U.S. envoy calls out harassment of minorities in India over COVID-19

Sam Brownback, however, praises Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s messages for unity.

U.S. envoy for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has called out COVID-19-related rhetoric and harassment in India — especially against Muslims — while also praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s messages for unity.

“In India, we’ve seen reports of unfortunate COVID-related rhetoric and harassment, particularly against the Muslim community. This has been exacerbated by fake news reports and misinformation being shared via social media. There have also been instances of Muslims being attacked for allegedly spreading the coronavirus,” Mr. Brownback told reporters on May 14 during a telephone briefing about COVID-19’s impact on religious minorities.

“Now, I’ve been encouraged and we’ve been encouraged by statements from senior Indian officials really urging a unity, and noting the Prime Minister stated even that COVID-19 does not see religion, language, or borders, which is certainly true,” he said.

Mr. Brownback’s comments come weeks after the U.S. International Commission for Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bi-partisan commission set up by the U.S. Congress, downgraded India’s religious freedom rating to the lowest grade. Taking note of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register for Citizens, the USCIRD had recommended to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that India be classified as a “ country of particular concern.”

Asked if he believed the Indian leadership’s language calling for unity was a reaction to the USCIRF designation, Mr. Brownback said, he did not know.

“I don’t have anything particular that I’m attributing the language to, I just noted that it’s positive and that’s good. And I don’t want to always just point to everything’s negative,” he said.

“…the fact that the leadership would say this, great. USCIRF did put them out, as you noted, in that light and that got a lot of interest both here and in India, as you might guess. We will be putting our report out — Secretary [Pompeo] will put out the report from State Department fairly soon, and then we’ll — that’ll start the time clock on the Secretary’s ultimate determinations on Countries of Particular Concern or watch-list countries, and the USCIRF recommendation will be noted as well. But I don’t know why they did that, but I’m glad they did,” Mr. Brownback said.

Significantly, the USCIRF also called for the release of those protesting the CAA.

“During #COVID19 crisis, there are reports #India govt is arresting Muslim activists protesting the #CAA, including Safoora Zargar who is pregnant,” the Commission tweeted on May 14. “ At this time, #India should be releasing prisoners of conscience, not targeting those practising their democratic right to protest.”

While there was no specific India reference in this context [the briefing discussed a number of countries and minorities], Mr. Brownback’s remarks on May 14 began by saying a number of countries had released prisoners of conscience and that “some people’s lives were possibly saved by this.”

Afghanistan’s minorities

The envoy also said Sikhs in Afghanistan were seeking to emigrate to safer countries, including India, in response to a question on Sikhs in Afghanistan seeking asylum in the U.S. Following a May 25 attack on a gurdwara in Kabul, there have been calls — including from Indian American Congressman Ro Khanna — to grant Afghan Sikhs and Hindus asylum in the U.S.

Sikh and Hindu groups in Afghanistan have also directly appealed to the Trump administration for asylum, the Wall Street Journal reported in April. The Trump administration has significantly cut back on the number of refugees the U.S. takes each year while also making it harder to claim asylum in America.

“ I’ve visited — I’ve met over the phone with a number of Sikh representatives about this particular case, and they continued to ask for — there continues to be an ask for — from some of their representatives to immigrate — U.S., Canada, even inquiries about India, Pakistan, about being able to go to any of these places to get out of Afghanistan,” he said.

With inputs from The Hindu