WASHINGTON, D.C. — Prof. Ashutosh Varshney, an expert on ethnic and religious conflict, with a considerable body of work on this subject vis-à-vis South and East Asia, has warned that if India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is implemented, it would render a large number of Indian Muslims stateless and take away their basic rights and make this minority community “highly vulnerable to oppression and discrimination in the future.”
Testifying at a hearing convened by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Capitol Hill on the subject of ‘Citizenship Laws and Religious Freedom,’ and addressing specifically these laws as it pertains to India, Varshney, the Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, said, “The threat is serious and the implications quite horrendous. Something deeply injurious to the Muslim minority can happen, once their citizenship rights are taken away.
“That is an important reason the protests have not ceased,” he said. “The protesters can clearly visualize extreme Muslim marginalization and its attendant negative consequences, some profoundly so, should NRC become the law of the land through legislation or through an executive decree.”
Varshney, who is also the professor of Political Science at Brown, where he also directs the Center for Contemporary South Asia, acknowledged at the hearing on March 4 that “after the unending citizen protests, whether the NRC will finally be legislated in Parliament or announced as an executive decree in the coming months remains an open question.”
But he argued, “The awfully exclusionary implications for the Muslim minority ought to be clearly understood and noted. The key issue is how an NRC will be created and what documents will be necessary to prove citizenship.”
Varshney said the government has not announced which documents it will ask for, but said, “The fear is, it’s a genuine fear, a legitimate fear, 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, and also the fact that very few Indians have birth certificates, the NRC, using CAA, can easily call Muslims ‘infiltrators’ a term repeatedly used by the home minister (Amit Shah) in the last few months.
“That, in turn, will make Muslims, an object of internment or expulsion, and/or deprive them of the right to vote,” he said, and added, “In short, using the CAA, the NRC can render stateless a large number of Muslims, even if they were born in India and lived in the country for decades as have their ancestors.”
Varshney 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 an Indian citizenship for them.”
During the question and answer session that followed his testimony, he asserted that even if the NRC is not enacted through legislation or an executive decree, “it creates an enabling atmosphere of violence.”
Varshney argued, “Once you say, a particular community is not fully Indian or its Indianness is in grave doubt, you begin to marginalize them in politics, and you begin to generate a certain discourse against them in politics, about their loyalty, about their commitment to the nation, about a whole variety of things —in the way they raise their children, the way they marry, a whole variety of things.
“So, this act of marginalization, politically executed or politically engineered or politically led, creates an enabling atmosphere for those who think they can act violently on behalf of the nation against the minorities so targeted.”
Thus, Varshney reiterated, “The enabling atmosphere for violence is another reason why we should worry about creating an NRC, where every citizen should provide a document about their citizenship.”
Asked by the commissioners, including Anurima Bhargava about “what the role of the judiciary and the legal system has been in facilitating some of the processes we have seen in Burma (Myanmar) and India and the challenges that some of the human rights lawyers are facing on the ground,” Varshney said, “if you look at the Indian judiciary, constitutionally it is independent.
“So, there is no doubt that there are times when in the post-independent history of India, when it has acted very independently and taken the executive or the parliament to task for excessive behavior,” he said.
But he also acknowledged that “there also have been times however, when the judiciary has supported the government against citizens. So, the history of the Indian judiciary is full of ups and downs.”
He said, “My sense is, outright denunciation will not achieve very much. It’s diplomatic methods, which will achieve a great deal more than outright and open denunciation at the government level.”
Azeem Ibrahim, director, Displacement and Migration Program, Center for Global Policy and a chair of the Rohingya Legal Forum in Washington D.C., drawing an analogy with Myanmar government’s discrimination against the Rohingyas, said, “This pattern of using legal changes to mask religious discrimination and strip identifiable groups of citizenship is also a feature of Modi’s BJP government in India.
“The new citizenship law is aimed at Muslims and those from the poorest sections of India’s caste system, undermines the non-confessional basis of the Indian constitution and, as in Myanmar, will create identifiable groups who are denied the basic right of citizenship,” he alleged.
Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer from Assam, litigates before the Guwahati High Court and various Foreigners Tribunals across Assam, told the commission that “randomly, Indian citizens are being accused of being illegal migrants without any investigation whatsoever, violating the fundamental rights to fair investigation.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) slammed the USCIRF for conducting a hearing, which it said perpetuated misinformation about the intent and impact of the CAA.
Samir Kalra, senior director of HAF, said, “It’s deeply troubling to see U.S. governmental bodies, such as the USCIRF hold hearings that perpetuate misinformation about the intent and impact of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act.”
He said, “This (USCIRF hearing) only serves to further compound the irresponsible statements that have come from the media and some US lawmakers, which has only fueled more tension and violence in India.”
Hindu American activist Sunanda Vashisht, who testified before the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights on Kashmir last year and spoke to the plight of the Kashmiri pandits and the atrocities committed against them, took Varshney to task, particularly the latter’s contention that the CAA and the NRC “can render stateless a large number of Muslims, even if they were born in India and lived in the country for decades, as have their ancestors. I am not sure how Prof. Varshney arrived on this conclusion,” she said, asserting that the “CAA has no provision of rendering anybody stateless.”