West News Wire: According to a US commission, the condition of religious freedom in India “seriously worsened” last year, prompting calls for targeted penalties against the government for alleged abuses.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) requested the State Department for the third year in a row to add India to the US list of “countries of particular concern” in its annual report released on Monday.

India is accused of “engaging in and allowing systematic, ongoing, and severe abuses of religious freedom,” according to the independent bipartisan panel.

The USCIRF provides recommendations and documents suspected abuses, but the State Department is the one who decides whether or not to put a country on the religious freedom blacklist.

“During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies [including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities,” the report (PDF) said.

“The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”

India has previously rejected the commission’s recommendation to blacklist the country over alleged violations of religious freedom, calling its findings “biased”.

Monday’s report comes as US officials say they are seeking “maximum alignment” with India over Russia policy and the war in Ukraine. Washington has also been strengthening ties with New Delhi amid growing competition with China.

President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month and the two leaders are set to meet in Tokyo next month as part of a summit for the leaders of the Asia-Pacific “Quad” alliance, which also includes Japan and Australia.

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Still, the USCIRF on Monday accused India of repressing human rights defenders from religious minorities.

The commission hit out against the Indian government over a citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalisation for non-Muslims, calling it “discriminatory”, while also slamming anti-religious conversion laws that it said target interfaith marriages in some states.

“Government action, including the continued enforcement of anti-conversion laws against non-Hindus, has created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups, including against Muslims and Christians accused of conversion activities,” the report reads.

India’s Muslim minority has been facing mob violence and attacks by right-wing Hindu groups.

Separately, the USCIRF called for designating Afghanistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) after the Taliban takeover.

The current US State Department religious freedom blacklist consists of China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

“USCIRF typically recommends more countries be designated as CPCs than the State Department will designate,” Nadine Maenza, the commission’s chair, told news reporters last year. “Part of the discrepancy is because USCIRF can focus on religious freedom conditions alone without needing to balance other bilateral issues.”

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