India’s controversial citizenship laws are ‘troubling,’ says Hindu American commissioner

Civil rights lawyer and human rights activist, Anurima Bhargava, right, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), at a hearing convened by the USCIRF on Capitol Hill, March 4. From left, vice chair Nadine Maenza, chair Tony Perkins, vice chair Gayle Manchin and Bhargava.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Anurima Bhargava, a prominent civil rights lawyer and longtime human rights activist, and only the second Hindu American (after Preeta Bansal) to serve as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has said that India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is “troubling” and could result in the “disenfranchisement” of India’s minority Muslim populace.

In remarks at a hearing convened by the USCIRF on March 4 on Capitol Hill, to zero in on the implications of the CAA and the “genocidal violence” against the Rohingya Muslims by the military rulers in Myanmar, Bhargava warned that “recent events in India, have helped bring a spotlight to the import of citizenship to our sense of belonging, identity, and collective dignity, and to the horrors that ensue when citizenship of certain targeted communities come into question.”

She said that although “Indian officials have stressed that the CAA will not impact those already residing in India, yet the fear is 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.”

Consequently, said Bhargava, who served in a senior position in the Obama administration’s Department of Justice in its Office of Civil Rights, and was nominated to the USCIRF by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “This would leave them vulnerable to prolonged detention, deportation, and violence,” and argued, “We are already seeing this process being conducted in the northeastern state of Assam.”

She told the packed room of civil and human rights activists, Congressional and administration staffers, media and members of the public, that “The NRC is claimed as a mechanism for identifying migrants in the region,” but noted that “many Indian citizens, in particular Muslims, have had their citizenship questioned and challenged by local authorities by being excluded from the NRC despite their families having lived in India for generations.”

Bhargava said, “A number of citizens fear being sent to detention camps and effectively rendered stateless. With the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in place to protect non-Muslims excluded from the NRC, this process will largely impact Muslims.”

She spoke of how, “Many Indians of all faiths have been exercising their peaceful right of protest to express their opposition to this law. Yet, since its passage we have seen a deadly crackdown by government authorities against the protestors and recent communal violence in Delhi targeting Muslim communities that has resulted in the deaths, beatings, and burnings of Muslims and a few Hindus as well.”

India’s controversial citizenship laws are ‘troubling,’ says Hindu American commissioner

From left, Prof. Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Contemporary Asia at Brown University; human rights lawyer Aman Wadud, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, director, Displacement and Migration, Center for Global Policy and Naomi Kikoler, director, Simon Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Expressing concern over “how citizenship laws and the details of citizenship processes in Burma, India, and more broadly, are leveraged as a weapon against religious communities,” Bhargava, as did the other commissioners saying the rationale behind the hearing was to help the USCIRF develop policy recommendations for the U.S. government in response to these issues.

She said it was an effort as to “how the United States government and the international community can more effectively ensure that individuals of all faiths can freely live without fear of losing their citizenship and the many rights that come from citizenship and the difficulties and violence that come from its loss.”

Earlier, USCIRF chair, Tony Perkins, in his opening remarks, said, “The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right and serves as a bedrock for accompanying political and civil rights.”

Declaring that “it is the right to have rights,” he argued, “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.”

India has always reacted sharply to the criticism by the USCIRF and maintained that the CAA is an internal matter of the country and asserted that the goal of this legislation is to offer succor to the oppressed minorities of the neighboring Muslim majority countries, namely Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Last month, New Delhi slammed the comments by the USCIRF over the violence in New Delhi during the time of President Trump’s visit as “factually inaccurate, misleading’ and an attempt to politicize the issue.

Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said, “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.”

On Dec. 9, the USCIRF slammed the CAA as “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction,” and called on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Home Minister Amit Shah — the catalyst behind this legislation.”

The USCIRF is “deeply troubled by the passage of the CAA originally introduced by Home Minister Shah, in the Lok Sabha given the religion criterion in the bill,” it said.

Shah, earlier in the day had introduced the controversial bill in the Lok Sabha that offers Indian citizenship for non-Muslim illegal immigrants — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christians — who have entered the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, who have fled these countries in the face of religious persecution.

At the time, the USCIRF, said, “The CAA enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion.” Thus, it argued, “The CAB is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith.

 “In conjunction with the ongoing NRC process in Assam and nationwide NRC that the home minister seeks to propose, USCIRF fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims,” it warned.

It also complained that for more than a decade now the Indian government has ignored its statements and annual reports, and also refused to issue visas for USCIRF officials to travel to India to investigate alleged religious freedom violations against minorities. 

Although established by an act of Congress, the USCIRF has no enforceable mechanism, and in the past few decades, as successive U.S. administrations and even the U.S. Congress has sought to establish strategic and economic partnerships with burgeoning economies and allies like India, human rights and religious freedom abuses and violations that were a priority of U.S. foreign policy in years past, have been largely relegated to the back-burner or completely ignored.

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