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US panel faults NRC on ‘religious freedom’

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Arul Louis

(The author can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)

AUS government commission has called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) a “downward trend in religious freedom” in India amid efforts to link Assam to the Kashmir issue.

In a brief released on Tuesday, the US International Commission on Religious Freedom (USICRF) said, “The NRC as a tool to target religious minorities and, in particular, to render Indian Muslims stateless has become one more example of the downward trend in religious freedom conditions within India.” The brief said that 1.9 million people in Assam were at risk of becoming stateless.

The brief is a part of the latest political push in the US against India over human rights to expand the campaign beyond the Kashmir issue to Assam using the NRC.

Several persons who criticised India before two Congressional panels for rescinding the special status of Kashmir and imposing restrictions there also brought up the NRC in Assam.

A press release accompanying the release of the brief quoted from USICRF Commissioner Arunima Bhargava’s testimony on Kashmir last week before the House of Representative Lantos Commission on Human Rights at a hearing labelled as “Jammu and Kashmir in Context.”

She had asserted, “Worse yet is that Indian political officials have repeatedly conveyed their intent to direct and use the NRC process to isolate and push out Muslims in Assam. And now, across India, political leaders are seeking to expand the NRC and implement different citizenship standards for Muslims altogether.”

The brief prepared USICRF Policy Analyst Harrison Akins said, “Both national and state leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have pushed for the implementation of an NRC in other states, including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.”

The document said that when it was realised that large numbers of Bengali Hindus were also excluded from the NRC in Assam, BJP politicians called for a “re-verification” and a review by the Supreme Court.

The BJP officials at both the state and national levels have proposed amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 to allow non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship and require only a residence of six years in India instead of the current six, the brief said.

USICRF Chair Tony Perkins was quoted in the press release as saying, “The updated NRC list and subsequent actions of the Indian government are essentially creating a religious test for citizenship to target Assam’s vulnerable Muslim community. We urge the Indian government to protect the rights of all of its religious minorities as enshrined in the Indian constitution.”

The brief said, “The growing concern is that those declared to be ‘illegal immigrants’ will become stateless. India and Bangladesh currently do not have a repatriation agreement, with each repatriation case handled ad hoc between the two governments.”

It pointed out that the number of Bangladeshis accepted by their country from India has fallen from 5,234 in 2013 to only 51 in 2017.

The document giving the background to the problem said that the updating of the NRC followed violent protests by the All Assam Students Union against the flooding of the state by Bangladeshis during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence (which it dismissed as “civil war”) calling it a “catalyst for anti-immigrant sentiment in Assam.” The Assam NRC was set up in 1951 and slid into disuse, and in 2014 the Supreme Court ordered it updated.

The proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act seeks to protect religious minorities like Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains who have fled persecution or perception of danger in Islamic Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan by allowing them to gain Indian citizenship. (IANS)