WASHINGTON – A federal US commission on international religious freedom has sought sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah and other principal Indian leadership if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with the “religious criterion” is passed by the Parliament, evoking a sharp reaction from India which said the American body has no locus standi on the issue.
According to the proposed legislation, members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, who have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, till December 31, 2014 facing alleged religious persecution there, will not be treated as illegal immigrants but given Indian citizenship.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB was passed in the Lok Sabha with 311 members favouring it and 80 voting against it a little past midnight on Monday. It will now be tabled in the Rajya Sabha for its nod.
In a statement issued on Monday, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) alleged that the CAB enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion.
“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 said.
The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission created in 1998, that reviews religious freedom violations abroad and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
It had recommended the revocation of the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi”s US visa in 2005 in the wake of the 2002 riots in his state.
The USCIRF said that it was deeply troubled over the passage of the bill in Lok Sabha.
“If the CAB passes in both houses of Parliament, the US government should consider sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah and other principal leadership,” the commission said.
“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 added.
In New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said the USCIRF”s statement on the bill is “neither accurate nor warranted”.
“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,” he said in a statement.
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 said.
He asserted that the bill does not affect the existing avenues available to all communities interested in seeking citizenship from doing so.
“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,” the spokesperson added.
Home Minister Shah on Monday introduced the controversial bill in Lok Sabha and made it clear that people belonging to any religion should not have any fear under Prime Minister Modi”s government.
He said the bill will give relief to those minorities who have been living a painful life after facing alleged persecution in neighbouring countries.
However, the bill has been opposed by the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and other Opposition parties.
Noting that in conjunction with the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam and nationwide NRC that Home Minister Shah seeks to propose, the USCIRF said it “fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims”.
It also said that for more than a decade now the Indian government has ignored the statements and annual reports of the USCIRF.
India from the days of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime has consistently said that it does not recognise a third country”s views or reports on its internal affairs.
Recommendations of the USCIRF are not enforceable. However, its recommendations are seriously taken into consideration by the US government in particular the State Department which is tasked with powers to take sanctionable actions against foreign entities and individuals for violation of religious freedom and human rights.
Meanwhile, a powerful Congressional Committee has voiced concerns over the CAB, noting that any religious test for citizenship undermines pluralism, which is the core shared values for both India and the US.
“Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values,” House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted on Monday.
“Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet,” it said.
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