A week after Delhi’s riots, India and Myanmar were the subjects of discussion at a hearing in Washington organised by an independent bipartisan federal government commission, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
In addition to discussing the Rohingya situation in Myanmar , the hearing also focussed on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India.
While there are no automatic legal outcomes from this hearing, the hearing is another instance of the Modi administration’s record on human rights, equal protection and the rule of law coming under persistent and increasing scrutiny from the U.S. Congress and parts of the U.S. administration.
The panel of witnesses consisted of Brown University professor and author Ashutosh Varshney; a human rights lawyer from Assam, Aman Wadud both of whom spoke entirely on the Indian situation. The other witnesses were Azeem Ibrahim an author and director at the Center for Global Policy and Naomi Kikoler, a director at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The Holocaust is a glaring example of how denial or revocation of citizenship on the basis of ethnic or religious identity can help to foster an environment where genocide is possible,” said Ms. Kikoler , the first witness to speak.
“The Nazis sought, starting in 1933, to use a law to curtail the rights of Jews and others who were deemed ‘racially unacceptable’. They did so at first by targeting freedom of speech, assembly and the press.”
Ms. Kikoler pointed to the Nuremberg Laws that shortly followed: ‘The Right to Citizenship Law’ and ‘The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’.
“Overnight over 500,000 German Jews were no longer German, rather they were subjects of the German state,” Ms Kikoler said, adding that that citizenship became a “life and death” factor as the Holocaust progressed. Ms Kikoler explained that denying citizenship to certain group can be understood by some as a signal to carry out physical attacks on this group.
Mr. Varshney, who said whether the NRC comes into question or not, that it creates “an enabling atmosphere for violence.”
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“Once you say a particular community is not fully Indian or its Indian-ness is in grave doubt, you begin to marginalize them in politics and you begin to generate a certain discourse against them in politics …about their loyalty, about their commitment to the nation…the way they raise their children, the way they marry.”
“The NRC exercise proved harsh on many belonging to marginalised communities. People had to sell their cattle and jewellery, lose working days to attend NRC hearings. Many experienced mental trauma because of fear of losing citizenship — and there are also reports of suicide associated with such trauma,” Mr Wadud said in his opening remarks [as per prepared testimony].
Mr. Varshney talked about four theoretically possible ways to resist the citizenship law and registration changes. One is judicial review. Second is federalism – Mr Varshey said 12 Indian states have said they will not implement the NRC. Third, non-violent protests , i.e., civil disobedience, which is legal. Fourth, international opinion; non-governmental such as what the international media is saying and the second is governmental opinion from abroad.
In response to question from USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava on the role of the judiciary in facilitating some of the processes in Myanmar and India, Mr Varshney described a mixed history “full of ups and downs” for the Indian judiciary. He said there are doubts about whether it will act independently but did not advise giving up on the judiciary.
“The reason I don't want to give up on the judiciary is that India actually has a bench system,” Mr. Varshney said. "… depending on the nature of the bench and depending on which judges are on the bench…the decision could go in favour of citizens as opposed to the government. So …the idea of giving up on the judiciary as a principle is not a good one.”
Speaking of Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s assurance to Dhaka earlier this week that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would have no implications for Bangladesh , Mr Waded said, “So basically the intent is not deportation. So what do you want to do with these people? … If you detain …what after detentions?”
Even if the citizenship of certain groups is not impacted, there are dangers to the process, witnesses said. “Finally , even if people are not stripped of citizenship, the process of proving citizenship is very, very traumatic. The fear of losing citizenship can actually kill you,” Mr. Wadud said.
Avoid irresponsible comments: India tells USCIRF
In the aftermath of the riots in Delhi, ‘unsubstantiated’ comments should be avoided, said an official of the Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday.
“We are trying to say these are sensitive times and at this point of time irresponsible comments that are selective and not based on facts will do more damage and we expect and urge them to not make such comments. Focus at this point in time is on restoring normalcy,” said Raveesh Kumar, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs.
Mr. Kumar said the situation in the northeastern parts of the national capital is fast returning to normalcy. He also said India has sent a strong diplomatic message to Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the killings.
“They are factually inaccurate and driven by his own political agenda. We made a strong demarche to the Turkish Ambassador here on March 3,” said Mr. Kumar about President Erdogan’s comments.
(With inputs from Special Correspondent in New Delhi)