India denies visas to U.S. panel on religious freedom, says it has no standing

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attends a panel during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Michael Dalder/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India has turned down a travel request for members of a U.S. government panel seeking to review its religious freedom, saying such foreign agencies had no standing to assess the constitutional rights of citizens.

Since taking power in 2014, the Indian government has faced criticism for attacks on Muslims and the panel has called for the world’s biggest democracy to be designated a “country of particular concern”, along with China, Iran, Russia and Syria.

The call by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was made in an April report urging sanctions against officials of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government after it excluded minority Muslims from a new citizenship law.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the government firmly repudiated the surveys of the commission, which had little knowledge of the rights of Indian citizens, describing it as biased and prejudiced.

“We have also denied visas to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom,” he told a lawmaker from Modi’s ruling group in a June 1 letter.

The step was taken because the government saw no grounds for a foreign entity such as the USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, he added.

Reuters has reviewed a copy of the letter to Nishikant Dubey, an MP who had raised the issue of the panel’s report in parliament.

The U.S. embassy in New Delhi referred all queries to the commission based in Washington D.C., which was not immediately available to respond.

The commission is a bipartisan U.S. government advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. However, these are not binding.

India would not accept any foreign interference or judgement on matters related to its sovereignty, Jaishankar added.

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