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Religious freedom watchdog ‘implores’ Biden administration to designate India ‘country of particular concern’

As of November last year, the category has China, Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

Arpan Rai
Sunday 17 December 2023 12:37 GMT
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India says murdering separatists abroad is ‘not our policy’ amid Canada row

A US religious freedom watchdog has “implored” the Joe Biden administration to mark India as a “country of particular concern” over its alleged targeting of religious minorities overseas.

The “recent efforts by the Indian government to silence activists, journalists and lawyers abroad pose a serious threat to religious freedom”, said the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF),  an independent federal government commission.

“USCIRF implores the US Department of State to designate India a country of particular concern due to India’s systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief,” it said in a statement.

Commissioner David Curry pointed out that the accusations around the Indian government’s involvement in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada along with another plot to kill Sikh separatist activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the US were “deeply troubling”.

The recommendations against India have been raised each year since 2020 by officials at the USCIRF, raking the designation under the 1998 US Religious Freedom Act. Under the act, the country is accorded a range of policy responses, such as sanctions and waivers. However, these restrictions are not automatic.

As of November last year, the category has China, Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF said it had recommended each year since 2020 that the State Department label India a country of particular concern, a designation under the 1998 US Religious Freedom Act. The act allows a range of policy responses, including sanctions or waivers, but they are not automatic.

Mr Curry said India’s extension of domestic repression to targeting religious minorities living abroad "is especially dangerous and cannot be ignored".

India’s foreign ministry dismissed the recommendation when it was first issued in 2020, criticising the "biased and tendentious comments".

Officials at the Indian embassy in Washington have not immediately issued a response to the commission’s statement and the Narendra Modi administration has repeatedly denied any responsibility for discrimination against religious minorities in the Hindu-majority nation.

This comes just days after an Indian man was found to have conspired with an unnamed Indian government employee on the plot to assassinate Mr Pannun, a New York city resident who is designated as a “terrorist” by the Modi government for advocating for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India.

US officials became aware of the alleged plot to kill Mr Pannun last spring. The unnamed government official was mentioned in an indictment, unsealed in Manhattan federal court, that charged Indian national Nikhil Gupta, 52, with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire.

"The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India," US attorney Damian Williams said in a release announcing the charges against Mr Gupta.

President Joe Biden reportedly also raised the matter directly with prime minister Narendra Modi when they met at the Group of 20 Summit in September in New Delhi. The indictment stated that Mr Gupta had contacted an individual he believed to be a criminal associate to help find a hitman to carry out the killing. However, the individual was a confidential source working with the DEA.

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