- India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) provides amnesty and a fast-track to citizenship for certain refugees currently in India who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
- Any listing out of specific groups is prone to inadvertent exclusion. This is where the CAA presents a missed opportunity to better address human rights in South Asia. HAF thus recommends amending the act with neutral language and replacing the listing of specific religious groups with “persecuted religious minorities”, which we believe would allow India to develop an effective refugee and asylum policy which aligns with India’s civilization ethos, civic obligations as a secular republic, and international human rights norms.
- Persecuted adherents of the four Dharmic/Indic traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism), for whom India is a sacred homeland, have no realistic options for resettlement in any nation in South Asia other than India.
- The CAA does not alter the rights of any Indian citizen nor does it establish any religious test for immigration or exclude Muslims from immigrating to India. Muslims remain able to immigrate to India through any legal channel.
- HAF believes the Citizenship Amendment Act is long overdue and necessary, providing respite for persecuted religious minorities who have sought refuge in India.
The Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a bill amending the country’s existing laws governing citizenship. The amendment removes substantial barriers to legal resettlement and citizenship by proposing amnesty for certain religious refugees from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and Islamic Republic of Pakistan, who sought refuge in India on or before December 31, 2014. It also proposes that illegal entry not be a bar to naturalization for members of these communities, and that the minimum residency requirement of 11 years be reduced to six.
Important to note: The CAA does not change citizenship laws or other immigration laws. It only provides legal status and a fast-track to citizenship to refugees who are in India as a result of having fled religious persecution from neighboring states that privilege Islam as the official state religion.
We at the Hindu American Foundation have long recommended legal status and a pathway to citizenship for persecuted religious minorities who have sought refuge in India. To this end, we believe the Citizenship Amendment Bill is long overdue and necessary. We also believe it does not go far enough.
What we don’t think the CAA is.
Contrary to the reporting of major outlets such as the New York Times, Time Magazine, and others, the current proposal does not “establish a religious test” for migrants who want to become citizens nor “give migrants of all of South Asia’s major religions a clear path to Indian citizenship — except Islam.” Nor is the threatened sanction against India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom at all warranted or appropriate because it too is based on a similarly ill-informed interpretation.
Muslims are able to emigrate to India through any legal channel. The CAA provides a path to amnesty for certain religious minorities who fled persecution in their native countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan on or before a specific date and in the absence of India having an official refugee/asylum policy.
That said, there is no question, and should be no question as to the rights and privileges of Indian Muslims as equal citizens of India. In fact, the recent abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A is a demonstration of India’s commitment to ensuring equal protection to all of its citizens regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation, or class.
India should continue to safeguard its democratic ideals and pluralistic ethos as a home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
Lastly, the CAA also does not deal with deportation of undocumented immigrants. Deportation is governed by a different law and applies to those who, regardless of nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or class, etc., entered India without requisite documentation and permission, and do not fall within any other exceptions to such requirements.
The United States and the international community should utilize diplomatic pressure and economic leverage to persuade Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to implement legal safeguards to protect the rights of its minority citizens.
What we DO think the CAA is.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) removes substantial barriers to legal resettlement and citizenship by proposing amnesty for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis (Zoroastrian), and Christians who sought shelter in India on or before December 31, 2014 due to religious persecution in their native countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. The CAA, however, does not go far enough.
Indeed, India is the sacred homeland of the four Dharmic/Indic traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — and home to the largest populations adhering to these respective traditions. The dire human rights situation for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan is undeniable, and their respective populations’ demographic decline a staggering reminder.
The inclusion of Christians and Parsis is also important as they too have faced serious human rights violations in India’s three neighboring countries.
The specific mention of adherents of the four Dharmic traditions in the CAA is 1) an important acknowledgement of their suffering both in their native countries and in India as they’ve languished for years in legal limbo in make-shift refugee camps throughout the country; 2) recognition of India as the sacred geography and homeland of these traditions and their respective adherents; and 3) indication of India’s efforts to provide refuge to these especially vulnerable communities who have no options for resettlement in any nation in South Asia other than India.
What we think the CAA COULD BE.
India is a secular republic and an important player on the global stage. As such, it must privilege neutral and principled language to create an effective refugee and asylum policy which aligns both with India’s civilizational ethos, civic obligations, and current international human rights norms.
Any specific outlining of groups is prone to inadvertent exclusion. For example, persecuted Muslim sects such as Ahmadiyya Muslims and some Shia Muslims, as well as members of ethnic groups like Sindhis and Baloch from Pakistan, and certain Shia Muslims from Afghanistan, are not mentioned, but have also, like Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis, endured well documented oppression, even danger of genocide. Some members of these groups are already in India, having fled persecution in their home countries.
India has a centuries long history of providing shelter to members of many of these groups. In fact, as recently as 2018, India extended citizenship to exiled Baloch leader Brahumdagh Bugti and several others.
To this end, the language of the current bill could better reflect the impetus behind this critical, necessary amendment if the language was expanded.
In public statements subsequent to the Parliament debate, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, who introduced the bill, stated, “It is well known that those minorities who chose to make Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan their home had to constantly live in the fear of extinction.”
At HAF, we suggest that this is the very intent the bill should articulate.
We would strongly recommend that the Government of India reconsider the definition of religious and ethnic refugees as follows:
“Members of a religious or ethnic minority community who are unable to return to their home countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, and unable to obtain protection in those countries due to past or well-founded fear of future persecution on account of religion or ethnicity.”
Of course, India will ultimately assess, as every nation does, which specific countries’ refugees it will prioritize, weighing carefully numerous considerations, including its relations with the country, the likelihood of conditions improving or worsening there, and domestic considerations such as India’s capacity to take in more people as the second most populous country in the world and continue to appropriately meet the needs of all its diverse people.
But neutral framing, as suggested here, would meet fully the intended goal of providing legal respite to religious refugees who already suffered gross human rights conditions in their native countries and who continue to suffer in India because of legal limbo that keeps them in the poorest of living conditions and unable to resettle properly and start their lives all over again.
And equally, though numerous government programs aimed at providing special benefits to members of minority communities or historically disadvantaged classes routinely enumerate such protected communities or classes, neutral framing may better ensure that the amendment withstands constitutional muster as reports indicate that an Indian Supreme Court review is likely to follow.
Why we think the CAA is NECESSARY.
For over 16 years, the Hindu American Foundation has worked closely with persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and been on the forefront of documenting the horrific human rights conditions they have had to endure.
HAF has visited, volunteered in, and sponsored medical clinics at refugee camps in the Indian city of Jodhpur which serves religious minorities who have fled persecution in Pakistan. The conditions in these camps are deplorable and bureaucratic delays in obtaining legal status for these refugees have left these stateless people bereft of basic needs, even while they have no recourse of return to their original homes and villages.
From rampant institutionalized and social discrimination, and widespread restrictions on religious freedom to bonded labor, kidnappings, forced conversions, rampant violence, land grabs, and destruction of religious sites, religious minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Ahmadiyya Muslims, certain Shia Muslims, and ethnic minorities such as Sindhis and Baloch have lived as second class citizens in these neighboring countries for decades with no improvement of conditions in sight.
Today, as the largest democracy in the world and an emerging global leader, we believe India should continue to be a beacon for the religiously and ethnically persecuted in its region, and a torchbearer of secularism, pluralism, and religious freedom.
What about Bangladeshi Muslim migrants who came to India prior to the Citizenship Amendment Act’s cut off date of December 31, 2014?
Since 1971, large numbers of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh have illegally crossed the porous Indo-Bangladesh border into India’s northeastern states for economic reasons, not for reasons of religious persecution. 1971 also brought a huge influx of Bangladeshi Hindus fleeing religious genocide.
The CAA seeks to provide amnesty to religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who have fled religious persecution in their native countries. It does not impact other avenues of legal migration, such as economic migration.
Bangladeshi Muslims seeking better economic opportunities are free to legally immigrate to India through various avenues. Bangladesh was founded as a secular republic in 1971, but in 1988, the Bangladeshi constitution was amended and declared Islam the official state religion. The Bangladesh Supreme Court affirmed that amendment in 2016. Muslims comprise 90% of Bangladesh’s population. Bangladeshi Hindus (as well as Buddhists and Christians) would come under the purview of the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Bill as religious minorities who have faced persecution in their native country and only if they entered India on or before December 31, 2014.
CAA seems unprecedented for a secular democracy. Is it?
It is not. Take for example a law right here in the United States.
The Lautenberg Amendment (1990), the extension of which has over the years received broad-based, bipartisan support, creates a fast-track, or legal presumption of refugee status for certain religious minorities. Initially, the amendment specified Jews and Evangelical Christians from the Soviet Union as well as members of the Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Over the years, the law, with the passage of the Specter Amendment (2004), has been expanded the scope to include Baha’i, Christians, and Jews from Iran.
In contrast to the Lautenberg-Specter Amendment, the fast-track created by the CAA is not indefinite. It applies only to certain religious minorities who fled to India on or before December 31, 2014.
That said, with regard to the principle of secularism, even the Lautenberg-Specter Amendment could use more neutral language.