India denies visa to US delegation

WASHINGTON: India has deprived of visas to a delegation from the United States government agency accused of monitoring international religious freedom, the agency said on Thursday.

The delegation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom had been planned to leave for India on Friday for a long-scheduled visit with the backing of the US State Department and the US embassy in New Delhi, but India was unable to issue the essential visas, the commission said.

We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government’s denial, in effect, of these visas, USCIRF chairman Robert George said in a statement.

As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit, he said.

George said USCIRF had been able to tour many countries, including those among the worst wrongdoers of religious freedom, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar.

One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF.

The Indian embassy in Washington did not instantly react to a request for remarks.

Previous year, in spite of a much prefigured fresh start in US-India ties under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the US ran into hitches organising visits by the head of its office to fight human trafficking and its special representative for gay rights.

A US State Department official raised queries on the visa issue to the Indian government, but emphasised remarks by President Barack Obama on a visit to Delhi last year, in which he made a request for freedom of religion in a country with a history of discord between Hindus and minorities.

In its 2015 report, the bipartisan USCIRF said happenings of religiously motivated and public violence had reportedly amplified for three successive years.

It said that although its status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, India had long wriggled to protect minority religious communities or deliver justice when crimes occur, generating a climate of exemption.

Non-governmental organisations and religious influentials, including from the Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities, credited the preliminary increase in violence to religiously discordant campaigning in advance of the country’s 2014 general election won by Modi.

The report said that since the election, religious minorities had been subject to disparaging annotations by politicians linked to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and frequent violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups.

US law allows for imposition of prohibitions on countries the commission terms “of particular concern”, but the USCIRF’s recommendations are not mandatory and these are not automatically forced.