Is India's Citizenship Law A Tool For Oppression? U.S. Panel Holds Hearing

Mar 5, 2020
Originally published on March 5, 2020 11:12 am
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India has passed a new citizenship law which opponents say discriminates against Muslims. The U.S. government's religious freedom commission says such laws can be a, quote, "tool of oppression against religious minorities." NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has tried for years to see how religious minorities are faring under the Hindu nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Modi government won't allow its ambassador to meet with the commission and isn't giving commission members permission to visit India. So they invited their own witnesses to Capitol Hill yesterday. The main subject - a new citizenship law in India that treats Hindu and Muslim refugees differently.

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ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: It creates an enabling atmosphere for violence.

GJELTEN: Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, said the Indian government could use the new law to strip Muslims of full citizenship.

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VARSHNEY: Once you say that a particular community is not fully Indian, this act of marginalization, politically engineered or politically led, creates an enabling atmosphere for those who think they can act violently on behalf of the nation against the minority so targeted.

GJELTEN: Varshney's comments were in response to an inquiry from commission member Gayle Manchin.

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GAYLE MANCHIN: Thank you. That was exactly my point. Do we create another Holocaust?

GJELTEN: Other witnesses noted that denying citizenship to an ethnic or religious minority in a country has been, in the past, a prelude to genocide. The religious freedom commission is chaired by Tony Perkins, a Christian conservative appointed by President Trump. Perkins, generally a loyal Trump defender, says he knows the administration sees India as an ally and has to decide whether to pressure the Modi government over its treatment of religious minorities.

TONY PERKINS: I have a full appreciation that the administration, in their conversations with India and other countries, have competing interests. That's for them to figure out. But our task is to focus solely on religious liberty and make recommendations based upon that alone to the administration.

GJELTEN: In his own remarks at the hearing, Perkins said the warning light is flashing with regard to countries using citizenship laws to discriminate against minorities. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.