U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seeks sanctions against Amit Shah

India's Home Minister Amit Shah

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a Congressionally mandated body — has said that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) unanimously approved by the Lok Sabha on Monday is “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 — if the bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha too.

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

Shah on Monday introduced the controversial bill in the Lok Sabha, where it was passed with a whopping 311 members voting in favor to a mere 80 voting against, and it now goes to the Rajya Sabha where it will be tabled for a vote by the Upper House.

The legislation 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.

The USCIRF, which includes one Hindu American member, Anurima Bhargava, a senior Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Bureau official who served in the Obama administration, said in its statement that “the CAB 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 National Register of Citizens (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.

The USCIRF said, "If the CAB passes in both houses of parliament, the US government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister Amit Shah and other principal leadership.”

It also complained that for more than a decade now the Indian Government has ignored the statements and annual reports of the USCIRF. For more than a decade, India has 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.

Hence, although the USCIRF would dutifully issue regular statements and reports on religious freedom violations against minorities in several countries, including India, it has had no teeth, except for an occasion hearing by some Committee or the other in Congress.

The State Dept. however constantly argues that it takes the USCIRF’s recommendations seriously, and so does the Congress, but its been decades since the State tasked with powers to take sanctionable actions against foreign entities and individuals for violation of religious freedom and human rights, have imposed any such sanctions, even though the USCIRF and Congress has also called for sanctions against the likes of China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Myanmar and several other countries.

In recent years, the only sanctions imposed by the U.S. has involved areas such as violations of non-proliferation agreements and such areas and these have usually included only nations that the U.S. considers pariah nations like Iran, Cuba, and till the advent of the Trump administration, North Korea.

Shah in introducing the bill had made clear that people belonging to any religion should not have any fear or apprehensions under Prime Minister Narendra Modi government and that it was meant as a panacea to those minorities who have been living a painful life after facing persecution in neighboring countries.

He also dismissed the criticism of the legislation, opposed by members of the Congress, Trinamool Congress and several other opposition parties, asserting that it has the endorsement of 1.3 billion Indian citizens and denied that the measure is anti-Muslims, arguing that it will give rights to persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

"Citizenship amendment bill has the endorsement of 1.3 billion citizens of the country as it was the part of the BJP manifesto in 2014 as well as 2019 Lok Sabha elections," he said.

In New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar, responding to the USCIRF statement and its call for sanctions against Shah, said, “The Statement made by the USCIRF on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is neither accurate nor warranted.”

He said, “The bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries. It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights. Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.”

Kumar added, “The CAB does not affect the existing avenues available to all communities interested in seeking citizenship from doing so. The recent record of granting such citizenship would bear out the Government of India’s objectivity in that regard.”

“Neither the CAB nor the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process seeks to strip citizenship from any Indian citizen of any faith. Suggestions to that effect are motivated and unjustified. Every nation, including the United States, has the right to enumerate and validate its citizenry, and to exercise this prerogative through various policies,” he continued.

And taking yet another jab at the USCIRF, said, “The position articulated by USCIRF is not surprising given its past record. It is, however, regrettable that the body has chosen to be guided only by its prejudices and biases on a matter on which it clearly has little knowledge and no-locus-standi."

Senior BJP leader, Ram Madhav, a regular visitor to the United States for decades, said, “No country in the world accepts illegal migration".

"For all others about whom the bleeding hearts' are complaining, Indian citizenship laws are there. Naturalized citizenship is an option for others who legally claim Indian citizenship. All other illegal [immigrants] will be infiltrators," he added.

But longtime progressive Angana Chatterji, Research Anthropologist and Co-chair, Initiative on Political Conflict, Gender and People's Rights, Center for Race and Gender, 
University of California, Berkeley, said, “The Citizenship Amendment Act will discriminate against persons of non-Hindu descent,” and declared that it’s “unethical, unconscionable and dangerous.”

She said that “the majoritarian state stands to implode India through repeated violent, undemocratic actions; the siege on Kashmir, the NRC, now the CAB.”\

Chatterji alleged that “the 2014 and 2019 elections have led to the repositioning of India as a majoritarian state. Hindu majoritarianism – the cultural nationalism and political assertion of the Hindu majority – sanctifies India as intrinsically Hindu and marks the non-Hindu as its adversary.”

Consequently, she argued, “Race and nation are made synonymous, and Hindus – the formerly colonized, now governing, elite – are depicted as the national race. Nationalist Hinduism in contemporary India draws inspiration from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.”

The Association of Indian Muslims of America(AIM) in a statement condemning CAB and NRC, said, “We the American Muslims whose origin is in India, reaffirm once again that India is our only home on earth, no matter where on earth we may live. India is the land of our ancestors for 900 plus years or more. Countless Indian Muslims served the nation, fought wars to protect it from others and lie buried in its soil. We are indigenous Indians not outsiders.”

AIM said, “The present BJP government effort to legislate an Act in parliament (CAB) saying that people of all other religions except Muslims, are allowed to live in India and become Indian citizens; their program called National Registry of Citizens (NRC) that is taking away the Indian citizenship of millions of indigenous Muslims; are inhuman, brutal, criminal and violate the constitution of India.”

“Their objective is to render current 180 million Muslim population of India stateless, and then reduced to third class citizens living at the mercy of BJP and RSS, the extremist and fascist organizations,” it alleged.

AIM argued, “Our culture, our way of life, our food, our dress, our music, our language, our literature, everything about us is authentically Indian. The 900-year old Indian Islamic civilization is authentically Indian. We will never allow anyone to separate us from our motherland that is India. “

“In every corner of India Muslims have lived for 900 plus years in friendship with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Dalits , Jains, Christians and others, who are our brothers and sisters and we will continue to do so until eternity,” it added, and noted. “In every corner of India monuments built by our ancestors proclaim our ancestry in this land.”

AIM appealed “to Indians of other religious faiths to protect us from the onslaught and hatred of our enemies who want to separate us from India, our motherland,” and also exhorted, “ people in other countries to help us similarly.”

Barkha Dutt, a columnist for The Washington Post, castigating the passage of CAB, wrote, “Today, for the first time, I must admit: India just officially cast itself in Pakistan’s image.”

She said the legislation “has just upended the entire premise of India’s nationhood. It will validate what the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, called the two-nation theory: the belief that Muslims and Hindus needed to be organized into separate countries.”

Dutt argued, “For the first time in India’s history, citizenship has been linked to religion.

This goes against the Indian constitution, which promises equality to all irrespective of religion. It also collapses the defining difference between India and Pakistan: Pakistan is a theocracy, India a constitutional republic proudly rooted in pluralism and diversity. When the British drew a line of blood across the Indian subcontinent, the architects of modern India accepted the inevitability of Partition. But they never accepted religion as the basis of nationhood.”

She asked, “By implicitly saying that India is the natural home for non-Muslims of the region, isn’t the government reinforcing the Pakistani vision of nationhood? And what signal does this send to the country’s 200 million Muslims?”

Dutt recalled that “my father’s family was among the millions who were uprooted from everything they had during Partition, arriving in India without a roof over their heads. Growing up in a ‘refugee’ neighborhood of Delhi, I, like many others, was brought up on the horrific tales of Partition and its sudden, terrifying rupture.”

“Far from healing those wounds, the categorization of migrants, illegal or otherwise, into Muslim and non-Muslim will only exacerbate fault lines — and may even rip them wide open,” she warned, and said, “The question Indians must ask themselves now is this: Will everything that we proudly claim separates us from Pakistan end with this legislation?”

Dutt opined that “the subtext of the Indian government’s project is clear. What the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is saying is that persecuted Muslims have Muslim nations to seek refuge in, and they don’t need to knock on India’s doors. Effectively, this means that, when the citizenship law and NRC project are implemented, the ‘illegal’ migrants interned in camps and detention centers, or sent back to their countries of origin, will almost exclusively be Muslim. Other communities will most likely be able to claim ‘persecution’ in their home countries and stay on.”

Meanwhile, spiritual guru Sri Ravi Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, who counts among his several thousand disciples in the U.S., scores of U.S. lawmakers and even several neo-conservatives including the hierarchy of the American Enterprise Institute—the flagship think tank of the neo-cons, said in a tweet from Chennai, a day after the Lok Sabha’s approval of CAB, "I request the Government of India to consider giving citizenship to more than one lakh Tamil Sri Lankans, who are living in this country as refugees for the last 35 years. #CABBill.”

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