By: Muhammad Omer Hayat
Initially supported by at least 560 MEPs from five of the largest groups in the 751-strong European Parliament, voting on a damning resolution against India’s contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was postponed on Wednesday till March in a move that many members criticised as a prime example of the European Union “capitulating and crumbling” in the face of pressure from India’s diplomatic lobby. In a biting speech during the debate in Brussels on Wednesday, Scott Ainslie of the European Free Alliance, popularly known as the Greens party, condemned the deferment of the vote saying he was “heartbroken” at the “appalling decision taken today”, which he said was the result of the EU prioritising “yet another trade summit with India over our commitment to protecting human rights”. “We’ve refused to take a stand on this Islamophobic policy which could drive 200 million Muslims, nearly half the EU’s population, towards statelessness, incarceration or deportation,” Ainslie said. The Greens’ MEP pointed out that all major groups in the EU Parliament, including the European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group in Europe with 184 elected members, had “co-signed” the resolution but “today have chosen to postpone the vote yet again”.
Four of the largest parties in the EU Parliament – EPP, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Renew Europe Group and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – were signatories to the joint resolution against India. But in yesterday’s debate, one parliamentarian each from three of these groups came out in open support of the CAA, going as far as terming the new law an example of “positive discrimination”. Nina Gill, an Indian-origin S&D parliamentarian from the United Kingdom, said: “This is an act of positive discrimination aimed at integration process of refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have already been in India for many years, recognising the high level of discrimination faced by non-Muslims in those countries. It is not seeking to exclude any of the other groups who do not fall within this category.” Welcoming the postponement of the vote, Gill said the resolution was full of factual inaccuracies. She regretted that her concerns about the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh had “fallen on deaf ears”. “Had this house paid a little bit of more attention to those gross violations as we do today to CAA, India may not have had to take these actions.” Gill said it was the correct decision to wait on the vote “until the Supreme Court has deliberated on this”.
Another British MEP of Indian origin, Dinesh Dhamija of the Renew Europe Group, echoed similar views in clear contradiction to his group’s stance on the resolution. “India takes in persecuted refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and they are the bad guys? They are the good guys; they’ve taken in the refugees. This motion does not censure any of the three Muslim countries for having created this refugee crisis,” he said.
Dhamija was of the view that the Rohingya migrating from Bangladesh to India should not be considered a religious minority since they were coming from a “majority Muslim state”, instead referring to them as “economic migrants”. Talking about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) proposed by India, Dhamija questioned: “Are we saying that India or any other country for that matter is not allowed to document the people living inside its boundaries?” He also said that the matter be considered subjudice as it was being looked into by the Indian Supreme Court. Phil Bennion, also from the Renew Europe Group, highlighted the NRC as linked to the CAA: “1.9 million people now have been excluded from the register on the basis of not having the documents. So India’s refugee policy needs to be applied to all of those in need, including Muslims.” Bennion pointed out that even Muslim minorities, such as Ahmedis, were persecuted in neighbouring countries which the new Indian law did not take into account. “Now there are Muslim sects in neighbouring countries that do face discrimination and one of them, the Ahmadiyyas has already been mentioned. Ultimately, this law discriminates on religious grounds and is therefore contrary to the whole principle in India of secularism.” In stark contrast to fellow S&D MEP Nina Gill, John Howarth lambasted the citizenship law as “highly discriminatory” and “Islamophobic”. “I find and many of the people I represent find the Indian citizenship act amendments alarming. This cannot be dressed up. This is a highly discriminatory piece of legislation which targets a specific religion.” Pointing out that the new legislation posed a threat to India’s secular nature, Howarth said it was clear that Muslims had been singled out in the new law.
“I think a message needs to be sent to the Indian government from the European Union because this is a government of Hindu nationalism. A populist government in the same mould we have seen elsewhere in the world. And the message needs to be very clear whether it’s Kashmir or the rights of citizens, respect for human rights is an essential element of the arrangements that this Union makes with other partners. And without that respect for human rights our relationship as a Union with India will come under serious threat.” British-Pakistani MEP Shaffaq Mohammed from the Renew Europe Group also expressed his disappointment with the Parliament: “Individuals in here from the top table downwards thought that business and trade interests were more important than human rights,” he said. In response to a question regarding the scale of the statelessness this new law may cause, Mohammed said that implementation of NRC had meant 1.9 million people in Assam alone could not prove they are Indian citizens. “What on earth are you going to do with all those people? Because there’s already detention camps set up. That’s why I say to you. Remember your history. In Nuremberg, that law was also passed, and that law was legal. Just because a law is passed in a parliament doesn’t mean it’s legal. Learn from our history. I am taking this home with me. I am going to hold this in my drawer. And like I said, God forbid if anything happens, those people that stopped this vote today I’ll be publicly naming them and saying these are the people that lead to this tragedy.”
Michael Gahler from the EPP – EU’s largest party in terms of seats in Parliament – said India was an important economic and political partner of the EU and that it was important to understand what was happening in the country before moving on to a vote. Following in the footsteps of S&D’s Nina Gill, Gahler also termed the amendments as “positive discrimination”, saying that it did not matter under the new citizenship law if the refugees were Muslims, Christians or of any other faith as long as they’ve lived in India.
“The amendment act itself establishes a 12-year deadline for those who have lived in the country — doesn’t matter whether they’re Muslims, Christians or of another faith but if they’ve lived in the country. So it’s a kind of a selective privilege, it’s a kind of positive discrimination introduced here. So one has to ask whether in this context criticisms can be levelled.” Gahler however did say that more clarity was needed insofar as the NRC was concerned as “there’s this fear that many citizens will not be able to prove they actually are allowed to be in India.” “Of course there needs to be clarity. Hopefully we can speak with representatives of the government in a fortnight at the next opportunity. And then we will also know what the judgment of the Supreme Court is.” Mistrust of the Indian government was also expressed by other members who stayed firm on the resolution such as Idoia Villanueva Ruiz from the GUE/NGL group. “President Modi, like Trump, like Bolsonaro, is in his second term coming up with measures that will exacerbate the conflict in Kashmir and we in Europe should be working alongside the thousands of Indians who are striking for their rights,” Ruiz said. The far-right Identity and Democracy Group (I&D), which was not a signatory to the joint resolution, presented a united front, speaking in favour of deferring the vote and “letting India deal with the issue using due democratic processes”. Thiery Mariani from the group asked the Parliament to see “the hand of Pakistan pulling the strings behind this campaign”, adding that India should be allowed to make its own decisions. “How would India interpret this vote? Imagine we had voted against this law. Then afterwards it would have been said that the Supreme Court was influenced by the EU?” Fellow I&D member Anna Bonfrisco supported Mariani’s stance, saying, “It’s not up to us to decide whether the law is constitutional or not. What the EU has to do is to make sure it avoids conflict with a country such as India.” The joint resolution asks for “the Indian Government to address the legitimate concerns raised over the NRC, which may be used to target marginalised groups”, “condemns the violence and brutality that broke out in different regions of India following the adoption of the CAA” and “condemns the decision of the Indian authorities to shut down internet access to global networks, preventing communication and the free flow of information”.
The tabling of this resolution is significant not only because voting on this issue has been postponed earlier but also because Wednesday’s session was the last for all members of the Parliament from Britain after the country formalised its exit from the Union at midnight yesterday. A number of these members had pushed for the resolution and played an active role in drafting it. Before a joint resolution was tabled on January 28, six separate resolutions on India’s citizenship law, each drafted by a different group in the EU Parliament, were submitted for debate and vote. The joint resolution came about after the anti-CAA groups reached an agreement and clubbed the five resolutions into one, which was first debated in Parliament on Wednesday. Voting on the joint resolution was expected to take place on Thursday (today) before it was postponed to March. Unlike some of the earlier resolutions, the joint resolution does not mention India’s annexation of occupied Kashmir and the human rights problems that have ensued in the disputed valley. After the debate, European Commission Vice President and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Helena Dalli said she had taken note of the various opinions expressed, adding that “we look forward to pursuing and intensifying our dialogue with India at the forthcoming summit on the whole range of issues of common interest including our mutual commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”