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India: Recommendations to US Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom

following a briefing on ’The Threat Religious Extremism Poses to Democracy and Security in India: Focus on Orissa’

Tuesday 27 January 2009, by Angana Chatterji

To: The Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom

From: Dr. Angana Chatterji
- Associate Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
- California Institute of Integral Studies
- 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California 94103
- achatterji; 415.575.6119 (office); 415.640.4013 (mobile)

December 30, 2008

Re.: Recommendations for action, as requested, following a briefing held on December 10, 2008, on ’The Threat Religious Extremism Poses to Democracy and Security in India: Focus on Orissa’, at 2168 Rayburn in Washington D.C.

I thank the Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom for honoring me with an invitation to testify at the hearing. I submit the following recommendations for consideration related to United States policy in its continued association with India, in ensuring mutual respect for, and commitment to, freedom of religion, a secular state, and the attendant human rights and civil liberties of disenfranchised, including minority, groups and peoples.

The following submission is mindful of the political/policy borders and boundaries that mediate issues of national sovereignty. The implicit assumption is that actions to uphold human rights, civil liberties, and democratic governance by the United States Government contributes significantly to international discourse in ways that are beneficial globally as well as to United States domestic policy and practice. The following submission is an appeal for ethical negotiation between India and the United States as the most powerful (United States) and populous (India) democracies seek to fulfill their commitment to human rights and its attendant freedoms. In so doing, various constituencies in both nations remain hopeful that any opportunity for association between these states will assist in enabling mutual adherence to responsible and democratic governance.

The following is in addition to the dossier of my research that I submitted at the hearing.

I am a Citizen of India and a Permanent Resident of the United States. My observations are based on research on religious freedom and minority rights conducted by me in Orissa. I have undertaken 16 trips to the state since June 2002, and undertaken work in 66 villages, 11 towns, and 4 cities across 17 districts in Orissa. In 2005-2006, I co-convened the Indian People’s Tribunal on Communalism in Orissa through the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights with Advocate Mihir Desai, with a panel led by Former Chief Justice K.K. Usha of the Kerala High Court.

Religious violence and the religionization of social life by Hindu nationalist organizations have continued to endanger life and livelihood for minorities in India, as witnessed in Gujarat (2002), Jammu-Kashmir (2008), Orissa (2007-2008), Karnataka (2008), Assam (2008), and elsewhere. The violence against Christian minority communities in Orissa in August-October 2008 was not unexpected. In Orissa, since the mid-1990s, a formidable mobilization has been established by Hindu nationalist groups, including in Kandhamal district. These groups have acted with egregious impunity with adverse impact on society, economy, culture, religion, polity, and security in the state. The Sangh Parivar ’family’ of Hindutva, Hindu supremacist, organizations has a visible presence in twenty-five of thirty districts in Orissa. The Sangh Parivar has amassed between 35 and 40 major organizations with numerous branches (including paramilitary hate camps) in 25 districts in Orissa, with a massive base of a few million operating at every level of society, ranging from, and connecting, villages to cities, in their campaign to ’convert’ Orissa for the ’Hindu nation’.

Following the recommendations for action listed below please find a note on actions proposed by concerned citizens in India, and a brief note on the context of Hindu nationalism in Orissa today.

Recommendations for action in the United States:
Various diasporic charitable organizations affiliated with Hindu nationalist ideologies operate in the United States. This has been well documented with details submitted by me in the dossier. These organizations routinely maintain links with Hindu nationalist leaders and organizations in India, including in Orissa. As well, these diasporic organizations seek to influence public discourse and policy in the United States that relates to India. They also fundraise to export capital and resources to counterpart/affiliate organizations in India, including in Orissa, that assist in various ways in promulgating Hindu nationalist ideology. It is imperative that charities involved in work that promulgates and maintains an infrastructure of hate and violence against minorities be so designated. A list of such charities must be responsibly developed in consultation with academics, researchers, and independent bodies with relevant expertise on the subject. Following such identification, investigations must be undertaken by relevant authorities into the actions of these organizations operating with charitable status. Note: The categorization of organizations that promulgate divisiveness, hate, and violence must occur with the utmost care and in a transparent manner, so as to not infringe on the freedoms, rights, and entitlements of organizations that legitimately undertake charitable work, or ensue the demonization of vulnerable groups and marginal, even unorthodox, perspectives. The objective is not to further involve the state in public life, but to note that the state is already involved in the ability of these organizations to function. Hindu nationalism operates as a transnational movement and the reach of its affiliated ’charitable’ organizations in the United States continues internationally through groups they fund and support in India. Halting their interventions requires new ways of thinking about domestic and foreign policy and necessitates coordination between the United States and India as a tenet of bilateral cooperation.

Toward the above and further:

1. Undertake a systematic, routine, and detailed investigation into the actions of diasporic Hindu nationalist groups to identify and investigate their status, actions, finances, and the actions and affiliations of their membership in the United States, as well as their affiliates and cadre. These groups must be investigated and monitored, and, as appropriate, requisite action must be taken and sanctions must be imposed on their activities.

2. Many of these organizations, registered as charitable entities in the United States, routinely allocate sizeable amounts of money under ’program services’, disproportionately directed to Hindu nationalist and affiliated groups in India. The effects of this have been documented in the organized violence against Muslims, aided by officials of the state government at the highest level, in Gujarat in 2002.

3. Certain diasporic organizations affiliated with Hindu nationalism, such as the India Development Relief Fund (IDRF, Tax identification number 52-1555563) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A, Tax identification number 51-0156325), Sewa International (Tax identification number 20-0638718), and Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA (Tax identification number 77-0554248) are registered as charity organizations in the United States. As their work appears to be political in nature, they should be audited and recognized as political organizations. A serious concern is whether the activities of these fall within the objectives of their tax-exempt status; whether in fact these organizations should have been registered as 501(c)3 groups given the nature of their activities, whether the monies collected are indeed used for the purposes for which they were collected, and whether illegal and political activities are being carried out in the name of social work. Given these concerns, the charitable status, and the rights and privileges thereof, enjoyed by these groups should be reviewed, and, where appropriate, revoked. Further, their activities should be monitored to determine their role in fomenting hate and undermining the human rights of various individuals and groups in India. Note: The VHP failed to gain recognition at the United Nations as a ’cultural organization’ in 1999 because of its philosophical underpinnings, even as the VHP-A continues to function as an independent charity, registered in the United States since the 1970s.

4. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh-USA (Tax identification number 52-1647017, an ideological affiliate of the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India) and VHP-Overseas (Tax identification number 04-3576058) are registered as 501(c)3 groups and operate as cultural organizations, seeking to mainstream and lobby Hindu nationalist concerns in the United States. The impact of their activities in promulgating hate and perpetrating ’terror’ and communal violence in India must be investigated.

5. Monitor visa issuance to, and the travel of, Hindu nationalist leaders and activists charged with involvement in criminal acts. A case in point is Mr. Narendra Modi, the incumbent Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has been implicated in the violence orchestrated against Muslims in 2002, and whose visa was revoked by the United States in 2005, following advocacy on part of civil society groups and academics in the United States and support from Congressional members.

6. Ensure that appointees to federal and state positions, or those that serve in an advisory capacity, or as experts to state officials are scrutinized for affiliations or linkages they may hold within Hindu nationalist groups. These affiliations, where they exist, should not be treated as benign, and a reasoned investigation must be undertaken to determine whether the prospective appointee or advisor is able to fulfill requisite service obligations with ideological and practical distance from Hindu nationalist agendas. A case in point is Ms. Sonal Shah, who was appointed to President-elect Barack Obama’s 15-member Transition Team in November 2008. While her list of accomplishments and expertise run high, she has worked as a National Coordinator for the VHP-A and served on its Governing Council, and her organization, Indify, affiliated with Ekal Vidyalaya of India, and supported the ideological and political premises of Hindu nationalism, and their action programs.

7. Ensure that international human rights and independent monitoring groups are invited to India on a regular basis to monitor the status of religious freedom and human rights of minority communities and allied faith and secular peoples and groups. The ability of international human rights and independent monitoring groups to work in alliance with local civil society institutions is crucial to interrupting the isolation disenfranchised/minority groups experience and producing accountability.

8. Ensure that the constitutionality and transparent implementation of security laws of India, as they pertain to religious groups and religious freedoms, are able to be rigorously monitored by international human rights and independent monitoring groups in alliance with local civil society institutions. These laws have been, without due cause, disproportionately and variously used by law enforcement agencies in India against minority communities and those dissenting unethical practices of the state, and their rights have not been duly protected.

9. All bilateral projects must be assessed for their human rights implications, and cost-benefit analyses undertaken to determine/ensure that these projects are in fact positioned to make contributions that are empowering for disenfranchised groups, including minorities, so as to enable the restructuring of inequitable and institutionalized relations of power that lead to majoritarianism and communal violence.

Actions applicable to Orissa and at the national level in India:
Reciprocally, it is important to note certain actions that have been proposed by concerned citizens in India that the Government of India and Government of Orissa must undertake toward effective intervention into the organization and growth of Hindu nationalism. Toward this:

1. In India, the Central Bureau of Investigation must be required to expeditiously investigate the activities of the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Orissa, and apply, wherever necessary, relevant provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Section 2G of the Act, ’unlawful association’ denotes: (1) ’that which has for its object any unlawful activity, or which encourages or aids persons to undertake any unlawful activity, or through which the members undertake such activity’; or (2) ’which has for its object any activity which is punishable under Section 153A or Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code 1860 ([Central Act] 45 of 1860) or which encourages or aids persons to undertake any such activity; or of which the members undertake any such activity’.

2. A review panel must be appointed by the Government of Orissa, in consultation with the National Human Rights Commission, the National Minorities Commission, and other relevant independent bodies, such as the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, to identify and investigate the status, actions, finances, and membership of Hindu nationalist groups and their affiliates and cadre, and the actions of their membership. These groups must be investigated and monitored, and, as appropriate, requisite action must be taken and sanctions must be imposed on their activities, and reparations must be made retroactively to the affected communities and individuals. The Government of Orissa must act to stop instances of communalization from escalating into violent episodes.

3. Hindu nationalist leaders, activists, and organizations in Orissa charged with involvement in criminal acts and involvement in actions that have led, or may lead, to communal violence must be investigated and prosecuted.

4. Certain organizations, such as the VHP and Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, are registered as cultural and charitable organizations. As their work appears to be political in nature, they should be audited and recognized as political organizations. A serious concern is whether the activities of Hindu nationalist charitable organizations fall within the objectives of the social trust/public charitable trust and whether in fact these organizations should have been registered as social trusts given the nature of their activities; whether the monies collected are indeed used for the purposes for which they were collected and whether illegal and political activities are being carried out in the name of social work. Given these concerns, the charitable status, and the rights and privileges thereof, enjoyed by these groups must be reviewed and necessary action taken.

5. The Government of Orissa and the Central Government must make concerted efforts to identify, investigate, and eradicate paramilitary hate camps being operated in Orissa by the Hindu nationalist groups that instruct cadre in arms training and militancy with the express purpose of threatening and destroying disenfranchised and minority populations through social and economic boycotts, sporadic and organized intimidation, arson, rape, murder, and other forms of social, gendered, sexualized, economic, and physical violence.

6. Various police and court investigations related to crimes against minorities have not been undertaken in Orissa. On various occasions, the police have refused to file First Information Reports (FIR). Police desks should be set up for registering minority grievances and filing FIRs, and the Government of Orissa must appoint a team of Special Public Prosecutors to conduct proceedings as necessary. Toward this, independent monitoring bodies must be supported and protected.

7. The Government of India and the Government of Orissa must take adequate and expeditious steps to ensure that those who convert voluntarily to Christianity, Islam, or any other faith are allowed to practice their religion. Failing to do so is in serious violation of Articles 25-28 of the Constitution of India, which define the Fundamental Rights of every citizen of India, and those that the Government of India and the Government of Orissa are obligated to uphold. Toward this, independent monitoring bodies must be supported and protected.

8. Hindu nationalist organizations are forcibly converting Christians and other non-Hindus in Orissa to Hinduism. Sangh Parivar activists claim India to be a Hindu nation and all Adivasis (tribals, indigenous peoples) and Dalits (erstwhile ’untouchable’ groups) to be ’originally’ Hindus, even as Adivasis and Dalits often do not self-identify as such. Drawing on such rationales, Hindu nationalist organizations justify coercion in ’bringing back’ Adivasis or Dalits to Hinduism. Urgent steps should be taken to stop the Hinduization of these communities by means of coercion or duress. The police and courts must act immediately and authoritatively to stop Hindu nationalists from enacting forcible conversions or ’reconversions’, and the police must be required to submit regular and public reports documenting their work in this matter.

9. The disparagement, demonization, and vilification of any religion should be statutorily prohibited and held punishable under the Indian Penal Code.

10. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, must be reviewed and repealed.

11. The Orissa Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1960, must be reviewed and repealed.

12. The Government of Orissa must establish and activate the State Minorities Commission.

13. The BJD-BJP coalition government in Orissa must honor the Constitutional mandate requiring the separation of religion from state.

14. Police, judicial, and governmental reform, including diversity training, must be addressed by relevant state institutions, and action taken against officers of the law and political servants who abuse their position of public trust by using their power to influence and support Hindu nationalist organizations and sustain a climate of communalism in Orissa.

15. The Government of Orissa must adopt an integrated and sustainable approach to community development, and take concrete efforts to stop further ghettoization of minority communities. The Government of Orissa must promote non-segregated localities, housing complexes, housing societies, clubs, educational, and recreational institutions, and that the Government of Orissa must publicly support social interactions, including voluntary inter-caste, inter-faith, and inter-class unions, marriages, and partnerships.

16. The Government of India must issue a White Paper on bomb blasts and terror attacks in India and constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee that investigates such incidents.

17. The law should be amended to obviate the requirement of prior sanction of the state before prosecuting anyone for hate speech.

18. The Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005, introduced in the Parliament of India in December 2005 and approved by the Union Cabinet in March 2007, must be passed, and with the requisite clauses to ensure state accountability. The bill, advocated by citizen motivated efforts for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, in its official formulation as introduced by the Congress government, remained deficient in defining procedures for state and public accountability. As presently drafted, the law will become applicable only selectively. An amendment should do away with the law being made applicable only selectively, at places and times as convenient to the state. In addition, there exist no dedicated provisions for reparation and rehabilitation of victims/survivors. The bill fails to address issues of negligence displayed by state authorities in preventing and controlling communal violence, and in disbursing timely and just compensation and psychosocial rehabilitation, as well as establishing parameters for witness protection and for soliciting and recording victim testimonies. It fails to chart measures to bring justice and accountability with regard to gender and sex-based crimes in the event of communal violence (which is not effectively addressed by the Indian Penal Code or separate legislation), and in imposing checks and balances on the state and its police and security forces, whose inertia and majoritarianist complicity in communal collisions have been consistent.

19. On 29 November 1949, India became a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 260 A (III) of 9 December 1948. On 27 August 1959, India ratified the Genocide Convention. However, India is yet to fulfill its obligatory commitment to enact legislation to implement the convention, which it must be compelled to undertake.

Context of Hindu nationalism in Orissa:
Conscription into Hindu activism is coordinated through political reform, propaganda/thought control, cultural and religious interventions, developmental/social service and charitable work, sectarian health care, unionization, and revisionist education. Hindu nationalists have inaugurated various trusts and branches of national and international institutions in Orissa to aid fundraising, including, reportedly, the Friends of Tribal Society, Samarpan Charitable Trust, Sookruti, Yasodha Sadan, Utkal Bipanna Sahayata Samiti, and Odisha International Centre. It is noteworthy that since March 2000, the state government has comprised of a coalition of the Biju Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (the parliamentary wing of Hindu nationalism).
The Sangh Parivar has built a cadre comprised of Hindus, men and women, in targeting Christians, Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits, and other disenfranchised, progressive, and secular groups in Orissa. Orissa has a population of 36.8 million (Census 2001). Of this, 761,985 - 2.1 percent - are Muslims. Orissa Christians number 897,861 - just 2.4 percent of the state’s population per the census of 2001 (in 1991, it was 2.1 percent, and in 1981, 1.7 percent). There are 6.08 million Dalits in Orissa, 16.5 percent of the population. Adivasis are 8.14 million in number, 22.1 percent of the population, the largest among all states in India.

The Sangh Parivar’s agenda is enabled by the staggering inequities present in the state, where severe social and institutionalized forms of caste, class, and gendered oppressions are rampant, facilitative of regularized violence, including sexualized violence. Unemployment is on the rise in Orissa and abysmal daily wages prevail; 47.2 percent of the total population lives in poverty while 48 percent of the rural population is poor (87 percent of the state’s population lives in villages currently and per the 2001 census, there are 51,352 villages in Orissa). Among the Adivasi population, 63.6 percent are poor while 40.5 percent of Dalits live in poverty. Among the Muslim population, 70 percent are poor in Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur and Puri districts, where they are concentrated.

During the 2008 violence in Orissa, various militant Hindu nationalist organizations acted with impunity. The violence was led by the following groups — the Bajrang Dal, VHP, and RSS. Following the riots and extended violence against Christian communities in Kandhamal district of Orissa in August-October 2008, the Government of Orissa and police, military, paramilitary forces deployed in the state failed to respond effectively, efficiently, or appropriately. This posed a serious threat to democratic governance in the state and the ability of government to ensure the security and sanctity of peoples and groups made vulnerable through majoritarian communalism as perpetrated by Hindu nationalist organizations in the state. The Central Government in New Delhi as well failed to respond in a timely and effective manner and with due concern.

It is only after the violence drew significant national and international attention, and began to generate other and political consequences, that both state and central governments responded to stop the violations against Christian minority groups in Orissa. The outrage and response of the state failed to match the proportion and extent of violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalist organizations. As of 25 December 2008, rehabilitation measures and provisions ensuring the security of vulnerable groups in rural areas and towns in Kandhamal district remained vastly inadequate.

The matters and circumstances that led to the Kandhamal violence of 2007 and 2008 in Orissa continue to pose a threat to the sanctity and security of human rights in the state, particularly of religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians and Muslims, disenfranchised Adivasi, Dalit, and caste groups, and other vulnerable groups such as women, and secular organizations and active individuals across the state. Failure to take preventative and effective action continues to jeopardize the rule of law, the right to life and livelihood, freedom of religion, of speech, movement, assembly, inquiry, and the right to information in Orissa. As I write this, the situation in Orissa remains beleaguered and volatile, de facto in a state of emergency.