WASHINGTON: A bipartisan US federal agency — the Commission on International Religion Freedom (USCIRF) — has sought sanctions against India’s Home Minister Amit Shah and other principal leadership if the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is passed by both chambers of the Indian parliament.

On Monday, the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, passed the bill by 311 to 80 votes. Mr Shah, the original mover, re-introduced the controversial bill in Lok Sabha, ignoring widespread protests in and outside India.

The bill now goes to the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. Both houses of parliament must ratify a bill before it can become law.

“The commission is deeply troubled by the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), … given the religion criterion in the bill,” said an official statement USCIRF issued on Monday evening.

The mover, Mr Shah, is also mentioned in the commission’s statement seeking US sanctions.

“If the CAB passes in both houses of parliament, the United States government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership,” the statement added.

When re-introduced in the Lok Sabha, the bill caused a raucous debate. Opposition parties stood against the proposed law that would create a legal pathway to grant Indian nationality on the basis of religion.

The US commission noted in its statement that the “CAB enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion.”

Alarmed by this move by India’s Hindu fundamentalist government, the commission warned that “the CAB is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith.”

The commission noted that “in conjunction with the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam and nationwide NRC that the Home Minister seeks to propose, USCIRF fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims.”

The commission also noted that the Lok Sabha first passed the CAB in January 2019, but due to protests, the government withdrew it before it could be voted on by the Rajya Sabha.

The commission pointed out that the BJP included the passage of the CAB as part of its manifesto released ahead of its overwhelming electoral victory in May 2019.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the US Congress to monitor, analyse and report on threats to religious freedom abroad.

USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress intended to deter religious persecution.

The Indian media reported that the bill was originally introduced in 2016 during the Modi government’s first term but lapsed after protests and an alliance partner’s withdrawal.

If adopted by the upper house, the bill will allow the Indian government to prevent Muslims from seeking Indian citizenship.

Former president of the Indian Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, called the bill an attack on the Indian constitution. “Anyone who supports it is attacking and attempting to destroy the foundation of our nation,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the legislation “violates all norms of international human rights law and bilateral agreements with Pakistan”.

“We strongly condemn Indian Lok Sabha citizenship legislation which … is part of the RSS ‘Hindu Rashtra’ design of expansionism propagated by the fascist Modi Govt.” Pakistan Foreign Office also condemned the move, calling it a “complete violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants on elimination of all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief”.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019