Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

Varshney gives testimony at USCIRF Hearing on Citizenship Laws and Religious Freedom

March 5, 2020

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing about how citizenship laws are leveraged to deny religious minorities the legal protections of citizenship, making them vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, and mass atrocities.

The recognition of an individual’s citizenship is the bedrock for all accompanying political and civil rights, “the right to have rights.” In recognition of the importance of citizenship, the 1961 United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness argues that an individual may not be deprived of one’s nationality on “racial, ethnic, religious, or political grounds” or if this “would render him stateless.”

With widespread protests in recent months in India in response to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and a proposed National Register of Citizens, however, citizenship laws as a tool to target religious minorities is receiving much needed international attention. This phenomenon has a long-standing precedent with such measures as the 1982 Citizenship Law in Burma stripping the Rohingya of their rights as citizens. Without citizenship rights, minority communities are left to face further persecution and violence by both governments and non-state actors. In particular, government efforts to strip religious minorities of their citizenship can be a key predictor of mass atrocities.

Witnesses discussed how citizenship laws are used to target religious minorities, particularly in Burma and India, and will highlight the importance of the atrocity prevention framework for understanding the potential consequences of these laws.

Varshney's testimony focused on two questions: 1) does India's recent citizenship amendment act target the nation's muslim minorirty? 2) If so, in what ways?

Additionally, Varshney responded to the following questions from the Commissioners:

Citizenship laws have been used for quite some time but do we see an increse in the use of these citizenship laws to render individuals and groups stateless, and if so, why do we see this increase?

What recommendations do you have for actions the US government could take to incentivize and/or penalize these governments?

In these countries where they are targeting a particular religion or group of people, they're trying to marginalize, deport or exclude them - even if that doesn't happen and their citizenship is somewhow protected, do you think that will solve the problem?

What has the role of the judiciary and the legal system been in facilitating some of the processes were seeing in both Burma and India?