US panel hears of risks to Indian Muslims

Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Naomi Kikoler (right) speaks during a hearing of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on March 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Experts warned a US government panel on Wednesday (March 5) that India's Muslims face risks of expulsion or other persecution under a citizenship law that has triggered major protests.

The hearing held inside Congress was called by the US Commission on International Freedom, which has been denounced by the Indian government as biased.

Prof Ashutosh Varshney, a prominent scholar of sectarian violence in India, told the panel that the law championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists amounted to a move to narrow the democracy's historically inclusive and secular definition of citizenship.

"The threat is serious, and the implications quite horrendous," said Prof Varshney, a professor at Brown University.

"Something deeply injurious to the Muslim minority can happen once their citizenship rights are taken away," he said.

Prof Varshney warned that the law could ultimately lead to expulsion or detention - but, even if not, contributes to marginalisation.

"It creates an enabling atmosphere for violence once you say that a particular community is not fully Indian or its Indianness in grave doubt," he said.

The Indian parliament in December passed a law that fast-tracks citizenship for persecuted non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries.

Responding to criticism at the time from the US commission, which advises but does not set policy, India's foreign ministry said the law does not strip anyone's citizenship and "should be welcomed, not criticised, by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom".

Fears are particularly acute in the northeastern state of Assam, where a citizens' register finalised last year left 1.9 million people, many of them Muslims, facing possible statelessness.

Mr Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer from Assam who travelled to Washington for the hearing, said that many Indians lacked birth certificates or other documentation to prove citizenship and were only seeking "a dignified life". The hearing did not exclusively focus on India, with commissioners and witnesses voicing grave concern over Myanmar's refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, the mostly Muslim minority that has faced widespread violence.

Ms Gayle Manchin, the vice chair of the commission, also voiced concern over Bahrain's stripping of citizenship from activists of the Shi'ite majority as well as a new digital ID system in Kenya that she said risks excluding minorities.

More than 40 people were killed last week in New Delhi in sectarian violence sparked by the citizenship law.

India on Tuesday lodged another protest after the UN human rights chief, Ms Michelle Bachelet, sought to join a lawsuit in India that challenges the citizenship law's constitutionality.

Separately, the latest global report by US-based nonprofit organisation Freedom House said India has suffered the biggest decline in civil and political liberties among the world's largest democracies as Modi's government takes "its Hindu nationalist agenda to a new level".

"The Indian government's alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could blur the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi," the report titled Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy found.

Freedom House, which conducts researches and advocacy on democracy and human rights, said a series of moves taken by the BJP since it was re-elected by a sweeping majority in May have hurt the rights of its Muslim minority population.

It cited the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Aug 5 abrogation of nearly 70 years of constitutional autonomy in India's portion of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and the detention of local political leaders which has continued for more than seven months now.

"These three actions have shaken the rule of law in India and threatened the secular and inclusive nature of its political system," the Freedom House report said.

The country slipped four spots on the report's global ranking to number 71.

Some 195 countries and 15 territories were assessed through 2019 and ranked out of 100 based on a series of civil and political liberty measures. Despite the slip in ranking, India kept its "free" status as functioning electoral democracy. Other democracies like Australia and Canada slipped one spot as did India's neighbor and rival Pakistan.

While the US ranking remained unchanged it was marked out, along with India, as a democracy where leaders were pursuing populist agendas without paying regard to its critics or minorities.

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