External Affairs

In Washington, Jaishankar Shares India's Take on CAA With US Lawmakers

The US administration has not made any direct criticism of the Act, but has urged India to protect the rights of its religious minorities.

New Delhi: External affairs minister S. Jaishankar shared the Indian government’s point of view on the Citizenship Amendment Act with US lawmakers, even as the US administration indicated that they would keep an eye but remain in the background, while the judicial review process and internal debate over the legislation is underway.

After the second India-US ‘2+2’ dialogue, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had said that US “cares deeply and always about protecting minorities and religious rights everywhere”. “We honour Indian democracy as they have a robust debate on the issue that u raise. US will be consistent in the way we respond to this issue, not only in India, but all over the world,” Pomepo said in answer to a question at the press interaction.

Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh had travelled to Washington meet with their counterparts, Secretary of State Pompeo and US Defence secretary Mark Esper respectively.

Later in New Delhi on Thursday, Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that the Act was not discussed in the formal ‘2+2’ dialogue. “As I mentioned, that 2+2 dialogue is a review of crosscutting issue of foreign policy, security and defence. This issue being an internal matter was not discussed per se in the meeting,” he told reporters.

He, however, stated that the matter did come up when Jaishankar met with the senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “External affairs minister Jaishankar shared India’s perspective on Citizenship Amendment Act with the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among discussions on other matters of bilateral cooperation,” he said.

Jaishankar also met with the key people in the House Foreign relations committee (HFAC), including Democrat representative Brad Sherman and Indian-American lawmaker Ami Bera.

Earlier, during the press interaction, Jaishankar was also asked a question about why India had kept out persecuted Muslims from three neighbouring states from getting citizenship through the new legislation.

“…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 what those countries are and therefore what their minorities are, perhaps you understand why certain religions were identified in terms of characterising those who had come across,” Jaishankar said.

After the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, HFAC had tweeted, “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet.”

The House panel’s sub-committee had held a hearing in October, chaired by Sherman, which had pilloried India for its restrictions on communications and movement in Kashmir, as well as, the National Register of Citizens process in Assam. 

It was during that hearing that Sherman, who is also co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus, had raised the Citizenship Amendment Act. He had asked the US state department official at the hearing whether the bill was a “serious legislative proposal or a just a crackpot idea going nowhere”. Sherman had also asked whether US had condemned the bill, to which the official had replied that they were “doing it right here”.

On Friday, the state department held a background briefing for reporters, where a senior state department official said that international religious freedom was a “core issue for this administration and for this secretary”.

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Referring to Pompeo’s statement, she stated that Washington respected the process in “democratic India” where political parties can hold protests, legislation can be reviewed by court and debated in media. “There is a debate going on in India over this very legislation. It’s 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”.

When asked whether US thought that India under Modi government was going in the wrong direction, the senior state department official answered by first pointing to the free and fair elections. “And there may be individual policies that are going to evoke concern. We will express our concern, we engage with the Indian government regularly on the full spectrum of issues. But you can’t ignore that these are not policies that are being done in the dark, and so we have to respect that debate, and as well as add our voice to it when appropriate,” she added.

The US official also reiterated that it had previously discussed Washington’s concern “over what the roadmap is in Kashmir to a return to economic and political normalcy, and what has concerned us about the actions in Kashmir are the prolonged detentions of political leaders as well as other residents of the valley, in addition to the restrictions that continue to exist on cell phone coverage and internet”.

However, she made it clear that US had not given any ultimatum to India for restoration of these disrupted services. “This is not a relationship where we deal in ultimatums. Again, I think this is a country, a democracy where these policies are being voted on, they’re being debated, they’re being reviewed by a judiciary, and so I would not use that terminology,” added the senior US diplomat.

On 10 December, US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had proposed that the “United States government should consider sanctions against the Union home minister and other principal leadership” if the bill was passed by the Indian parliament.

The US administration has not made any direct criticism of the Act, but has urged India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values. The US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback had expressed concern about the implications of CAA in a tweet dated December 14.

Brownback’s remarks was also endorsed by the US administration official on Thursday in Washington. “Well, I think as Ambassador Brownback has already commented, we have concerns about religious criteria, but again, this is a piece of legislation now, an act, that is continuing to be reviewed within the Indian system,” she said.