WASHINGTON: A US Congressional panel’s hearing on religious freedom in India came under fire from some of its own members on Friday. They called it an attempt to influence elections in India, even as Hindu activists in the US said the partisan event was aimed at undermining the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
The hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC), named after a late Congressman whose holocaust survival resulted in a lifelong devotion to human rights, was deliberately timed to impact the election, US lawmaker Tulsi Gabbard, a self-described Hindu-American, told the panel, after a Hindu activist group complained the panel had packed the hearing with witnesses who have an ”ulterior motive.”
“I do not believe the timing of this hearing is a coincidence. The national elections in India begin on Monday and continue until May 12. I am concerned that the goal of this hearing is to influence the outcome of India’s national elections, which is not an appropriate role for the US Congress. Such interference with India’s elections would undermine our shared goals,” Gabbard, a Democrat from US President Obama’s home state of Hawaii, told the panel.
“We need to be especially careful not to directly or indirectly contribute to sectarian strife in India or other countries. I am concerned that this hearing is an attempt to foment fear and loathing purely for political purposes. This is wrong and it will contribute to further sectarian division in India and will undermine national interests of the US,” Gabbard added, in withering criticism of the hearing.
“Any attempt by the United States to have an effect on the Indian elections will backfire,” Gabbard’s senior colleague Brad Sherman cautioned while questioning panelists.
Leaders of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) echoed similar concerns, noting the ”unbalanced” panel of four witnesses, all of whom expressed concern over the prospective election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister. A witness that would have offered a Hindu perspective to ground realities and the multi-dimensional nature of inter-religious tensions in India was not included, despite requests by some members of the TLHRC, the foundation said.
Witnesses who testified before the committee included Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch, Robin Phillips, Executive Director, The Advocates for Human Rights, John Dayal, Member, National Integration Council, Government of India. Swett has been a leading advocate of continuing the US denial of visa for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
HAF activists said they had reached out to the office of Congressman Keith Ellison, who is the first Muslim to be elected to the US Congress and is co-chair of the TLHRC, asking to add their witness ”to provide additional perspective on religious freedom in India.” But they were told that only human rights groups were slated to be on the panel, and not specific to any religion. HAF pointed out though that panelist John Dayal serves as the Secretary General of the All India Christian Council in addition to being an activist, and said, ”the rejection seems disingenuous at best, and indicative of the ulterior motives of the hearing sponsors at worst.”
“While the promotion of international religious freedom should be a US policy priority, the testimony made it clear that the witnesses today simply had an axe to grind with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate,” said Jay Kansara, HAF’s Associate Director of Governmental Relations.
The panel’s leading witness made no secret of her concern over a Modi-led BJP-alliance coming to power. ”Many religious minority communities fear religious freedom will be jeopardized if the BJP wins and the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister. We hope that is not the case,” USCIRF’s Katrina Swett said, recommending that the State Department elevate religious freedom concerns in the bilateral strategic dialogue mechanism.