U.S. lawmakers express grave concern over Modi government's Citizenship Amendment Bill

Protestors at a rally organized by the Bay Area Coalition of Concerned Citizens at the Civic Center Park in Santa Clara, Calif., Dec. 15. Participating groups included Indian American Muslim Council, Organization for Minorities of India, and Stand With Kashmir. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. lawmakers, the United Nations Human Rights Office, and progressive American groups, have expressed grave concern over the implications of the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which was recently passed by the Indian Parliament.

On Dec. 13, Ambassador Sam Brownback, currently the Trump administration’s point man for monitoring international religious freedom, in a tweet expressing concern over CAB, authored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, said, “One of India’s great strengths is its Constitution. As a fellow democracy, we respect India’s institutions, but are concerned about the implications of the CAB Bill.

“We hope the government will abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom,” Brownback, the administration’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State said that it has urged India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with its Constitution and democratic values even as it continues to monitor the developments in various Indian states in the wake of the passage of this controversial legislation.

A State Department spokesman said, “We are closely following developments regarding the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies.

“The U.S. urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values,” the spokesperson added.

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement, expressing similar sentiments, said, “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values.”

Thus, it argued, “Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most democratic tenet.”

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who will shortly take over the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific — which has jurisdiction over matters pertaining to South Asia too — also expressed concern over both the tense situation in Jammu and Kashmir after the government abrogated Article 370 of India’s Constitution providing special status for the Muslim majority state and put the entire valley under lockdown, and the most recent CAB pushed through Parliament.

“India’s strength has been a secular democracy. And being a secular democracy means protecting the rights of the minorities. That was the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru,” Bera said.

While acknowledging that on the Kashmir imbroglio, “I think there are some measures that has moved in the right direction,” Bera speaking at an event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of ‘President Eisenhower’s Historic Visit to India’ hosted by the Atlantic Council on Dec. 11, noted that he has long advocated and introduced legislation in every new session calling for support for India’s bid to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

“But with that comes responsibilities as well. India has to decide if it wants to be that world leader as it moves from a developing nation to developed nation to a leading nation,” he argued, and added, “It’s my hope given the importance of our relationship that it does realize that place at the table.”

Bera reiterated that “India’s strength is, as I’ve said in recent days, in recent months, is a secular democracy. If you look at the founding of the nation, it’s founded on values of being a secular democracy. Holding onto that identity is incredibly important, he said, adding that the strength of any democracy is protecting the rights of minority groups.”

Another senior U.S. Congressman, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), an African American now in his sixth term and one of three Muslim Americans serving in the U.S. Congress (the others being first term lawmakers Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), alleged that the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill was an attempt to reduce minority Muslims into “second class citizens.”

In Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights (UNHR) office has described India’s Citizenship Amendment Act that provided citizenship status for all groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh except Muslims, as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature.

“We are concerned that India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is fundamentally discriminatory in nature,”said UNHR spokesperson Jeremy Laurence, noting that “the law does not extend the same protection to Muslim migrants as to six other religious minorities fleeing persecution, thereby undermining India’s commitment to equality before the law, enshrined in its Constitution.”

Human Rights Watch said the controversial law “discriminates on religious grounds in violation of international law,” and noted that “it  provides a swift path to citizenship only for non-Muslim irregular immigrants.”

The Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), based in Santa Clara, California, in a statement on Dec. 14, said, “The Citizenship Amendment Bill passed this week foretells a fatal blow to a secular society in India,” and warned that “it opens the door for a full-scale persecution of all minorities in India.”

According to Arvin Valmuci of OFMI “It will soon be followed by a national law banning religious conversion, which will impact Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and all others as it outlaws religious freedom. Millions in India are taking to the streets to protest the CAB Act. We call upon all soul mates around the world to rally to save India’s soul.”

Earlier, on Dec. 9, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a Congressionally mandated body — said that the Citizenship Amendment Bill 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.

The “USCIRF is ‘deeply troubled’ by the passage of the CAB, originally introduced by Home Minister (Amit) Shah, in the Lok Sabha given the religion criterion in the bill,” it said.

Shah, on Dec. 9 ,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. The USCIRF, which includes one Hindu American member, Anurima Bhargava, a senior Department 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 also said the U.S. 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.

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. 

Senior BJP leader, Ram Madhav 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.

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