Members of a Congress-created federal body that monitors violation of religious freedom abroad on Wednesday (March 4) expressed concern over India’s amended citizenship laws, saying it could result in the “wide-scale disenfranchisement” of Muslims in the country.
Members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) along with an invited panel of experts convened a hearing mainly focused on India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the Rohingya Muslims issue in Myanmar to help develop policy recommendations for the US government in response to the issues.
Noting that the right to a nationality is a fundamental human right and serves as a bedrock for accompanying political and civil rights, USCIRF chair Tony Perkins said that denying individuals this fundamental recognition not only strips them of accompanying rights but also denies them the ability to participate in the political process and use legal pathways to seek redress for discrimination and persecution.
Referring to the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Anurima Bhargava, USCIRF Commissioner, said the recent actions by the Indian government were troubling.
“There are fears, however, that this law in conjunction with a planned National Population Register and a potential nation-wide National Register of Citizens, or NRC, could result in the wide-scale disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims,” she said.
“This would leave them vulnerable to prolonged detention, deportation, and violence. We are already seeing this process being conducted in the northeastern state of Assam… The NRC is a mechanism for identifying illegal migrants in the region,” she alleged.
India has previously described the comments by the USCIRF and a “few individuals” over violence in the national capital as “factually inaccurate, misleading” and an attempt to politicize the issue.
“We have seen comments made by the USCIRF, sections of the media and a few individuals regarding recent incidents of violence in Delhi. These are factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue,” Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said last month.
The new citizenship law passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2019 offers citizenship to non-Muslim persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
After the enactment of the law, protests erupted across the country over fears that the CAA, and a planned nation-wide NRC and NPR may marginalize the minority Muslim community.
The Indian government has maintained that the CAA is an internal matter of the country and stressed that the goal is to protect the oppressed minorities of neighboring countries.
Bhargava said that many Indians of all faiths have been exercising their peaceful right of protest to express their opposition to this law.
“However, it is with great dismay that we have seen a deadly crackdown by government authorities against the protestors and recent violence in Delhi that have targeted Muslim communities,” she said.
Gayle Manchin, USCIRF vice-chair, cited the examples of countries like Vietnam, Bahrain and Kenya to say that many governments are stripping people of their citizenship simply because of the faith they practice in clear violation of international human rights standards.
Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, told the Commission that using CAA, the NRC can render stateless a large number of Muslims, even if they were born in India and have lived in the country for decades, as have their ancestors.
“That is an important reason the protests have not ceased. The protesters can clearly visualize extreme Muslim marginalization and its attendant negative consequences, should NRC become the law of the land,” he said.
“The fear is that if the existing Muslim citizens of India are unable to produce documents of Indian ancestry, which simply can’t be ruled out until we know what documents are required, the NRC, using CAA, can easily call them infiltrators,” he said.
That, in turn, will make them an object of internment or expulsion, and/or deprive them of the right to vote, he said.
In contrast, if the Hindus have a similar documentary deficit, they would neither be interned, nor expelled, nor disenfranchised. They can simply claim they are welcome only in a Hindu homeland and persecuted elsewhere in South Asia, which will open the door for Indian citizenship for them, Varshney said.
Testifying before the USCIRF, Azeem Ibrahim director, Displacement and Migration Program, Center for Global Policy, and a former Strategic Policy Advisor to the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated the talking point of the Pakistani leader on the CAA and the NRC.
“This is not just an attack on the rights of refugees and the intent is to remove citizenship for those already living in India. This is being done using a revised census,” he alleged.
Ibrahim alleged that the rights of Muslims as citizens of India are now under direct threat.
Human Rights lawyer from Assam Aman Wadud told the Commission that the NRC and the CAA are not in the interest of India.
“The procedures followed are arbitrary and unfair, and will, as the Assam experience shows, resulted in the harassment, disenfranchisement, and detention of the poor, and the helpless,” he said.