Professor Jakob de Roover writes:
The annual reports of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have long irked politicians and citizens from countries placed on its ‘watch list’. This is no different in India. In the 2015 report released about a fortnight ago, the country again occupies an unenviable spot in Tier 2, which includes countries where the religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.To answer this question, you'll have to read the article. The title is a giveaway: "USCIRF hypocrisy: It's about the Protestant worldview, not religious freedom".
Striking about this year’s report, however, is its claim that incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence have ‘reportedly’ increased for three consecutive years in India. “According to Muslim and Christian NGOs that track communal incidents,” it adds, “2014 statistics, yet to be released by the ministry, will be likely higher” than the 823 incidents recorded in 2013.
What is so remarkable about this? Well, the Indian home ministry’s official data about communal incidents for 2014 give a very different picture. The number of incidents saw a significant decrease to 644 in 2014. The USCIRF report also includes Andhra Pradesh, “Chattisgarhi” [sic], and Odisha among states that “tend to have the greatest number of religiously-motivated attacks and communal violence incidents.” Yet the home ministry’s information recorded no incident in Chhattisgarh, just three in Odisha, and five in Andhra Pradesh.
How reliable then are the international religious freedom reports of the US government? The obvious retort to this question is that the home ministry’s data for 2014 must be very biased. But which other unbiased data could establish this bias? When asked this question, an American academic responded as follows: “I don’t have any data, but given who is in charge, it can’t help but be biased.” That, of course, is a knockdown argument.
Other academics point out that many incidents of communal violence remain unreported in India. But surely this is not the issue at stake. The real question is about the number of communal incidents in 2014 relative to the number of such incidents in the two preceding years. The data provided by the home ministry show that this number is lower. Now, are there facts (or well-founded reasons) that prove that in 2014 suddenly a much higher number of communal incidents were not reported than in previous years? If this is not the case, then we can only assume that the average number of unreported incidents has not changed significantly. And if that is the case, then the claims of the USCIRF must be false.
What evidence did the American commission draw upon to come to its conclusions? Its website claims the following: “USCIRF obtains information about violations of religious freedom abroad in multiple ways, including visiting selected countries in order to observe facts on the ground, meeting regularly with foreign officials, religious leaders and groups, victims of religious intolerance, and representatives of civil society, non-governmental organisations, government agencies, and national and international organisations, and keeping abreast of credible news reports.”
Indeed, the 2015 report shows the results of this type of deep research. It mentions conversations with minority religious leaders and NGO representatives. Its repetitive use of the words ‘reportedly’ and ‘report’ is striking: “Incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased”; “Christian NGOs and leaders report that their community is particularly at risk…”; “… Muslim communities have reported facing undue scrutiny and arbitrary arrests and detentions”; Indian Christians, converts and missionaries “have reported more frequent harassment and violence …”.
The evidence then seems to amount to impressions of particular people, hearsay, anecdotes and newspaper articles. Clearly, it gives a privileged status to the observations of certain NGOs, religious leaders, and the dominant media, which can hardly count as reliable and ‘unbiased’ sources in these matters. Moreover, the report depends on dubious concepts such as ‘religiously-motivated violence’, but forgets to mention what criteria it used to find out whether violent incidents are ‘religiously-motivated’ or otherwise.
Naturally, the fact that some religious groups feel threatened in their basic freedoms is important. Some Hindu nationalist organisations do commit unacceptable acts of violence against Christians and Muslims. Such crimes need to be addressed by the government. Some Hindutva supporters are also becoming increasingly aggressive online and elsewhere. This problem has to be examined and tackled. But can all of this serve as evidence for grand claims about the disquieting rise of religious freedom violations in India? Does it suffice to make recommendations to the US government about Tier 2 ‘watch lists’ and the like? No, it does not. It appears that forces other than evidence give shape to the claims of the American campaign for international religious freedom.
Which forces might those be?