U.S. Agency's Decision to Add India to Watch List 'Regrettable', Says Official

( [email protected] ) Aug 14, 2009 03:09 PM EDT

A U.S. government agency's decision to place India on a list of potential religious freedom violators is "regrettable," said India's foreign ministry.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had officially placed India on its “Watch List" - a list countries that the agency says require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government.

Specifically, USCIRF said India earned the Watch List designation due to the disturbing increase in communal violence against religious minorities– specifically Christians in Orissa in 2008 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 – and the "largely inadequate response from the Indian government to protect the rights of religious minorities."

Other countries on the list this year include Afghanistan, Somalia and Cuba.

In response to the announcement, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry, Vishnu Prakash, insisted that India, a country of 1.1 billion people, "is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society."

"Aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media," he said.

According to notes released Wednesday by the USCIRF India chapter, however, deficiencies in investigating and prosecuting cases have resulted in a culture of impunity that gives members of vulnerable minority communities few assurances of their safety, particularly in areas with a history of communal violence, and little hope of perpetrator accountability.

Furthermore, though USCIRF issues its annual report on religious freedom each May, this year's India chapter was delayed because USCIRF had requested to visit India this summer. The Indian government, however, declined to issue USCIRF visas for the trip.

In its report, USCIRF recommended that the Obama administration urge the government of India to take new measures to promote communal harmony, protect religious minorities, and prevent communal violence by calling on all political parties and religious or social organizations to publicly denounce violence against and harassment of religious minorities, women, and low-caste members.

The agency also recommended that the administration urge the Indian government to acknowledge that such violence constitutes a crime under Indian law.