Wednesday, June 17, 2009


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India denies visa to US religious freedom watchdogs
17 Jun 2009, 0158 hrs IST, Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN

WASHINGTON: The Manmohan Singh government has scuppered a proposed visit to India this week by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a US Congress-mandated organization that monitors religious rights worldwide and gives independent policy recommendations to the US President and his administration.

A USCIRF team that was to leave for New Delhi on June 12 was not given visas in time, according to an associate at the commission, who said it was done with the obvious intent of blocking the trip. "They knew we had tickets for June 12 and the visas are yet to be given, so the inference is obvious...they don’t want us to visit," the associate told TOI.

The Indian Embassy in Washington, the issuing authority for the visa, referred all questions to New Delhi, while acknowledging that the USCIRF team had applied for visas and the applications had been forwarded to
New Delhi as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government, without acknowledging that the visas were deliberately withheld, said it was not a proper time for such a visit. "We really don’t care about what they report," an official who spoke on background said. "But a high profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India." The USCIRF has in its reports criticized violence against religious minorities in India.

The official said the visa denial was not linked to the criticism of the proposed visit by the Hindu pontiff, Shankaracharya Jayendra Sarawati, who earlier this week described the USCIRF as an "intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India," and said the team must not be allowed to enter the country.

The Obama administration too did not press for the visit, given that US Undersecretary of State William Burns was in New Delhi around the time of the proposed USCIRF visit, preparing ground for the visit to India by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sometime in July. Most "commissioners" and staff of the USCIRF are appointees of the previous Bush administration.

Although the United States acknowledges India’s rich religious and ethnic diversity and plurality, the USCIRF has in its annual reports criticized specific episodes involving violence against religious minority, like the ones in Gujarat and in Orissa.

"We understand India’s sensitivities about being criticized for religious discrimination given its democratic and secular credentials," a commission associate said Wednesday. "But we are concerned that some of the
judicial processes with regards to the incidents in Gujarat and Orissa are not functioning properly and we only wanted to get them going."

Indian hardliners, especially those on the extreme right, chafe at the idea that any US body would want to scrutinize the country’s religious freedom, given its secular credentials, when it dares not interfere in fundamentalist countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where minority rights are non-existent. Senior RSS functionaries had specifically inquired repeatedly about the proposed USCIRF visit.

Describing the proposed USCIRF visit to India as "incomprehensible," the US branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishat said as 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."

"India not only offers freedom of religion under its constitution, but does not discriminate based on religion. Similar freedoms are not available in its neighboring countries," the VHP said on a statement.

But the Indian Left and the "secular" brigade in the US, including organizations representing minorities, argue that allowing such foreign bodies to visit India and examine its record and performance enhances the country's reputation as an open, democratic nation that has nothing to hide or fear.

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India has foiled a proposed visit to the country by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an organization that monitors religious rights worldwide.


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