New Delhi, Feb 29: The government on Monday described as "unfortunate" a letter written by 34 US lawmakers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing concern over violence against religious minorities in India.
"It is unfortunate that these members of Congress while applauding India as a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to inclusion and tolerance have chosen to focus on just a few incidents," external affairs ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said in a statement.
"India is proud of its status as the world's largest democracy. The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including minority communities. Aberrations, if any, are dealt with by our internal processes which include our independent judiciary, autonomous National Human Rights Commission, vigilant media, and vibrant civil society," he said.
In the letter dated February 25 and released to the media by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the 34 US lawmakers said that their strong support for the US-India partnership has encouraged them "to relay our grave concerns about the increasing intolerance and violence members of India's religious minority communities experience".
"We urge your government to take immediate steps to ensure the fundamental rights of religious minorities are protected and the perpetrators of violence are held to account," the letter stated.
"Of particular concern is the treatment of India's Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities. On June 17, 2014, more than 50 village councils in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh adopted a resolution banning 'all non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches' in their communities," it said.
According to the US lawmakers, the ban "effectively has criminalised" the practice of Christianity by around 300 families in the region a day after a mob, including members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, attacked and injured six Christians at the village of Sireiguda.
"Since the ban was implemented, Christians in the Bastar district reportedly have been subjected to physical assaults, denial of government services, extortion, threats of forced expulsion, denial of access to food and water, and pressure to convert to Hinduism," they alleged.
Stating that they were also concerned about the "nearly country-wide beef ban", the US lawmakers referred to the killing of Mohammad Hasmat Ali in Manipur in November for stealing a cow and the murder of Mohammad Saif in Uttar Pradesh in September.
The letter also called for recognition of Sikhism as a distinct religion as not doing so prevented practitioners of the religion "from accessing social services and employment and educational preferences available to other religious communities".
"Mr. Prime Minister, we applaud India as a pluralistic society with a long-standing commitment to inclusion and tolerance," it stated.
"We also applaud your statements about religious freedom and communal harmony, including your promise in February 2014 that your government would 'ensure that there is complete freedom of faith... and not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others'. We urge you to turn these words into action by publicly condemning the ban on non-Hindu faiths in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, and the violent assaults and other forms of harassment against religious minorities throughout India," it stated, adding that steps should be taken against activities of groups such as the RSS.
The letter was signed by Senators Roy Blunt, Amy Klobuchar, James Alankford, Al Franken, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, John Boozman and Steve Daines and 26 members of the House of Representatives, including Joseph R. Pitts, Keith Ellison, Brad Wenstrup, Jim Costa, Trent Franks, Ted Poe and Mark Walker.
In his statement on Monday describing the US lawmakers' letter as unfortunate, Swarup reiterated that the Indian government was "fully committed to the constitutional principles which underpin the nation of 1.25 billion people as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society".