NEW DELHI: The United States House of Representatives held a public hearing on October 22 on human rights in south Asia, whose first part saw congresspersons question their government on its position and policies in the region.

The hearing in front of a packed hall was chaired by Bradley Sherman, a Democrat congressman from California. The government’s Department of State was represented by Robert Destro, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, and by Alice Wells who was appointed acting assistant secretary for south and central Asia in 2017.

In response to tough questioning about the discriminatory character of the National Register of Citizens, which the Supreme Court has allowed to proceed apace without having decided on its constitutionality, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill pending in Parliament, Destro affirmed that the US government condemns “the concept of denying someone’s legal rights and obligations based on their religion”.

Excerpts from the hearing:

DESTRO: In Assam, we are concerned about the government of India’s final draft of the updated National Register of Citizens, which puts 1.9 million people in Assam at risk of becoming stateless.

Although there is an appeals process, we are concerned that poor and illiterate populations who lack documentation will be at a disadvantage. It is also unclear how the appeals process will be able to proceed in the allotted time frame.

We are closely following this situation and urge the Government of India to take these issues into consideration...

SHERMAN: I’m concerned about the India citizen registry. Most of the 1.9 million are presumed to be Muslims. I’m told there is a bill pending in the parliament that says if you don’t have documents and you’re not a Muslim, they’ll just put you on the registry anyway…

Are we genuinely concerned that India will de jure (and I also fear de facto) have a difference in its documentation requirements based on the religious confession of the person?

DESTRO: There is a bill that gives a presumption to certain religious groups and leaves Muslims out. The burden rests on the person seeking citizenship to prove they’re entitled to it.

SHERMAN: So the burden of proof is on the Muslims but not anyone else.

DESTRO: Yes that’s right.

SHERMAN: Is this a serious legislative proposal or just a crackpot idea that’s not going anywhere?

DESTRO: My understanding is it’s a serious legislative proposal, but thankfully it’s not gone through the Upper House—

SHERMAN: Have we condemned the concept of denying someone’s legal rights and obligations based on their religion?

DESTRO: Well we’re doing it right here, where we have the ability to do it! (Applause)

ILHAN OMAR, Democrat from Minnesota: Our partnership with India is strategic, but also based on our shared values of democracy, religious pluralism and the respect of human rights. Under Modi and the BJP government all these mutual values have been threatened. I think we have to understand the situation in Kashmir as an overall Hindu nationalist project of the BJP…

Part of the reason I emphasise the larger context of the BJP project is because I think the situation in Assam is as bad if not worse. I think in both cases the impunity we have seen for crimes against Muslims under the BJP was warning for much worse things to come.

In Assam almost 2 million people are being asked to formally prove their citizenship… There’ve been official statements to the effect that no Buddhist, Christian, Sikh or Jain refugees need to worry about their status, so this is clearly an anti-Muslim program.

I’m sure you’ve seen the reports that the Indian government is starting to build camps in Assam to hold those who are unable to prove their citizenship. This is how the Rohingya genocide started. At what point do we no longer share values with India? Are we waiting for Muslims to be put in those camps in Assam?

WELLS: The registry of citizenship in Assam dates to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the government to do so to address questions of illegal immigration. The process which continues to unfold, and continues to be challenged in the courts, has 1.9 million people who have not been certified. That includes both Muslims and Hindus.

There are 300 appeals panels being set up. We are concerned that many individuals who may not have the wealth or education to successfully document their citizenship are vulnerable.

We are continuing to watch this very closely, but I would stress that the appeal process is still open, the judicial process is still working in India… Obviously there is international attention focused on this national citizen registration.

OMAR: Well, processes of legalities can take place under the justification of security and the such. That there are public statements from officials of having only Muslims prove their citizenship should be extremely alarming, and the excuse that we don’t police other democracies should not be acceptable to this committee, or to the American people. We raise our voice in many situations, and this should not be an exception. (Sustained applause)

SHERMAN: I join with you in the belief that a human rights abuse does not cease to be a human rights abuse just because it’s done pursuant to the law or court rulings of the country committing the abuse. It’s not whether it’s consistent with Indian law, but with international human rights.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL, Democrat from Washington: I raised this with the PM myself when I met with him two years ago, explicitly saying I am deeply concerned about the religious intolerance, and the ways in which Indian democracy is being subverted, for example through these detentions [in Kashmir] and through what you mention in Assam. I hope we will raise it to the highest level and use every tool we possibly can, and I hope to raise a bipartisan resolution on that. (Sustained applause)

TED YOHO, Republican from Florida: …in India, what religions are being treated fairly, and which ones are being treated unfairly?…

DESTRO: It depends on where you look. We do know that most religious groups are treated fairly within the country, but as we now see, there’s pressure from within the Indian parliament to make special rules that basically apply only to Muslims.

We’re calling them out on that particular point, if only to apply their own law. India’s constitution provides that it has a secular government, and that there’s no religious test to being a citizen. We'd like to see that continue.

YOHO: What about the Christians and Sikhs?

DESTRO: Well, once again, you have to distinguish between what’s the government doing and what are bad actors on the ground doing?

YOHO: I want to talk about that, the bad actors on the ground. Ms Wells brought up the non-state actors, and I think this is something all nations need to be concerned with. We cannot afford non-state actors being radical, terrorists —I don’t care what sect, religion, nationality— no civilised country can tolerate that…

DAVID TRONE, Democrat from Maryland: To what extent, in your judgment, is [the communication blackout in Kashmir] motivated by genuine national security concerns on the part of the Indian government?

And to what extent is this really politics, a desire on the part of the Modi government to stoke religious division, not just in Kashmir, but as we’ve seen in other parts of India, for political purposes?

DESTRO: Well I can’t speak directly as to their motivation. All we can do is go by what the Indian government is doing. And so in terms of this new census they’re taking, that seems like a pretty bald attempt, as a lever to split the society.

Now why anybody would do that, I don’t understand. If you have a big democracy you want a nice, cohesive, loyal group of people. So the more you exclude people from the process, the more difficult your long term prospects as a democracy are… It’s these kinds of things that endanger the world’s largest democracy.

Transcribed from the video available here.