By Arul Louis*
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government may have had the intention of providing refuge to victims of religious persecution through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) but it could not get the message across abroad – or for that matter in India. It seems to have the same problem at home, where the narrative has been seized across vast swathes of the media and the nation by those opposed to the law perhaps because of the Hinducentric emphasis on the presentation and the perception. And they, in turn, are defining how it is perceived abroad.
The controversial aspect of the CAA is so similar to a piece of legislation in the United States known as the Specter Amendment that it would seem that it was the model of the BJP government’s legislation. Named after the late Senator Arlen Specter, it was inserted in 2004 into another amendment named for the late Senator Frank Lautenberg to give refugee status to certain minorities from the then Soviet Union and the amendments continue to vote every year as part of the the budget.
The Specter Amendment was voted most recently last year for 2020 allowing special immigration rights for non-Muslim minorities from Iran – Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Sabaean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. It excludes Muslims with an underlying logic similar to that of the CAA.
US politicians, agency and the media that have been vehemently opposing the CAA have been supportive of or silent on the Specter Amendment. It is tucked into the US budget (known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, ironically with the same acronym, CAA).
The abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status and the National Register of Citizens controversy have combined with the CAA to create a perfect storm of denunciations in the media and in some political quarters in the United States directed against India over the dealings with Muslims.
Detaching the CAA from the other two contentious issues, India could have driven home the CAA’s goal of protecting victims of religious persecution by giving them refuge more clearly and vociferously and the fact that it also gives special protection to Christians, hence not a legislation favouring only Hindus.
Emphasising the element of support for Christian victims of persecution could have helped dispel the notion that it was a part of the Hindutva agenda and gain some sympathy from the Trump administration and sections of the Republicans, who have made helping Christian victims of religious persecution a special mission.
It is also possible that the BJP government did not want to emphasise the refuge for Christians as it may not be palatable to its extremist base.
A weakness in the law addressing religious persecution is its failure to include members of the Ahmedia sect of Islam, who are not considered Muslims by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. All Pakistanis – including those who are vociferous about secularism in India and are celebrated by Indian secularists – have in order to get their passports signed a declaration that states, “I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an imposter Nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group to be non-Muslim.” This could even be an endorsement of the blasphemy laws of the Islamic state that put the Ahmedias at risk.
A clearer presentation of the CAA by India would have been on these lines: 1. The CAA is similar to the Specter Amendment included in the US budget that became law in December and is based on the same reasoning. 2. The CAA is to protect persecuted religious minorities through a legislative measure to give expedited citizenship exclusively to members of religions that face persecution in three countries, the officially Islamic republics of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Muslim majority Bangladesh. 3. It does not affect the ability of others to get citizenship through normal procedures. For example, a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim from any other country would have to undergo the same procedures and wait the same period to get citizenship, with no preference for Hindus. 4. It has no impact on Indians of the Muslim faith.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar missed an opportunity at the news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the two other participants at last month’s 2+2 strategic dialogue to clearly explain India’s goals behind the CAA in the rare opportunity he got to make the case in public before the US media. Unusually for a reporter for a US media, the CBS reporter, who asked the question, did not call the CAA anti-Muslim but phrased it as deciding who gets “fast-tracked for citizenship” while excluding Muslims.
Jaishankar gave a cursory reply that did not make India’s case and he even sounded patronising.
He said tersely, “If you had followed the debate on that particular legislation carefully, you would see that it is a measure which is designed to address the needs of persecuted religious minorities from certain countries. If you look at where – what those countries are, and therefore what the minorities are, perhaps you’d get – you’d understand why certain religions were identified in terms of categorizing those who had come across.”
Of course, to give Indian diplomacy the benefit of doubt, the US media, especially the liberal type, is tinged with – to put it mildly – antipathy towards Hinduism and, by extension to India, and revels in misinformation or half-baked information. And it sets the agenda for politicians and activists.
The New York Times has accused India of introducing a “religious test” for naturalisation. It has also said that the CAA is “blatantly discriminatory toward Muslims and threatens the very foundation of India as a secular and tolerant nation.”
The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, which is locked in disputes with the Indian government, said parliament “passed a fundamental change to its citizenship law to include religion as a criterion for nationality for the first time.”
It has also claimed that the CAA “bans undocumented Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries from seeking citizenship in India while allowing immigrants from other religions to do so.”
In fact, Muslim migrants can seek citizenship through the normal procedures and the CAA does not say they can’t.
The US newspapers have not explained how minorities persecuted because of their religious affiliation or under threat could be offered protection in India without ascertaining and taking into account their religion – and that is not a religious test for citizenship.
Neither of them has reported on the attack on the Sikh Nankana Sahib shrine in Pakistan that reinforces the need for helping Sikh refugees.
Showing its double standards, the US media has not called for the repeal of the Specter Amendment or criticised it in its reporting. None of the US lawmakers who have protested against CAA has objected to the Specter Amendment. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has said that Indian Home Minister Amit Shah should be sanction by the US because of the CAA. But its leadership has called the Congressional renewal of the Specter Amendment based on its recommendations one of the Commission’s “accomplishments.”
*The writer is a New York-based journalist and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of SPS