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Plainspeaking the US State Department

Plainspeaking the US State Department

Publication: www.vigilonline.com
Date: October 13, 2004
URL: http://www.vigilonline.com/news/plain_speak/ps_view.asp?plainSpeakId=65

The U.S State Department issues two significant reports annually - one on international religious freedom and the other on global terrorism. The report on terrorism is titled "Patterns on global terrorism" and is issued normally in the first week of May. The report on International Religious Freedom is issued in September of each year by the Office of International Religious Freedom of the US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. This report is besides the other report on International Religious Freedom issued by the more infamous USCIRF in May of every year. Both the USCIRF and the Office of International Freedom were constituted by an Act of Congress, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

While the Office is a part of the US State Department, the Commission is a statutory body with 10 members in all - 9 Commissioners and one Ambassador-at-Large. The Ambassador-at-Large is appointed by the President and his appointment is then subject to confirmation by the Senate while the Commissioners are nominated by the President and by Congressional leaders of both parties. The Commission is therefore bi-partisan in composition. If the Office of the IRF is Tweedledum then the Commission for IRF is Tweedledee. 'Vigil' public opinion forum received an invitation last week to participate in a discussion on religious freedom with the visiting 'Foreign Officer' of the Office of the IRF. It was the VHP which had been invited first but because the VHP office bearer had to travel outside Chennai, he had suggested to the US embassy official coordinating the meeting that the invitation be extended to Vigil in its stead.

Besides 'Vigil', those present at the meeting included the US Consul General, Ms.Joanella Morales the US State Department official, Ms.Anjana Chatterjee, political analyst in the US embassy, Habibulla Badsha, Senior Advocate, Madras High Court, the Nawab of Arcot, Zafar Ahmed and wife Fathima Zafar Ahmed, Kumaravelu from the state BJP, Dilip Chand Jain and Swami Gautamananda of the Ramakrishna Mutt. Considering that the State Department official had come with the specific purpose of discussing the Tamil Nadu anti-conversion law it was strange that not one Christian religious leader or intellectual was present at the meeting. To say that their absence was fishy was an understatement.


The meeting on religious freedom with the US State Department official took place on Sunday the 10th October. In her opening remarks Ms. Joanella Morales, Ph.D., Foreign Affairs Officer as her card described her, stated that she was here to discuss religious freedom, inter-religious dialogue & relations in India and the Tamil Nadu anti-conversion law that had been recently repealed. That she wanted to discuss the anti-conversion law was re-iterated by the official more than once in her opening remarks. Expanding upon her opening remarks the US official told us that the US had made religious freedom an integral part of its foreign policy and that religious freedom was a basic human right. That being so, imposition of religious freedom could not be deemed US intervention or interference because religious freedom and human rights were not US values but universal values as reflected by the UN charter on human rights and the Geneva Convention. And that is why the United States government monitored religious freedom in all countries of the world using their embassies and diplomatic missions for monitoring and informing the US government on the state of religious freedom in the countries that they were located. (The official used the word 'monitoring' and explicitly stated that embassies and diplomatic missions were used for the purpose)

I have just completed a visit to Pakistan and after a couple of days in India, I will proceed to Bangladesh.

Habibulla Badsha: We are very happy to have Joanella here and I am sure this meeting will be as purposeful as the one that we had last year with your predecessor.

Zafar Ahmed: I run two travel agencies, you may say I am a businessman but I call myself a political activist.

Fathima Zafar Ahmed: I am an office bearer of the Women's wing of the Muslim League and I am just come back from a visit to the US where I attended a conference on terrorism. I am very happy to be here again. Swami ji and I were both present at a similar meeting held last year in Chennai with another official from your Bureau.

Nawab of Arcot: I am Mohammad Ali, the Nawab of Arcot.

Fathima Ahmed: He is the only Nawab of India.

Habibulla Badsha: The only 'official' Nawab.

Swami Gautamananda: What really is religious freedom? It really means that every individual who is a child of God and who therefore has an element of divinity in him should have the freedom to pursue any path to help him realise his divinity. And that is why Hinduism believes that all religions are true and legitimate. If you can accept too that all religions are true and that no one religion is the only true religion then there would be no need to convert people to other religions. If some religions did not insist on conversion, there would be no need for an anti-conversion law.

'Vigil': It is in the nature of my work to be well-informed. I am an office bearer of a public opinion forum which informs and influences public opinion in the city on important issues. I have closely monitored the US State Department reports on religious freedom and global terrorism and have been struck by the double standards and inaccuracies in these reports. And while religious freedom and human rights may not be American values, the fact that the US has made religious freedom an integral part of its foreign policy and issues annual reports on the state of religious freedom in the countries of the world, it is obvious that it is a political agenda.

I am also struck by the fact that the US State Department is actually inviting Indians to submit an account of their country and their people before you. While I would like to discuss the State Department reports on religious freedom and the biased language of its report, and why we feel the need for an anti-conversion law, I for one, will not audit my country or my people before you. I will discuss inter-religious relations and problems with members of other religions if they also so desire but not in this meeting and not with the US government.


Ms.Joanella Morales: We are not interfering. Your own people have written and spoken to us, asking us to do something about the state of religious freedom in this country. And we have grave concerns about the anti-conversion law because the law has scope for abuse and we were told it was abused.

Vigil: I know who must have spoken or written to you. But it is strange that they are not around today to respond to what I am about to say about religious conversion. Laws will be abused. I am sure they are abused in your country as they are abused in mine. But just because laws are abused I am sure you do not mean to say we must have no laws at all. Democracies function by rule of law and this means we have laws. You are concerned about the anti-conversion law being abused. I am more concerned about the freedom to practice one's religion as guaranteed by our Constitution being repeatedly abused. Our Constitution guarantees the minorities the right to practice, preach and propagate their religions; our Supreme Court has also interpreted the law to state unambiguously that the right to propagate does not mean the right to convert. And not only is this freedom being abused but also the Supreme Court order.

I can produce before you any number of Indians who have been converted by offer of money - 30,000, 40,000 Rupees, sometimes even more. I can also show you foreigners, even Americans who abuse our visa regulations and enter the country under false pretexts citing tourism or business as reasons and then extending their stay repeatedly to carry on missionary and proselytizing activities. They go back to the US every year for five or six weeks and then come back with more money. There is no way I or anybody else can prove where that money is going. There is rampant abuse of our freedoms and of our law. And that is why the Tamil Nadu government felt the need to put in place the anti-conversion law; to protect the vulnerable sections of our society. Do you know there is a similar law in Israel too, much more stringent with the express warning that converting minors will be viewed very seriously by the government.


Habibulla Badsha: It is not fair to discuss the Christians in their absence particularly when they cannot defend themselves. Very large sections of society are oppressed and live in deprivation. In this context I would like to commend the work of Christian missionaries who have provided selfless charity for the needy. It is also up to world organizations to deal with this oppression.

Fathima Zafar Ahmed: I would like particularly commend the work of Mother Teresa, someone whom the whole world reveres for her work in Calcutta, for her care for those afflicted with leprosy and for the orphans. In this context I must also point out that the British colonial administration handed over large tracts of land to Christian groups and missions, even in remote villages. In these remote villages it was these Christian missions which set up schools and hospitals and cared for the poor and the oppressed.

Zafar Ahmed: it is a shame that the two tumbler system continues to operate in our country even today. These oppressed people have no access to education too. They are deliberately deprived of education so that two percent of the people who are in a minority can continue to occupy 85% of the top positions in this country.

The Nawab of Arcot: I would like to discuss the Babri Masjid demolition. Tell me who is responsible?


Vigil: We can definitely discuss the Babri Masjid demolition but not here, not in this forum. And since my friends here have in fact indirectly supported religious conversion, and my friend here has spoken about two percent of people in the minority, I would like to raise a few statistics myself. Mr. Ahmed I suppose you are referring to Brahmins, please don't hesitate to name them Sir. And as for religious conversion, charity and the oppressed, do you know that 70% of the Christian population in South India is comprised of dalits? There are over a 150 Bishops in India and 15 in Tamil Nadu alone. Except for Ezra Sargunam, there are no other dalit bishops in Tamil Nadu. And how many dalit or tribal bishops in the all India tally? Ten, fewer than 10?

How many dalit Christians have risen to the highest positions in Christian medical and other educational, social or cultural institutions? How many parishes are under dalit priests? Will upper caste Christians accept holy water from a dalit priest and how many upper caste Christians marry into families of dalit Christians? Has there been any real empowerment or social mobility because of conversion or because of Christian charity?

Ms.Morales, I would now like to speak specifically about your mission to India. How does it help ma'm to have the US monitoring religious freedom in India? Religious freedom is only one of the several freedoms guaranteed in any democracy. Political freedom is as important as religious freedom, I am sure you would agree. And the US prides itself on being the oldest democracy and along with human rights and religious freedom the US wants to promote democracy too in those parts of the world where they have other kinds of government. And would you agree ma'm that the electoral process by which democratic governments are put in place is very important too? Then how can the US which has kept large sections of its own citizens out of the White House - women, African-Americans, racial and religious minorities, where democracy is so flawed and political freedom denied to all, how can the US come to India to monitor and implement religious freedom?

Let us assume that our External Affairs ministry which is the Indian equivalent to the US State Department or the Indian Parliament constitutes a Commission and an Office to monitor political freedom and the state of your country's democracy and used our embassies and diplomatic missions to gather information and to interact with Americans and American NGOs, how do you think your government will react ma'm?

All countries have their internal difficulties and problems. Outside interference can prove costly and even counter-productive. Just as we have to wait for American democracy to mature so as to ensure political freedom for all, the US must have faith in the Indian people to bring about communal harmony and improve inter-religious relations. Writing reports does not help and can do very little. I thank you very much for having invited me to this meeting. Whatever I said needed to be said. In conclusion, I would request you to approach the spokesperson for the RSS to get the Hindu point of view in any situation. Your reports have a biased slant.

Ms.Joanella Morales: I would like to state that our reports are very fair and very accurate. We are constrained to use certain phrases in our reports as mandated by Congress. The highest grade that a country can get with regard to religious freedom is 'generally respects'. And this year, India's report is much better when compared to prevous years. We have stated in our report this September that India 'generally respects' religious freedom.


Vigil: I did not have the heart to tell her that I know why the report is better this year. And I am sure that now that India has received the highest grade possible in the US State Department report on religious freedom, we must all feel 'knighted'. Or do I mean canonised? The last paragraph of this year's report states that US embassy officials had been interacting regularly with state officials on the anti- conversion law and its reversal. If the mischievous allusion is that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister repealed the law under US pressure then I can only hope that she will dispel this impression publicly. And when the meeting concluded, no one told me they were glad I came or that they would like to meet with me soon or that how useful the meeting had been. No one shook my hand and no one bid me adieu. I suppose that is natural.

http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2004/35516.htm (2004 REPORT ON INDIA)

http://www.state.gov/g/drl/irf/ (OFFICE OF IRF, US STATE DEPARTMENT)

(The dialogue between the Muslims and the US official which concerned the US war in Iraq and the image of the Muslims by the constant reference to 'islamic terrorism' in the main, has not been included in this note)

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