India has denied visas to a delegation from a U.S. government organization that monitors religious freedom around the world, the organization said on Thursday.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement on its website that Indian authorities had "failed to issue" visas for the "long-planned trip" scheduled to begin on March 4.
“We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government’s denial, in effect, of these visas," USCIRF chairman Robert P. George said. "As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit."
George added that the commission had been allowed into countries with far worse track records of religious tolerance, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Burma.
"One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly," he said.
Religious tolerance and commitment to secular, democratic values is currently a burning topic in the South Asian nation, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government facing accusations of growing Hindu-inspired nationalism. The debate was ignited by a spate of lynchings of Muslims accused of eating beef last year (the cow is sacred to Hindus, who constitute a majority of India's population), prompting fears that right-wing ideologues aligned with Modi's party are targeting the country's religious minorities.
However, this is not the first time the USCIRF has been stymied by the Indian government, with a similar denial of visas also occurring under the relatively liberal government of Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2009.
"USCIRF will continue to pursue a visit to India," George said, "given the ongoing reports from religious communities, civil society groups, and NGOs that the conditions for religious freedom in India have been deteriorating since 2014."