USCIRF is advocating "Freedom of ALL Religions".
4. Prevent symbolic violence against "Freedom of Religion".

Mayank Patel

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References & Notes:

The article and poll on reform recommendations are also available at www.uscirf.blogspot.com which is a dedicated blog advocating reforms at USCIRF.

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