WASHINGTON, D.C.— In its first reaction to the government of India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has sparked protests and demonstrations across the country and also in the U.S. by diaspora groups, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has said the CAA and the envisaged National Register of Citizens (NRC), “may affect the status of India’s large Muslim minority of roughly 200 million.”
The CRS — considered the U.S. Congress’ own think tank — said that “in December 2019, India’s Parliament passed, and its President signed into law, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, altering the country’s 1955 Citizenship Act,” which it pointed out, “for the first time in independent India’s history, a religious criterion has been added to the country’s naturalization process.”
The Dec. 18 report circulated to members of Congress and their staff, said, “ The changes sparked significant controversy, including large-scale and sometimes violent protests,” and noted that “opponents of the CAA warn that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are pursuing a Hindu majoritarian, anti-Muslim agenda that threatens India’s status as an officially secular republic and violates international human rights norms.”
Thus, it warned, “In tandem with a National Register of Citizens (NRC) planned by the federal government, the CAA may affect the status of India’s large Muslim minority of roughly 200 million.”
According to the CAA, non-Muslim refugees who fled to India till December 31, 2014, to escape religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will be accorded Indian citizenship.
The report, titled “Changes to India’s Citizenship Laws,” authored by K. Alan Kronstadt, CRS’s longtime specialist in South Asian Affairs, whose extensively researched and sourced reports on the Subcontinent “have come to be the gold standard for political analysis in Washington,” according to an erstwhile senior State Department and National Security Council official, who still serves as a consultant to the government, noted that "India's Citizenship Act of 1955 prohibited illegal immigrants from becoming citizens,” but that consequently, “among numerous amendments to the act since 1955, none contained a religious aspect,"
The CRS, although created and funded by the U.S. Congress as an independent research wing that provides reports and briefing papers for members of Congress and various Congressional committees and their staffs, pertaining to issues of domestic and global importance for the lawmakers to help them make informed decisions and develop policy, however, is not the official voice of Congress.
The report said that CAA’s key provisions allowing immigrants of six religions from three countries a path to citizenship while excluding Muslims “may violate certain Articles of the Indian Constitution, in particular Articles 14 and 15.”
While acknowledging that the CAA was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court by scores of petitioners, it noted that the court has refused to issue a stay on implementation and is deferring hearing petitions until January 22, adding that the government argues that the three specified countries have a state religion -- Islam -- resulting in persecution of religious minorities.
"Proponents say that Muslims do not face persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan, and that the CAA is constitutional because it addresses migrants rather than Indian citizens," the report said.
But it argued, "Yet it is not clear why migrants from other neighboring countries with state (or favored) religions, such as Sri Lanka (where Buddhism is the official religion and Tamil Hindus face persecution) and Burma (where Buddhism enjoys primacy and Rohingya Muslims are persecuted), are excluded from a path to citizenship. In addition, oppressed Muslim minority communities such as Pakistan's Ahmadis and Shias enjoy no protection under the CAA.”
The report said, "The New Delhi government maintains that the NRC update is a fair and non-discriminatory process driven by the Supreme Court that does not impose a religious test or render any persons 'stateless', in countering the concerns expressed by Human Rights Office of the United Nations, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom(USCIRF), and other independent human rights groups.
It said that “in 2019, many analysts contend that the Modi-BJP government is responding to significantly slowed economic growth by becoming even more reliant on emotive, religious-based issues to consolidate political support.”
The Trump Administration criticism of India on human rights grounds, according to the report, “has been relatively muted,” notwithstanding the USCIRF expressing that it was “deeply troubled” by the CAA’s establishment of “a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion,” and noted how the Congressionally mandated body had urged the U.S. government to consider sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah “and other principal leadership.”
The Indian External Affairs Ministry dismissed the USCIRF’s criticism, calling it “neither accurate nor warranted.”
The CRS report also noted that “Indian leaders have been unmoved by the demonstrations,” and noted that at a Dec. 15 rally, Prime Minister Modi had said that the opposition’s protests confirmed for him that the passage of the CAA was “1,000 percent correct,” and that two days later “Home Minister Shah said there was no chance that the CAA would be withdrawn, despite opposition protests.”