WASHINGTON — Amid weeks of protests and sit-ins, an Indian civil rights lawyer told the United States’ top religious freedom panel Wednesday that there is a “genuine” possibility that many more Muslim citizens could be deemed "stateless" under a national registry proposed by the Modi administration.
Over a week after President Trump visited India where he praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his commitment to work to improve religious freedom in the country, experts issued dire warnings to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom about the future for Muslims in the Hindu-majority country.
USCIRF, a bipartisan panel that advises the State Department, Congress and White House, held a hearing Wednesday featuring testimonies from scholars and a lawyer actively involved in defending citizens accused by the government of being "foreigners."
While the hearing focused on citizenship issues facing Muslims in both Myanmar and India, much attention was paid to the concerns of Muslims protesting India's Home Minister Amit Shah’s proposal of a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the recent Citizenship Amendment Act.
The CAA, passed in December, is a fast-tracking of citizenship for refugees who came from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before December 2014. However, the legislation omits the fast-tracking for Muslims.
“The fear of losing citizenship is genuine because they know if NRC is implemented, they will be asked to prove their citizenship,” lawyer Aman Wadud told USCIRF commissioners.
Wadud represents hundreds of clients from the northern region of Assam on the border of Bangladesh who’ve been accused in recent years of being foreigners and stripped of their citizenship even though they have lived in Assam for decades.
Assam is the first state in India where an update to the NRC has been conducted by the order of India's Supreme Court. An updated NRC for Assam was released on Aug. 31 with over 1.9 million people failing to make it onto the list of registered citizens.
Wadud told The Christian Post that about 120,000 people — including both Hindus and Muslims — have been “declared as a foreigner” including both Hindus and Muslims.
“Most of the people do not have a birth certificate,” Wadud said, adding that the burden is placed on those accused of being foreigners to prove that they were Indian nationals by March 1971.
In Assam, Wadud said there is a “parallel process of doubting citizenship” carried out by two agencies: Assam Border Police and the Election Commission of India.
“The border police job is, if they come across any citizens who do not have any paperwork, they give them time. And if they cannot provide papers, they accuse them of being illegal migrants,” Wadud explained. “What happened on the ground is they do not investigate any case. They randomly accuse Indian citizens of being a foreigner.”
“An example is Mohammad Sanaullah, an Army officer who served India for 30 years. He was accused of being an illegal migrant and subsequently declared as a foreigner,” Wadud added. “Randomly, Indian citizens are being accused of being illegal migrants without investigation whatsoever, violating the fundamental right to fair investigations.”
There is much concern over the fact that Muslims are excluded from the CAA.
The CAA gives those who might be excluded from the NRC the ability to achieve expedited citizenship in India as long as they are persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains or Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan who arrived in India before Dec. 31, 2014.
But because Muslims are not on the list, they will not have a fast-track to citizenship if they are deemed to be foreigners.
Proponents of the CAA argue that Muslims don't face persecution in those three countries since they have Muslim majorities.
During Trump’s visit, protests over the CAA and the proposed nationwide NRC turned to sectarian violence as rioters attacked and burned Muslim protesters and homes. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured.
According to Wadud, police were accused of failing their responsibilities to intervene in crimes committed against Muslims who were protesting for the right to live a "dignified life" as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
“In Delhi, where people were peacefully protesting on the streets when President Trump was visiting India, a BJP politician gave an ultimatum that if you cannot remove these peoples [from protesting], ‘we will hit the street,’” Wadud said.
“That was the spark of the violence. The mob started attacking Muslims and the police did not stop the mob. Rather, they participated in the violence. There is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the police.”
Since Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014, rights groups have reported an increase in Hindu nationalist extremism targeting religious minorities with impunity.
Azeem Ibrahim, the director of displacement and migration at the American think tank Center for Global Policy, stressed that the proposal to extend the NRC update nationwide would mostly impact Muslims.
“The new citizenship law is aimed at Muslims and those from the poorest sections of India’s caste system and undermines the nonconfessional basis of the Indian Constitution,” Ibrahim told USCIRF. “As in Myanmar, it will create identifiable groups that are denied the basic right of citizenship.”
Ibrahim stressed that there are “two strands” to the Modi administration’s approach.
“First, [Modi] is trying to define who might be an acceptable refugee,” Ibrahim said. “This is problematic but is more serious as the new law is retrospective and will affect many who fled what was East Pakistan in the early 1970s to live in Assam.”
Ibrahim said that Hindus or Buddhists who are not able to provide proper citizenship paperwork will be able to appeal for citizenship. But Muslims “are denied this right and impact families that have lived in India for 40 to 70 years.”
“They are about to find themselves declared stateless and threatened with deportation,” Ibrahim explained.
Wadud said that in 1997, the Election Commission of India started something called the “strict scrutiny of voter" list to mark people as “doubtful voters.”
“Without any investigation whatsoever, they have mostly accused women of being a foreigner,” he said. “These cases go to the foreigner’s tribunal for trial. … In any criminal case, the burden of proof is on the state. But here, if you are accused of being an illegal migrant without an investigation, the burden of proof is on you to prove that you are a citizen of India.”
Wadud said that in the tribunal, many people can be declared foreigners because of minor discrepancies with their names and ages.
“If any witness makes a minor contradictory statement, they can be stripped of citizenship,” Wadud said.
Shah declared last July to parliament that as many as 63,959 people have been declared foreigners through tribunal ex-parte judgments dating back to 1985.
“Now, most of the people can’t afford lawyers,” Wadud added. “So when they can’t afford lawyers, they stop going to the tribunal and that’s how many are declared as a foreigner.”
Once people are declared as foreigners, Wadud said they are detained in detention centers. With six detention centers in Assam, Wadud said that foreigner detainees do not have a right to parole.
But under a Supreme Court order, Wadud said that India does not have the right to detain people for more than three years.
“Deportation is not possible. A person is detained to deport to the country of origin. But when you declare your own citizen as a foreigner, you cannot deport those persons,” he said. “The home minister said before the Parliament that in the last three years, … only four people have been deported to Bangladesh within this period. But 130,000 people have already been declared as a foreigner.”
In most cases when a person is determined to be a foreigner, those determinations are upheld by a high court, Wadud said.
“India disowns you and Bangladesh will definitely disown you because you are a citizen of India," Wadud warned.
Ashutosh Varshney, the Sol Goldman professor of international studies at Brown University, explained that using the terms of the CAA, the NRC could render stateless “large number of Muslims” even though they were born in India to ancestors that have lived in the country.
“That is an important reason [anti-CAA] protests have not ceased,” Varshney said.
In December, USCIRF documented its concerns with the CAA and even suggested that sanctions could be considered against Shah and other government leaders.
USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava, a civil rights lawyer, told CP there are many ways in which religious communities are being targeted in India. "... violence has been facilitated and allowed to happen with people being burned and beaten in streets with law enforcement bearing witness to that and not necessarily intervening.”
USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins, a leading Christian conservative activist who has been supportive of the president’s call to promote international religious freedom and has informally engaged with the Trump White House, said the evidence suggests that "India is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to religious freedom."
“I am hopeful that India may not follow through on this policy that is put forward that would deprive citizenship or make the threshold so difficult for those that were born in India but can't prove their citizenship," Perkins told CP.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told CP at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last week that he would not go as far as to say improvements are being made when it comes to the condition of religious freedom in India.
“The president did raise the issues with Modi privately. I think it was important that you raise those issues,” Brownback said.
“But you got a lot of communal violence that is happening in India. They have got a lot of things that they are pushing that push religious buttons. So people get really fired up. You saw the violence that took place during the president’s trip. That’s the level of angst going on in the country. There is a lot of Hindu nationalism that has been going on more aggressively and you are seeing some of the consequences.”