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Ahead of 2014 polls, two US Congressmen want White House to "engage" India on religious freedom

Keith Ellison
By Our Representative
In an unprecedented step, two US Congressmen, Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, and Joseph Pitts, Republican from Pennsylvania, have moved a resolution in the House of Representatives calling upon the US government to engage the Government of India, as also state governments in India, on issues related with “religious freedom and related human rights” in US-India strategic dialogues. The resolution acquires significance, as it especially seeks to criticize BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi by name for inciting communal riots in Gujarat.
Thus, even as expressing concern over “Indian citizens who have been victims of religious violence” starting with the Babri mosque riots in 1992, followed by 2002 riots in Gujarat, Odisha riots in 2008, and the latest Muzafarnagar riots in UP, the resolution makes a special mention of how the Gujarat government has even today “not adequately pursued justice for the victims of the 2002 violence.” It makes a special mention of the anti-conversion law of Gujarat to point towards how lack of religious freedom in Gujarat has been provided a legal basis.
The resolution calls upon “Gujarat and other Indian states with anti-conversion laws to repeal such legislation and ensure freedom to practice, propagate, and profess ones’ religion as enshrined in the Indian constitution”, adding, the Government of India should “empower the National Commission on Minorities with enforcement mechanisms, such as the ability to conduct trials and hear appeals.”
Supporting the of the United States Department of State and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the Gujarat riots and commending the United States government for exercising its authority in 2005 under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to deny a US visa to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on the grounds of religious freedom violations, the resolution urges the US government to “review the applications of any individuals implicated in religious freedom violations under the same standard.”
Joseph Pitts
Wanting the Government of India to encourage “the establishment of an impartial body of interfaith religious leaders, human rights advocates, legal experts, and government officials to discuss and recommend actions to promote religious tolerance and understanding”, the resolution urges “all political parties and religious organizations to publicly oppose the exploitation of religious differences and denounce harassment and violence against religious minorities, especially in the run-up to India’s general elections in 2014.”
Praising India’s rich religious diversity and commitment to tolerance and equality, and “reaffirming” the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities, the resolution regrets, “Contrary to the tolerant and pluralistic traditions of the Hindu faith, strands of the Hindu nationalist movement have advanced a divisive and violent agenda that has harmed the social fabric of India.”
The bipartisan resolution has found support from nine Democrats and six Republicans. It has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific. "This resolution's strong bipartisan support shows that the rights of religious minorities in India are a priority for the US Congress,"said Congressman Keith Ellison in a joint press release with Congressman Joe Pitts after the introduction of the resolution.
"India is big enough for all its citizens. Its best leaders have worked to promote unity among its diverse populations, not division," commented Ellison referring to the elevation of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP. "India is a land of unrivaled religious diversity, but with such diversity comes great responsibility in ensuring the rights of religious minorities," added Pitts.
Echoing the sentiments of the Congressmen, the Campaign Against Genocide (CAG) spokesperson Kannan Srinivasan said: "It is a sad day for all Indians, that a man whose complicity in mass violence and suppression of minorities is acknowledged internationally, happens to be the Prime Ministerial candidate of a major political party in India." 
He added: "The fact that threats to our secular polity and traditionally rich diversity are now an international concern, should cause all Indians to reflect on the direction our country has taken in recent years. Thankfully, this trend is not irreversible." CAG is an apex body of tens of Indian diaspora organisations formed in the US following the Gujarat riots to campaign against the danger of communalism in India.
Meanwhile, senior Gujarat-based human rights activist Father Cedric Prakash, welcoming the resolution has said that it “yet another historic initiative” on the part of two US Congressmen Keith Ellison and Joseph Pitts. He adds, “Already several other leading US lawmakers have endorsed the resolution and many more are expected to sign it in the coming days.”
Suggesting the reason for supporting the resolution, the activist said, it “hails India's religious pluralism and diversity. It however voices serious concerns on the way religious minorities have been targeted in several Indian states and asks the Indian government to ensure their protection. It also calls upon the US State
Department to continue to deny a visa to Narendra Modi to enter the US.”

'Poster boy' of failure to punish the violent

The resolution comes close on heels of two top members of a US Congress-constituted commission on religious freedom have expressed sadness over nomination of Modi as BJP prime ministerial candidate, terming him as the “poster boy” of India’s failure to punish the violent. “It was another son of Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi, who once offered a broad, tolerant vision for the country and its multi-religious society,” write Katrina Lantos Swett and Mary Ann Glendon, in a special op-ed Special to CNN.
“So, as 2014 draws nigh, whose vision will be embraced? Which India will prevail that of religious freedom or religious intolerance? Time will tell,” they write. While Swett is Vice Chairwoman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Glendon is a USCIRF Commissioner. “The poster child for India’s failure to punish the violent remains Narendra Modi, who is Gujarat’s chief minister a post he held during the 2002 riots,” they say.
“Gujarat’s high court rapped the Modi administration for inaction and ordered compensation for religious structures that suffered damage. In 2005, the US State Department agreed with the recommendation of USCIRF and others to revoke Modi’s visa,” they say. “True, in April 2012, the highest court’s Special Investigative Team failed to prove guilt against Modi and others in a case involving the deaths of nearly 70 people. But he remains implicated in other Gujarat-associated cases that have yet to be investigated or adjudicated,” the op-ed says.

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