US religious freedom commission close to anti-India groups – Abhinandan Mishra

Dr. Stephen Schneck

Abhinandan MishraAt a time when the US and India are coming together to face common challenges, certain individuals and associations have been working overtime to create public opinion in the US against such a security alliance. – Abhinandan Mishra

On 28 February, a senior official with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Stephen Schneck, while speaking at an event in Washington, organised by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), asked the United States government to condemn the Indian government for what he termed as “egregious violations of human rights and religious freedoms”.

Schneck was speaking at an event where a report by Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) titled, “Persecution as State Policy”—which claims to provide “detailed accounts of violence by state and non-state actors against religious minorities in India”—was being released.

The USCIRF, which reports to the US State Department, draws its legislative existence from the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and is not a non-governmental organisation, interest group, or advocacy organisation but a Congressionally created entity. It claims that it uses “international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally, and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress”. The USCIRF commissioners are appointed by the US President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. As per its mandate, it “monitors religious freedom in other countries through the lens of international human rights standards” and uses its report to push the State Department to impose sanctions on the countries that it believes is engaging in religious persecution.

The presence of a senior official of the rank of a commissioner at an IAMC-sponsored event has raised questions, both in India and the US, on the impartiality of USCIRF with officials tracking the developments in India and Washington, stating that the recent events have reinforced the assertions that USCIRF was looking only in one direction in using “material” and “sources” to prepare its annual reports against India. Interestingly, the USCIRF officials were participating in this event even as top officials of the State Department were in India for the G-20 meet, which also saw the presence of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

While responding to The Sunday Guardian’s queries, USCIRF claimed that it does not “endorse” any report of any other organisation. It did not deny the fact that its official had indeed attended an event that was organised by the IAMC. “USCIRF does not release or endorse other organisations’ reports. Commissioner Schneck participated to present USCIRF’s concerns relating to religious freedom in India.”

Schneck in his speech, as IAMC reported, stated that USCIRF “has received credible reports that Hindu extremists threaten and use violence including sexual violence against religious minorities”.

This is not the first time that a top USCIRF official has been found to be coordinating with IAMC in recent times. In December 2022, USCIRF commissioner David Curry released another IAMC report, “Genocide Convention & Persecution of Muslims in India”.

The Sunday Guardian reached out to the IAMC with the following questions:

    1. How would you like to respond to reports that during the time of Rasheed Ahmed, who was executive director (2008-17) of Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), the body was accused of embezzling public COVID funds?
    2. Can you confirm or deny that IMANA’s Director of Operations, Zahid Mahmood is an ex-Pakistan Navy official.
    3. How would you describe your relations with Islamic Council of North America (ICNA)?
    4. Can you confirm or deny that IAMC had engaged lobbying firm Fidelis Government Relations (FGR) to lobby against India at Washington?

No response was received from the organisation till the time the report went to press.


According to officials, the fact that IAMC and a US government agency were coordinating so closely in an effort to hurt India’s soft image at the international level and push for sanctions was something that had the potential to create doubts about its fairness in the coming years.

The USCIRF, in 2014, changed India’s map, and removed J&K, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh from India. While Jammu and Kashmir is regarded as “disputed” by Pakistan, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are termed as “disputed” by China, Pakistan’s “iron brother”.

In 2021, Nadine Maenza, the former chair of USCIRF, who completed her second tenure in May 2022, had recommended the US government to impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for the “severe religious freedom violations” by freezing their assets, including barring their entry into the US.

Maenza, who joined the USCIRF in 2018, had earlier worked for US politician Rick Santorum, a known friend of Pakistan. Maenza is also president of an organisation called “Patriot Voices” that was founded by Santorum in 2012. Among her colleagues at Patriot Voices is Terry Allen, who also happens to be a partner in a lobby firm called Fidelis Government Relations (FGR).

FGR was hired by Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) to lobby with USCIRF to target India. For their services, FGR was paid $40K between 2013 and 2014 alone by IAMC. (Official records of the same have been provided with this report.)

IAMC is headed by Rasheed Ahmed, who was executive director (2008-17) of Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) which was accused of misusing public Covid funds. IMANA’s Director of Operations, Zahid Mahmood is an ex-Pakistan Navy official.

FGR was also hired by Burma Task Force (BTF), another front frequently critical of India that was founded by Shaik Ubaid, who gave $267K to FGR between 2018-2020 to lobby against India with the US Congress among others.

BTF also hosted ISI agent Ghulam Nabi Fai, who was found guilty in 2011 by the FBI for concealing the transfer of US$3.5 million from US to Pakistan and was a well-known lobbying agent for Kashmiri separatists at the behest of ISI. Fai has also been seen frequently with “human rights” activist Angana Chatterji. Shaik Ubaid was a founding member of Coalition Against Genocide along with Angana Chatterji. Chatterji was with USCIRF Commissioner Maenza in another of her companies, Hardwired Global.

BTF, as per officials, is another front of Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). ICNA played a crucial role in blocking the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in 2005. ICNA’s earlier avatar was Halqa-e-Ahbab-e-Islami (HAI), which was set up in 1968. One of the convicts in the genocide of Bengali intellectuals in 1971, Ashrafuz Zaman Khan was associated with ICNA Queen’s Chapter New York. He was also one of the co-founders of Burma Task Force.

ICNA’s alleged connection with Hizbul Mujahideen founder Syed Salahuddin are the subject of several reports. In 2016, ICNA generated a lot of headlines after it felicitated Motiur Rahman Nizami, the leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and Al-Badr, who was responsible for mass genocide of Bengali intellectuals during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. ICNA honoured him posthumously for his “Outstanding Contribution” to Islam and for his role in the 1971 tragedy.

IAMC gave a platform to Dr Mohammad Siddiqui, the founder of Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Later, IAMC justified its decision by stating that Siddiqui’s “commitment to nonviolence and rejection of violence has been steadfast and unequivocal for decades” and that as per Siddiqui, “the SIMI he founded was completely different” and that “Dr. Siddiqi has never been accused by police in any part of India of even the smallest of crimes, much less terrorism.”

What is clear is that at a time when the US and India are coming together to face common challenges, certain individuals and associations have been working overtime to create public opinion in the US against a pairing that is essential to tackle the joint threat to security in the Indo-Pacific represented by the alliance between GHQ Rawalpindi and the People’s Liberation Army, including in operations targeting India. Any rift between the two biggest democracies would be welcome news in Rawalpindi and Beijing. – The Sunday Guardian, 11 march 2023

> Abhinandan Mishra is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian in New Delhi.USCIRF India Map

One Response

  1. Prayer to Jesus

    How anti-India USCIRF pushes and promotes Christianity in the name of religious freedom – Utpal Kumar – Firstpost – Mumbai – March 16, 2023

    Indians have a typical way of looking at the West, including its approvals, recognitions and awards. If they don’t get them — in the season of the Academy awards, let’s talk about Oscars, for instance — then they would say while making a ‘what’s-the-big-deal’ expression: “It’s time Indians should stop being enamoured by such awards!” And if they somehow get one, even if in a minor category, then all hell would break loose. The feat is celebrated in such a grand, over-the-top manner that one often wonders if it’s worth such celebrations!

    The same trend is seen when Western institutions either praise (however little it may be) or revile (which is normally the case) India and the Indian state of affairs. The publication of the annual United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report is one such occasion, given its mostly slanderous utterances vis-à-vis India: The USCIRF report of 2022, for instance, clubbed democratic India with communist China, Islamist Pakistan, autocratic North Korea, fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, and terror-infested Syria and Afghanistan. Even more ironically, Iraq, Cuba, Nicaragua, Malaysia, etc, found themselves better placed than India!

    This week, USCIRF was again in the news — this time for targeting India in the name of the anti-conversion laws promulgated by various state governments. As per the report, the anti-conversion laws in 12 Indian states are found to be grossly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The writers of USCIRF remind us how Article 18 of the UDHR provides that everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief including “freedom to change” their religious beliefs. And Article 18(1) of ICCPR provides that everyone has the “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief” of their choice.

    The report then goes on to say that “India’s state-level anti-conversion laws prohibit conversions under circumstances that go beyond coercion, using broad and vague language that can be used to target voluntary religious conversions”. Ironically, it fails to give one specific example to bolster its claims. All it does is to, for example, remind us about Section 3 of Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 which provides that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert” another individual, directly or otherwise, by “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means”. It adds, “Violations of section three are punishable by prison terms between one and five years and a fine of at least 15,000 Indian rupees ($180).” One wonders how a law that stops “force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means” can be cited to paint India and its democracy in dark hues. One witnesses the same pattern when the USCIRF report cites legislations in other states.

    The report, at best, highlights two issues that can bring some sympathies, but only among those who don’t know the ground realities of conversion in India: One, 10 state-level anti-conversion laws require individuals intending to convert, individuals involved in the conversion plans of another individual, or both, to notify the government. These states are Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. And two, seven states provide that individuals accused of violating an anti-conversion law must prove their innocence. Those states are Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh.

    But, what the makers of this report have failed to acknowledge, deliberately or otherwise, is that the people who are mostly being converted are extremely backward, illiterate and poor. And they are face to face with missionaries backed by some of the most powerful people and institutions in the world. In this lopsided battle between the Davids and the Goliaths, the Government of India has to stand with those fighting desperately to save their tradition, culture and even religion. What the report fails to say is that these acts are reactive in nature — they are aimed at self-preservation of the old Indic way of life which is facing an existential crisis at the hands of missionaries and the Church. The irony is that the ‘liberal’ West is invoking secularism to protect the Church, against whom the very idea of secularism first germinated in Europe in the late medieval era.

    A Christian, anti-India project

    Let’s look at the three facts emerging out of USCIRF and its reports: One, USCIRF reports have largely been anti-India, because some of its prominent members, especially in the past years, have had pro-Pakistan tilt. Two, USCIRF has traditionally been a Christian project; it’s largely about safeguarding the interests of Christians, followed by those of Jews and Muslims. Hindus, along with other indigenous religions across the world, for that matter, don’t seem to matter, with even a single religious leader representing them finding a place in the organisation. Finally, these reports are a testimony to the fact that the West, especially its establishment, including the Deep State, still carries a deep anti-India baggage. Little has changed on ground in the past three decades which saw India make a giant stride forward from being a Soviet ally to a country that is today seen as a natural ally of the West.

    Last year, the USCIRF report gained a lot of interest, especially in India. The writers of that report, as it became clear later, had deep and obvious Pakistani connections. Nadine Maenza, then a USCIRF Commissioner, had in the past worked with Rick Santorum, an American politician who, as per Foreign Affairs, wanted the United States “to continue foreign aid to Pakistan and maintain good relations with the nuclear-armed country”. Maenza was also in touch with other anti-India players and institutions — the most prominent being Shaik Ubaid and his rabidly anti-India outfit, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC). Then there was one Anurima Bhargava, again a commissioner of USCIRF till 2022, who was closely associated with the Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros. It’s difficult these days to have any anti-India activity without a Soros connection!

    This year, USCIRF seems to have avoided having people with obvious and direct Pakistan connections. But then the anti-India, anti-Hindu bias remains as strong as ever. Imagine the Modi government setting up a religious freedom body mostly comprising religious Hindus, with no space for Muslims and Christians. It would have garnered universal condemnation. But the USCIRF, unabashedly and unapologetically, remains a Christian project. Of the nine commissioners currently at work, at least five of them have deep Christian roots, one each has a Muslim and a Jewish link respectively, while one is a rights activist fighting for the Uyghur cause, and the last one is a geostrategic expert with strong conservative credentials.

    In almost 25 years of its existence, USCIRF has had about 65 commissioners, of which the overwhelming majority exhibited hard-core Christian roots being associated as they were with some form of missionary activities or the other. Of the remaining commissioners, most of them were Muslims (at least 10 as per my tentative list), followed by Jews, Buddhists, and a Bahai. In contrast, Hindus, despite being almost a sixth of the world population, never found genuine representation. USCIRF could get only two Hindu commissioners — Preeta Bansal and Anurima Bhargava — and they too had nothing but utter disdain for Hinduism.

    How can an institution that prepares a religious freedom report work without a credible Hindu presence? Why have so many Christians with missionary past given such a coveted position in USCIRF? Is it therefore any surprise that the report takes the side of the Church and the missionaries even when there are countless examples of wrongful means of conversion being pursued and practised, especially in the tribal regions of India?

    This brings us to the Western hypocrisy on secularism. While the West pushes for an absolute and non-compromising form of secularism in the non-Western world, especially India, it never denies its own Christian roots. The US President, for instance, upholds the Christian characteristics of America when he takes an oath on the Bible. Likewise, the UK has its own Church — the Church of England — whose bishops actually sit in the House of Lords, a position no other religion enjoys in that country. Parliamentary proceedings, invariably and unapologetically, begin with a Christian prayer. And the British monarch proudly holds the title of being the ‘Defender of the Faith’. Let’s for a second imagine the uproar if a Prime Minister in India takes oath on the Bhagavad Gita or if Hindu monks find an officially designated place in a house of Parliament!

    Last but not least, the West patronises and promotes institutions like USCIRF to target India because this way, it believes, the latter can be kept on some sort of tight leash. The West is no doubt concerned about China’s rise, but it is equally uneasy with India’s growth. It is this discomfort for new India that is manifest in the articles/reports of the Western mainstream media, the academia, the entrenched bureaucracy, and even institutions like USCIRF. In the long term, India will have to stop looking Westward and build its own institutions to gauge global parameters. And in the short term, especially till we remain enamoured by the West, let’s call the hoax each time USCIRF and its ilk come up with an India report.

    > Utpal Kumar is the Opinion Editor at Firstpost and News18.


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