Hindu American on U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom Decries ‘Religious Test’ for Muslims in Assam

Anurima Bhargava, the only Hindu American member of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tony Perkins, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a Congressionally mandated government advisory board — and Anurima Bhargava, the only Hindu American member of the Commission, on Aug. 29, put out a joint statement expressing concern over what they alleged was the Indian government’s “Religious Test” for Muslims in the country’s northeastern state of Assam that has exacerbated fears that millions of Muslims could be disenfranchised by the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) due to be published on Aug. 31.

Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, conservative Christian group with close links to the far right wing of the Republican Party, and Bhargava, an unabashed progressive liberal, who was appointed to the Commission in December by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued that the NRC was in strong contrast to the “religious pluralism” enshrined in the Indian Constitution that has been “a bedrock of Indian society.”

Currently founder and President of Anthem of Us, the Chicago born and raised Bhargava, has extensive experience in various roles advocating for members of underrepresented communities, both during her tenure at the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights in the Obama administration, and in her earlier avatar at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

When Pelosi appointed her to the Commission, she become only the second Indian American from “a dharmic, non-Abrahamic faith background” since Preeta Bansal—former New York Solicitor General and erstwhile senior Obama administration official-- to be a member of the Commission.

Perkins and Bhargava, referring to a June 2018 joint letter by four United Nations special rapporteurs, among them the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who had argued that the updated NRC could be used to disenfranchise Muslims in the region and is part of the government’s ongoing efforts to introduce a “religious test” specifically aimed at clearing out Muslims, said, “Freedom of religion or belief for India’s diverse faith communities and respect for religious pluralism have long been the bedrock of Indian society, values enshrined in the Indian constitution.”

“However, we remain concerned with the potential abuse of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the resulting introduction of a religious requirement for citizenship, which are contrary to the ideals of religious freedom in India,” Perkins said.

Bhargava, the decades-long human rights activist, said, “We remain troubled by any government policies or actions that have the effect, whether intentional or not, of undermining religious freedom for vulnerable religious minorities.”

She said, “The National Register of Citizens verification process must not become a means to target and render stateless the Muslim community in northeastern India,” and expressed apprehension that “proposed policies that suggest that Muslims—and Muslims alone—will face a higher burden for verification, along with worrisome rhetoric, create a negative and potentially dangerous climate for the Muslim community in northeastern India.”

During the run-up to the recent elections that was won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right hand man and considered the architect behind the BJP’s rollicking victory, pledged to replicate the Assam-style campaign across the country and “send back the infiltrators” and eject the “termite” from India.

Meanwhile, in January, the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament passed legislation to grant citizenship to people who fled Bangladesh-- which was formed after East Pakistan declared independence from Islamabad in 1971, sparking a brutal war--Pakistan and Afghanistan at least six years ago -- but not if they are Muslim.

According to the government measure, only individuals able to prove their citizenship prior to March 24, 1971, along with their descendants, were to be included on the updated NRC list, with final determination of citizenship status provided by local “Foreigners Tribunals.” In July 2018, a draft update of the NRC was released with nearly four million names excluded due to their alleged inability to provide proper documentation.

The USCIRF in its 2019 Annual Report, expressed its concern that the updated NRC in Assam is “an intentional effort to discriminate and/or has the effect of discriminating against Muslims, and that the discretion given to local authorities in the verification process and in identifying perceived foreigners to be excluded from the draft list will be abused.”

The Commission is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to “monitor, analyze and report on threats to religious freedom abroad,” and makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress, “intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion or belief.”

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