US panel for sanctions over Citizenship Amendment Bill, India says it is biased

Updated on Dec 11, 2019 06:49 AM IST

US Commission on International Religious Freedom has criticised India in the past on religious freedom, and India’s external affairs ministry said its position is “not surprising given its past record”.

An Indian commando tries to stop as protesters block traffic during a shutdown protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Gauhati, Tuesday on December 10.(Photo: AP)
An Indian commando tries to stop as protesters block traffic during a shutdown protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Gauhati, Tuesday on December 10.(Photo: AP)
Hindustan Times, Washington/New Delhi | ByYashwant Raj and Rezaul H Laskar

A US commission that monitors religious freedom across the world has asked the Trump administration to consider sanctions against India’s leadership if a controversial citizenship bill is approved by Parliament, prompting New Delhi to say that the panel is prejudiced and has no locus standi in the matter.

Soon after the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2019 that aims to grant citizenship to religious minorities from three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighbourhood, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said on Tuesday it was “deeply troubled” by the development because of the “religion criterion in the bill”.

USCIRF has criticised India in the past on religious freedom, and India’s external affairs ministry said its position is “not surprising given its past record”.

The ministry added it was regrettable the panel “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”.

The influential US House foreign affairs committee too questioned the intent of the bill in a tweet.

“Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet,” it said.

Ahead of the bill’s introduction in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission, said in a statement: “If the CAB passes in both houses of parliament, the US government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership.”

The panel added, “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.”

It noted the bill “enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion”. USCIRF said it fears, in conjunction with plans to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide, that the Indian government “is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims”.

Responding to USCIRF, the external affairs ministry said the panel’s position on the CAB is “neither accurate nor warranted” as the bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities “already in India from certain contiguous countries”.

The bill seeks to address the current difficulties of these minorities and meet their basic human rights. Such an initiative should be welcomed by those genuinely committed to religious freedom, the ministry added.

The ministry clarified that the CAB doesn’t affect existing avenues available to all communities interested in seeking Indian citizenship and the “recent record of granting such citizenship would bear out the government of India’s objectivity”.

It also said the CAB and the NRC processes do not seek to “strip citizenship from any Indian citizen of any faith” and suggestions to this effect are “motivated and unjustified”. It defended the proposed legislation by saying, “Every nation, including the US, has the right to enumerate and validate its citizenry, and to exercise this prerogative through various policies.”

The CAB also figured during an interaction on Tuesday between journalists and the new European Union (EU) ambassador, Ugo Astuto, who said he hoped the outcome of the parliamentary process will be in line with safeguards in the Indian Constitution.

“I’ve read about the discussions in Parliament on this bill. The Indian Constitution guarantees equality before the law and forbids all forms of discrimination and these are principles that we share,” he said in response to questions on the CAB.

“These principles underpin the EU law and Constitution. I trust that the outcome of these discussions will be in line with the high standards set by the Indian Constitution.”

Pakistan predictably criticised the CAB, describing it as a “complete violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants”. It said the bill contravenes several bilateral agreements.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a tweet, condemned the bill, saying it was part of a “design of expansionism”.

It wasn’t immediately clear if USCIRF’s threat of sanctions had the backing of the Trump administration, which has a history of policies that are widely seen as anti-Muslim – such as the controversial “Muslim ban” on travellers from Muslim-majority countries. A response was awaited from the White House.

The state of religious freedom in India has been scrutinised by US authorities for years, and New Delhi has bristled at external interference and disallowed USCIRF from sending observers to study the situation in India in 2007, under then premier Manmohan Singh’s UPA-1 government and again in 2016, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term.

One of USCIRF commissioners, Anurima Bhargava, was a witness at a recent hearing held by the Lantos Commission, a Congress-sanctioned body that too monitors religious freedom. That hearing was focussed on religious freedom in Kashmir.

Some 1.9 million people were excluded when the NRC for Assam was published earlier this year. Several European countries and other Western powers have been closely tracking the CAB and the NRC processes, and people familiar with developments said European diplomats had reached out to the government to learn how it intends to implement the citizenship bill and the recourse available to those who could be adversely affected.

Former diplomat and commentator Rajiv Dogra said: “In today’s age, one has to be mindful of international attention and their reaction to developments, even when they relate to our internal matters.”

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