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Is India’s new citizenship law friendly toward religious liberty?

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April 16, 2020

India’s capital of New Delhi and regions throughout the country were rocked in recent months by religious violence and rioting. The rioting left over 40 people dead with property damage and devastation common throughout the rest of the country. The cause of this violence in the world’s largest democracy was the new law entitled the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was ostensibly meant to deal with immigration questions. 

However, the new law, signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Dec. 11, 2019, created a religious test for those to whom it applied, and was but one step toward destroying India’s position as a secular, pluralist country, and instead establishing it as a Hindu nation. The CAA, though clothed in the language of protecting religious minorities, is in reality an affront to religious liberty and tramples the rights of conscience for hundreds of millions of India’s Muslim citizens. 

Background

The CAA creates an expedited pathway for immigrants who entered the country illegally to become citizens so long as they meet a number of qualifications. First, they must have entered the country before 2015 from one of three countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan), and they must belong to one of six religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism. The government has claimed that they are seeking to offer a place for these religious minorities to have an expedited path because there are already Muslim countries in the area, so there is no need for them to be included. 

The law itself is the outgrowth of a citizenship register currently being implemented in the Indian state of Assam where individuals had to prove that they were citizens or had entered the country prior to India’s founding in 1947. This citizenship register led to some 2 million individuals who had lived in the country for generations (many of them Muslim) being left off the list because the records were incomplete or found to be unsatisfactory.

Protecting religious minorities

Christians should be grateful for laws that protect religious minorities. However, the CAA is a law which purports to do one thing and does another. It claims to protect religious minorities, but it does so at the expense of the largest minority religious group in India: Muslims. Roughly 80% of those living in India are Hindu, with another 14% (approximately 200 million people, or 2/3 of the population of the United States) practicing Islam. The remainder is split between the religious groups represented by the CAA. 

It is no surprise that this law overlooks Muslims. Modi’s political party is well-known for their desire to create a Hindu nation-state. Further, Modi himself is no stranger to claims of religious liberty transgressions. He was banned from entering the U.S. on religious freedom grounds for almost a decade following riots in 2002 in the Gujaret region that killed 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. The CAA is just one more instance where Modi’s policies of disenfranchising or marginalizing Muslims within India have been implemented. 

The right to worship and believe in accordance to conscience is one given to us by God. No state can compel faith, and no government has authority to stand before Christ on our behalf.

If the CAA is meant to be a protection of religious minorities, it would include Muslims. Noticeably absent from the list of countries are two neighboring countries of India which have a minority Muslim population: Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Further, in dealing with the violence that broke out after the law passed, Muslim villages and homes were often targeted by roaming mobs, with no protection offered by police. In fact, there is precedent for the Muslim citizens to lose their property because of the actions of others. A recent case before the Indian Supreme Court vacated a previous judgment and ruled that a Hindu temple could be built over the remains of a mosque after a mob destroyed it. Once again, Modi and his government sided with the Hindu nationalists, rather than the rights of all its citizens. 

Trampling the rights of conscience

Christians and other religious individuals in America enjoy the freedom of religion and the guarantee that the government won’t penalize someone for their faith. This is a right guaranteed by our constitution. It is also a right guaranteed by the Constitution of India. The CAA is but one salvo in the attack by those who seek to create a Hindu state. And while it may be an attack on Muslims at this time, the law could have just as easily excluded Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, or Christians. A state which can set a religious test on one group can do so on any other group. This is why Christians in India and throughout the world should recognize the right to conscience freedom for all individuals, no matter their religious beliefs. 

Within India, the law has been challenged in courts because opponents argue it is unconstitutional, and the heads of several Indian states have said they will refuse to enforce the law, creating a stand-off between state and federal governments. Opposition is not confined to India, though it has been strongest there because of the rioting and violence. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, have both expressed alarm at the law.

The world’s oldest democracy should remind the world’s largest democracy that the government does not have authority over the conscience of its citizens. Christians in America should follow the lead of USCIRF and Brownback and decry this law. A government cannot compel belief, and it should not impose a religious test because to do so will only prompt inauthentic belief and pseudo-faith. The CAA is a rejection of the vibrant pluralism that has been essential to Indian identity and a return to a time of religious preference for special classes of individuals and dehumanization for others.

Christians should stand up for the rights of religious minorities wherever they are found, whether it be Uyghur Muslims in China, Coptic Christians in Syria, or Muslims in India. The right to worship and believe in accordance to conscience is one given to us by God. No state can compel faith, and no government has authority to stand before Christ on our behalf. Therefore, evangelical Christians, especially as those who recognize the need for an uncoerced decision as essential to faith, should stand against any law which seeks to impose a religious belief or religious test. Christians must confront a government which seeks to insert itself into the most personal decision a person can make: how they will worship God. This is something no government, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian, has the right to do, and which people of all faiths must fight. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the Executive Assistant in the Office of the President at the ERLC. In his role, he assists with all logistical and operational needs for the Office of the President. He also assists with the oversight of the Research Institute under the leadership of the Director of … Read More