Citizenship row, J&K detentions overshadow Indo-US talk

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law. (PTI photo)

The row over Citizenship (Amendment) Act and prolonged restrictions on people and detention of political leaders in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) cast a shadow over India’s 2+2 dialogue with the United States too.

With the protest against the new law continues across India, President Donald Trump’s administration in Washington D.C. indicated that it would keep nudging New Delhi to protect the rights of minorities. The US noted that the new law triggered “a robust debate” in India.   

“Yep, we care deeply, and always will, about protecting minorities, protecting religious rights everywhere,” US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said in Washington D.C. early on Thursday (IST). He and US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper were speaking to media persons along with India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh after the second 2+2 dialogue between the two governments.

Follow live updates of anti-CAA protests here

Asked about Trump Administration’s stand on the new citizenship law of India, a senior official of the US State Department later drew the attention of the journalists to the recent tweet by Sam Brownback, American Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, expressing concern over the implication of the legislation.

The India-US 2+2 dialogue was the last major engagement between the two sides before 2019 comes to its end. It came nearly two-and-a-half months after Trump appeared with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 'Howdy! Modi' event in Houston on September 23 and a meeting with him in New York on September 24.

The Government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi last week got the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed by Parliament despite strong protest by the Congress and other Opposition parties in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. It turned into a law after President Ramnath Kovind gave his assent to it.

The new law ensures citizenship to people of six non-Muslim communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, and Christians – if they had to migrate to India from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on or before December 31, 2014, in order to escape “persecution on the ground of religion”.

After Singh and Jaishankar had the 2+2 dialogue with Pompeo and Esper in Washington D.C. late Wednesday; a journalist referred to protests against the allegedly discriminatory law enacted in India and asked the US Secretary of State if he thought that it was appropriate for a democracy to use faith as a criterion to determine eligibility for citizenship.

“We honor Indian democracy as they have a robust debate inside of India on the issue that you raised,” Pompeo said and then added: “The United States will be consistent in the way that we respond to these issues, not only in India but all across the world.”

The new Citizenship (Amendment) Act triggered protests across India as it kept Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan out of its ambit and thus allegedly made religion a criterion for granting citizenship to refugees.

The police crackdown on protesters agitating against the new law in New Delhi as well as in several other cities triggered outrage, not only across India, but also overseas.
The journalist also asked Jaishankar during the news conference at the US State Department why Government of India made religion a factor in deciding who should get fast-tracked for citizenship. “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,” External Affairs Minister of India replied.

“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 categorising those who had come across,” he added.

The US had earlier this week subtly nudged India to “protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly” and also urged protesters agitating against the new law to refrain from violence.
“There is a debate going on in India over this very legislation (the Citizenship Amendment Act). It’s (a) legislation that will be reviewed by the courts. It’s being protested by political parties. It’s being debated in the media. All of these institutions exist in a democratic India and so we respect that process,” a senior official of the US State Department later told journalists.

Another journalist asked the official if Pompeo and Esper had raised the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of India during talks with Jaishankar and Singh. “I can say generically that we engage on the full range of issues with India and that, as I said earlier, religious freedom and human rights are a regular part of our dialogue,” the official replied, according to the transcript of the briefing posted on the US State Department’s website.

The official also said that the US had enquired about the roadmap the Government of India had for the return of economic and political normalcy in Kashmir. The US had also conveyed to India its concern over “prolonged detentions of political leaders as well as other residents” of Kashmir, in addition to continued restrictions on cell phone coverage and internet in the valley. The US has been expressing concern over the new citizenship law of India since early last week.

Noting that “respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies”; a spokesperson of the US State Department earlier said: “The United States urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India's Constitution and democratic values”.
"One of #India’s great strengths is its Constitution. As a fellow democracy, we respect India’s institutions but are concerned about the implications of the #CABBill. We hope the government will abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom,” Brownback, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, recently posted on Twitter.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week suggested that Trump Administration should consider imposing sanctions on Indian Home Minister Amit Shah and other leaders of the BJP-led Government of India, for enacting the law, which provided “a pathway to citizenship for immigrants” specifically excluding Muslims and setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion. The commission had also expressed apprehension that the Government of India was creating "a religious test" for citizenship that would “strip citizenship from millions of Muslims”.

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