The hearing held inside Congress was called by the US Commission on International Freedom, and also focussed on Myanmar's refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya as well as Bahrain's stripping of citizenship from activists of the Shia majority.

Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Naomi Kikoler (R) speaks during a hearing of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020
Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Naomi Kikoler (R) speaks during a hearing of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020 (AFP)

Experts warned a US government panel on Wednesday that India's Muslims face risks of expulsion or other persecution under a citizenship law that has triggered major protests.

The hearing held inside Congress was called by the US Commission on International Freedom, which has been denounced by the Indian government as biased.

Ashutosh Varshney, a prominent scholar of sectarian violence in India, told the panel that the law championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists amounted to a move to narrow the democracy's historically inclusive and secular definition of citizenship.

"The threat is serious, and the implications quite horrendous," said Varshney, a professor at Brown University.

"Something deeply injurious to the Muslim minority can happen once their citizenship rights are taken away," he said.

Varshney warned that the law could ultimately lead to expulsion or detention – but, even if not, contributes to marginalisation.

"It creates an enabling atmosphere for violence once you say that a particular community is not fully Indian or its Indianness in grave doubt," he said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government introduced in December the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA that provides a path to Indian citizenship for six religious groups from neighbouring countries, but not Muslims.

Critics say the law is discriminatory and undermined India's secular constitution. 

Responding to criticism at the time from the US commission, which advises but does not set policy, India's foreign ministry said the law does not strip anyone's citizenship and "should be welcomed, not criticised, by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom."

Fears are particularly acute in the northeastern state of Assam, where a citizens' register finalised last year left 1.9 million people, many of them Muslims, facing possible statelessness.

Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer from Assam who traveled to Washington for the hearing, said that many Indians lacked birth certificates or other documentation to prove citizenship and were only seeking "a dignified life."

The hearing did not exclusively focus on India, with commissioners and witnesses voicing grave concern over Myanmar's refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, the mostly Muslim minority that has faced widespread violence.

Gayle Manchin, the vice chair of the commission, also voiced concern over Bahrain's stripping of citizenship from activists of the Shia majority as well as a new digital ID system in Kenya that she said risks excluding minorities.

More than 40 people were killed during riots in New Delhi last week.

India on Tuesday lodged another protest after the UN human rights chief, Michele Bachelet, sought to join a lawsuit in India that challenges the citizenship law's constitutionality.

Source: AFP