The Platform

The Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India. (Arian Zwegers)

The world’s largest democracy is also one of the world’s most religiously intolerant country.

A United States government panel has recommended that India be placed on a blacklist of countries that violates religious freedom, amid growing concerns over the rights of minorities in the world’s largest democracy.

The panel, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is a bipartisan advisory body that reports to the U.S. Congress and the State Department. The panel said India should join 13 other countries, including China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, on a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” that are subject to sanctions or other diplomatic actions for infringing on religious freedom.

The panel said India had committed “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” in 2020, by enacting a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims seeking fast-track naturalization, by failing to prevent or prosecute communal violence in New Delhi that killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, and by cracking down on peaceful protests against the law.

The panel also cited anti-conversion laws in some states that restrict the right to change one’s religion, especially for Hindus who convert to Christianity or Islam, and the harassment and intimidation of religious minorities and human rights activists by state and non-state actors, such as vigilante groups and mobs. The panel’s recommendations are not binding on the State Department, which makes the final decision on whether to blacklist a country and what actions to take.

The State Department has not followed the panel’s advice on India in previous years, despite mounting criticism of the Hindu right-wing policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. India has rejected the panel’s report as “prejudiced and baseless” and said it does not need any external endorsement of its commitment to pluralism and tolerance.

India, the world’s largest democracy with 1.4 billion people, is home to various religious groups, with Hindus comprising 79.8%, Muslims 14.2%, Christians 2.3%, and Sikhs 1.7%. Smaller religious communities such as Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and secular Indians also exist. The nation’s constitution describes it as a secular, democratic republic, and Article 25 affords every person the freedom of conscience to practice, profess, and propagate any religion. However, since 2014, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has backed and implemented policies that violate the rights of religious minorities.

At present, 12 of India’s 28 states have passed laws that criminalize religious conversion, including instances of coercion, and contain vague and broad language that can be used to target voluntary religious conversions. These anti-conversion laws include prohibitions on conversion, requirements to notify the government of one’s intent to convert, and burden-shifting provisions that presume an accused individual is guilty. Those found guilty face fines and imprisonment, and these laws disproportionately affect Muslims and Christians.

Additionally, these laws are increasingly being used to prevent interfaith marriages or relationships. Under the Special Marriage Act, interfaith marriages require a 30-day notice period, enabling individuals to object to the marriage. Furthermore, authorities have been known to help Hindu vigilante groups “enforce” these anti-conversion laws.

Numerous attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship were recorded in 2022, with demolitions of mosques in Muslim communities leading to arrests and violent clashes. In May, the Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh ordered the demolition of homes in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Attacks by Hindu nationalists and vigilantes on religious minorities, including members of secluded tribes, have continued with impunity. Social media and news channels provide a platform for Hindu right-wing activists to fan the flames of tension and incite violence against minority groups.

Discrimination and harassment against Muslim women persist at the local and state levels. In January, an Indian website that published the names of and attempted to “auction off” Muslim women who publicly opposed Hindu nationalism and the government’s treatment of religious minorities was shut down by GitHub. In February, sectarian violence broke out between supporters of the right to wear the hijab and Hindu students wearing saffron robes. Subsequently, the BJP banned religious garb in public schools in Karnataka.

Moreover, in October, 11 men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano, a pregnant Muslim woman, were acquitted on appeal by the Bombay High Court during the reporting period, underscoring the intersectional nature of religious discrimination in India. Despite mounting criticism of Modi’s policies, India has rejected the findings of an independent panel that cited “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” in the country. India has refused to grant visas to panel members who wanted to visit the country to assess the situation on the ground and has accused the panel of having an agenda against India.

The situation raises concerns about the government’s commitment to pluralism and tolerance and the need for international pressure to ensure the protection of the rights of religious minorities in India. Moreover, critics argue that the government led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has undermined the secular ethos of the nation and fostered a climate of fear and hatred among religious minorities. Despite India’s rejection of the panel’s report, its recommendations could lead to potential diplomatic consequences for India if the State Department designates it as a Country of Particular Concern.

Umar Moiz Sheikh is a peace activist with a Master's degree in security studies from the University of London, currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Peace and Conflict Studies.