The European Parliament’s brief affair with India’s Citizenship Amendment Act

, by Niklas Götz, Radha Malkar

The European Parliament's brief affair with India's Citizenship Amendment Act
Anti-CAA protestors in New Dehli. Source: DiplomatTesterMan (via Wikimedia Commons).

Since 2004, India, the world’s biggest democracy, has profoundly deepened its bilateral relations with the EU via the EU-India Strategic Partnership. In the last year, the role of the European Parliament (EP) within this partnership has gained new relevance. On 29 January 2020, the EP proposed a resolution that criticized multiple actions of the current government of India, the most important of which were the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the lockdown of the disputed territory of Kashmir. It presents an interesting example of the EP acting through foreign policy to uphold the values of the EU.

In December 2019, the Indian parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which entitles Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians facing religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to an easier path to Indian citizenship. It aims to benefit immigrants who arrived in India before 31st December 2014 by enabling them to apply for citizenship after a shorter period of residence than before.

Since its passage, the CAA has met with repeated protests of various kinds throughout the country. In some of the north eastern states, the protests are against migration from Bangladesh, which might burden these states’ already limited resources and threaten their language and cultural systems. The second and more widespread reason for protests is the specific exclusion of Muslims. Another point of contention is the NRC (National Registry of Citizens), which was introduced in the state of Assam to identify and eliminate illegal immigrants. If the NRC were introduced nation-wide, the CAA would make it easier for non- Muslim immigrants to apply for citizenship.

Protestors have argued that this bill is discriminatory in nature and against the ethos of the Constitution of India, as it links citizenship with religion for the first time in the secular country’s history. But the Indian government states that the goal of the bill is to protect persecuted groups from the three Muslim dominant countries.

The European Parliament’s reaction

On 22 January 2020, five of the EP’s major groups - the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), European People’s Party (EPP), European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), The European Free Alliance Greens (Verts/ALE) and Renew - each proposed a non-binding resolution on the CAA. On 28 January, said groups, representing 626 of 751 MEPs, combined their motions and proposed a joint resolution to be passed by the EP. This resolution condemned the CAA as “discriminatory in nature and dangerously divisive”, and expressed fear about the “large-scale statelessness crisis” it might create. It further pointed out that India also shared borders with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, and yet the CAA did not mention the Sri Lankan Tamils, who form the largest refugee group in India, and the other persecuted Muslim minorities like the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ahmadis in Pakistan, Hazaras in Afghanistan and Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh. No less importantly, it mentioned the shutting down of the Internet in many places, including Kashmir, and the brutal crackdown by the security forces against protestors which killed at least 25, injured more than 160 and resulted in thousands being arrested. [1]

The joint resolution drew attention to the Strategic Partnership between the EU and India, based on the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and respect of human rights, and calls on the Indian government to cooperate with the procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. The goal of protecting persecuted groups, it argued, should be holistic and apply to all those in need, regardless of their origin or religion.

The EP intended to vote on this resolution on 30 January 2020. Instead, just one day before, a vote approved the decision to defer the voting on the resolution until after the visit by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 13 March for the 15th EU-India summit.

The reason given for this by EPP member Michael Gahler, is that the implementation of the CAA is still unclear and might be “rather a selective privileging” which ought to be discussed among the Member States. This opinion was shared by Helena Dalli, on behalf of the High Representative, who pointed out that India and the EU shared common values and a strong partnership. The question of the CAA would be, according to her, one for the Supreme Court of India to sort out. During the debate that followed, several members of the groups who had supported the resolution changed their minds about an immediate vote on it, arguing that it was necessary to talk with the Indian government, so as to avoid disrespecting the sovereignty of India. A spokesperson for the S&D argued that, since “the Supreme Court in India will rule in the coming days” and, "as such, the law may be adapted, it was considered better to vote on the resolution in the European Parliament when there is full clarity of the situation.” MEPs who agreed to the delay also said that it would give them more time to study the details. The delay, however, was objected to by groups like GUE/NGL.

Even before the voting, various EU institutions distanced themselves from the resolution. At first, the EU delegation in India pointed out that it was only a draft. Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EU spokesperson, pointed out that the EP’s opinion did not reflect that of the EU itself. Similarly, French diplomatic sources maintained that “for France, a founding member of the European Union, the Citizenship Amendment Act is India’s internal political matter. We have stated this on several occasions. The European Parliament is an institution independent of Member States and the European Commission.”

India’s diplomatic efforts

The Indian government sources described the deferment as a “diplomatic victory for India”. They added that “the CAA is an internal matter for the country and it has been adopted through due process and democratic means”. Some reports have also speculated that the Indian government’s lobbying efforts with MEPs may also have been a factor. It was observed by Mirza Sahib Beg, a London-based Kashmiri lawyer, that the idea to defer the vote was brought up by the EPP, a centre-right party. “So one could wonder”, he says, “how much of an influence Modi’s outreach to right-wing political groups outside of India has played a role in it.” An argument of a possible diplomatic influence of the Indian government on MEPs is also supported by some events in 2019.

In August 2019, the Indian government abolished the special status granted to the state of Jammu & Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan. Parts of the state were put under a strict lockdown by the Indian military forces and communication to and from outside the state was almost completely stopped. A September 2019 EP draft resolution condemned the unilateral changes made to the status of Kashmir by India, as this could lead to a further escalation of the conflict. Additionally, former High Representative Federica Mogherini warned on “restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

Then, in October 2019, a think tank called the International Institute for Non-aligned Studies (IINS), whose credibility has remained a mystery, organised and financed a visit to the city of Srinagar and a meeting with the India’s Prime Minister. This was the first visit of an international delegation since shutdown, even when Indian journalists were stopped. 22 out of the 27 parliamentarians were from far-right parties, including the UK’s Brexit Party, France’s National Rally and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. The MEPs stated that they would take the impressions back home in case of a debate on the resolution. The visit was officially of private nature, without involvement of any EU institution. Chris Davis of the UK Liberal Democrats stated that his invitation was withdrawn because he insisted on moving around freely without being accompanied by the forces.

The debate about the EP’s resolution is not just important for EU-India relations, but also sheds light on the difficult role played by the EP amongst the EU institutions. Although foreign policy is not one of its primary competences, and any resolution of the parliament on this topic would be non-binding, even the drafts of the resolutions alone had a great diplomatic impact. And despite the fact that neither the Commission nor the Member States supported the Parliament’s decision, the latter’s judgement carried a lot of weight in Indian media, with many comparing its relevance to that of the Indian parliament. On the one hand, the EP lacks the inter-governmental channels of communication of the European Commission; yet on the other hand, it can the act more independently of the individual diplomatic and economic ties of the member states, and enforce the values of the EU even in foreign policy.

Although it is not immune to the direct diplomatic influences of other countries, as evidenced by the visit to Kashmir, a strong role for the EP strengthens the perception of the EU as one entity, even while demonstrating the diversity of policies in Europe.

[1] These figures are mentioned in the resolution. But according to the Human Rights Watch report “Shoot the Traitors”, they may be considerably higher.

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