During a briefing in Congress focusing on the unjust imprisonment of Indian activist Umar Khalid, Commissioner Eric Ueland of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hailed Khalid as a dedicated advocate for religious minorities, emphasising his nonviolent protests against discriminatory laws.
Ueland urged the United States to pay attention to numerous accounts of India employing severe anti-terrorism laws to suppress activists from religious minority groups. Additionally, he urged the State Department to classify India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for severe breaches of religious freedom.
“We strongly urge policy recommendations that take these abuses seriously, especially the importance of the United States in its designation of India as a CPC in the coming months, and not let India off the hook from the consequences of a CPC designation with some sort of scummy waiver,” said Ueland.
On September 13, 2020, Umar Khalid was falsely charged with terrorism and arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) after Indian authorities accused him of inciting communal violence following a speech he delivered during nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA is a law that discriminates against Muslims and excludes them from being able to receive fast-tracked Indian citizenship. In his speech, Khalid had called for nonviolent resistance against the far-right government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Also speaking at the briefing was Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, the father of Umar Khalid, who stated that he was not only speaking to represent the case of his son, but to represent the cases of all India’s political prisoners.
“Those who are languishing in jail – what was their crime?” Ilyas asked. “They have spoken against a discriminatory law. [For this,] they have been charged with sedition, they have been charged with terrorism, and they are languishing in jail for the last three years under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.”
He added, “People must know what is prevailing in the country. India is the largest democracy in the world. But we are afraid of whether it will remain as a democracy or not after the 2024 election. If this government comes back, people feel that the democracy of the country will be lost.”
Other speakers at the briefing included Nausicaa Renner, Deputy Editor of The Intercept.
“One of the most dangerous things about what is happening to Umar Khalid — which we are also seeing around the conflict in Israel and Gaza — is that speaking out against state power is being equated with terrorism or sympathy for terrorism,” said Renner.
Indian journalist Niranjan Takle quoted Umar Khalid’s speech to anti-CAA protestors, saying, “If they spread hate, we will respond with love. If they thrash us with sticks, we will keep holding our national tricolor flag high.”
“What is anti-national in this speech?” he added. “What is it that is provoking violence? But based on this speech, frivolous charges were raised against [Khalid], and he has been incarcerated in jail for the last 37 months… and the Supreme Court of India is not ready to even hear the bail petitions.”
Pieter Friedrich, an independent journalist and author of Saffron America: India’s Hindu Nationalist Project at Work in the United States, pointed out the stark contrast between the Indian government’s targeting of Khalid and its silence regarding Sadhvi Rithambara, a leader of the Hindu militant group Vishwa Hindu Parishad who has a history of inciting mass anti-Muslim violence with her speeches.
“This young student activist is incarcerated for participating in protests in which members of his own Muslim community were killed by the ruling authorities, while Sadhvi Rithambara is free to travel internationally as a spokesperson of the Hindu nationalist movement, which is targeting Umar Khalid’s community back in India,” Friedrich said.
This special briefing was co-sponsored by 18 American civil rights organisations including the Indian American Muslim Council, Genocide Watch, World Without Genocide, Hindus for Human Rights, International Christian Concern, Jubilee Campaign, 21Wilberforce, Dalit Solidarity Forum, New York State Council of Churches, Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations of North America, India Civil Watch International, Center for Pluralism, International Commission for Dalit Rights, American Muslim Institution, Students Against Hindutva Ideology, International Society for Peace and Justice, The Humanism Project and Association of Indian Muslims of America.