Secretary of State of the United States Mike Pompeo released the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report+ on Friday. Notwithstanding the strong and friendly relations between India and the US on several fronts, this report indicates that a section of the US administration has a clear bias against the Narendra Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The section on India in this report is on expected lines as the authors of this report made certain assumptions. First, that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is anti-minority by design; second, that every incident involving a member or members of a minority community has religious overtures; third, that evangelicals should have unlimited and unrestricted rights for conversions; and fourth, and most surprisingly, that the majority community should be prevented from expressing their religious sentiments freely, even when perfectly within democratic norms and legal limits.
On 13 December, 2018, Knox Thames, the special adviser on minority affairs in the US state department, met me at the BJP office in New Delhi. He was keen to know our reaction to "atrocities against minorities" and also raised other related issues, such as the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute. Here's a summary of our discussion:
In my opening remarks, I emphasised that by and large, Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Christian relations are very cordial. Hindus and Muslims visit each other's shrines in large numbers and celebrate several festivals together. Similarly, people appreciate the contribution of the Christian community in the area of education and health. The children of many BJP leaders attend missionary schools and are happy with the quality of education they receive.
However, a small fraction of Muslims influenced by the Wahabi philosophy and the aggressively evangelical Christians do cause social turbulence. Similarly, a minuscule fraction of aggressive Hindus tries to take law and order into its own hands. In many cases, it was found that criminal elements were involved not necessarily with communal intentions. In cases where there is a clear communal angle, such as incidents of cow vigilantism, the government has taken appropriate action, and people have been prosecuted.
Thames' next question was on why the prime minister does not react to such incidents, to which I replied saying it was not fair to expect Modi to react on Twitter on every issue the moment he wakes up in the morning. Every leader has his or her own style of communication. But whenever necessary, Modi has denounced such incidents in the strongest possible terms. Thames also suggested that the government is deliberately trying to delay convictions, which I refuted emphatically.
To his question on what the BJP's overall vision on minorities is, I said the party has a rich cultural diversity that it is very keen to preserve and nurture. It is our greatest civilizational asset. In the past, we, in the BJP, used to say, "Justice for everyone and appeasement of none." We don't want to treat minorities as a vote bank. When Modi says "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas", he means he wants to take everyone on the path to development, irrespective of their caste, region, religion or gender. When we distributed 50 million gas cylinders to poor women, we didn't check whether they belonged to the Hindu, Muslim, or Christian community. The same holds true for other schemes, such as ones on housing, micro-finance and health insurance. There is absolutely no discrimination against any community in implementing these schemes.
His next obvious question was on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, to which I said that for us, it was a matter of faith, not an election subject. In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP promised to have a Ram Temple built in Ayodhya by "constitutional means". Negotiations, court hearings and legislation are all constitutional means. But Thames was not convinced. He said if that were the case, why were there still rallies and agitations organised for a Ram Temple. His question implied that even carrying a saffron flag on the street amounted to committing an atrocity against minorities. It seemed as though Thames wanted the Indian government to deny the majority of its right to peaceful expression of their sentiments.
The US state department's special adviser on minority affairs then asked me whether the next election will be fought on the issue of development or the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. I explained to him that no election is ever fought on the basis of a single issue. For the BJP, development is priority as the party has done remarkably well on this front and is proud of it. However, other issues such as national security, terrorism, etc, are equally important. Also, we can't be expected to stay silent if other parties raise communal issues. In the US, abortion is a subject of election debate. India doesn't raise this issue at least.
In the end, I told Thames we are not perfect. We are aware that we need to do more on these issues. But if he thinks there is some overarching design from our side to raise communal tensions for political objectives, then it's a wrong assumption. There this documentary evidence to show how evangelicals use unethical and brutal means to propagate their faith. I also raised the issue of the illegal entry of John Chau in the Andaman Islands. When I asked why Chau entered a prohibited island in the first place and whether he went there for evangelical activities, Thames had no response and remained conveniently silent.
Needless to say that not a single point of this discussion found any place in the US state department's report on religious freedom. On the contrary, it is based on the one-sided narratives of Left liberals and evangelicals, without the acknowledgement of any efforts by the government. It is now evident that Thames came to India with an agenda to defame the BJP, the Indian government and the Hindu society at large.
I studied the US state department's 2017 report before our meeting. That is why, right in my opening remarks, I had told him I could broadly guess what they were going to write in the next one. The mention of cases like the Godhra riots in the 2017 report (also mentioned in the 2018 report) showed their bias. Rhetorically speaking, I also offered my services to draft his next report, without him having to spend time meeting so many people and waste his pre-Christmas days in India.
No wonder Mr Thames didn't surprise me.
The author is in charge of the BJP's foreign affairs department