USCIRF regrets being denied visas to India

By: Dibin Samuel
Thursday, 18 June 2009, 17:15 (IST)
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The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) voiced regret over India's decision to deny visas to its delegation on June 12.

In a statement, the US Congress-backed panel, expressed "regrets that visas have not been issued by the Indian government for a USCIRF visit to discuss religious freedom conditions with officials, religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the world’s largest democracy."

The nine-member panel appointed by the US President and congressional leaders deprecated that India twice (once in 2001) denied entry to the delegation, joining Cuba as the only other nation to have refused all USCIRF requests to visit.

“We are particularly disappointed by the new Indian government’s refusal to facilitate an official US delegation to discuss religious freedom issues and government measures to counter communal violence, which has a religious component,” said Commission chair Felice D. Gaer.

Ms. Gaer criticized India for being "unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit", despite being a "close ally of the United States". She mentioned that its delegation never had problems visiting China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries.

Last month, in its annual report on religious freedom, the Commission delayed India's section because of the planned USCIRF trip. “We wanted to hear from all sectors of Indian society, and allow these diverse perspectives to shape our report,” said Gaer.

The Commission explained that the trip "was to discuss religious freedom conditions in India, home to a multitude of religious communities that have historically co-existed."

"India has experienced an increase in communal violence against religious communities in recent years and the USCIRF Commissioners sought to discuss the Indian government’s responses to this, and its development of preventive strategies at the local and national levels."

The Commission further divulged that it was concerned as the "Indian justice system has prosecuted only a handful of persons responsible for communal violence and related abuses since the mid 1980s."

The independent and bipartisan federal agency had in 2002 designated India as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC). The recommendation then came following events in Gujarat that resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths.

However, the country was lucky when its name was removed from the "watch list" in 2005. But USCIRF says it continues to "monitor, report, and comment publicly on events in the country, including last year’s violence in Orissa, attacks in Mumbai, and other events."

The denial of visas has come just days after a noted Hindu pontiff opposed to the investigation by a foreign delegation.

"We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies. We see it as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India,” Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham said.

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