Lautenberg-Specter vs CAA: Why India’s ‘Transparent’ Citizenship Act Is A Right Move Unlike ‘Vague’ US’ Refuge Policies

India’s sharp rejection of the U.S. understanding of its Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is understandable. In fact, there is every reason for the U.S. to appreciate the new Indian law, given its remarkable similarity with its own Lautenberg Amendment in 1990 and the Specter Amendment of 2004.

However, that has not been done, with Washington saying that “it will closely monitor” the implementation of the CAA and its impact on “religious freedom” in India.

Of course, ever since the CAA was legislated in the Indian parliament, opponents have described it as discriminatory to Muslims and thus violating the country’s secular character, a “basic feature” of the Indian constitution. It has been projected as taking away Muslims’ citizenship in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has challenged the Act’s legality. With the Narendra Modi regime framing the necessary rules for implementing the CAA on March 11, the country’s highest court has decided to hear the petitioners’ grievances against it next week.

In essence, the CAA is seen as Anti-Muslim by the critics, and it seems the United States, prima facie, sees merits in such a perception, countless clarifications of the Indian government to the contrary notwithstanding.

On Thursday (March 14), State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said during his daily briefing with reporters, “We are concerned about the notification of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on March 11…. We are closely monitoring how this act will be implemented. Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law for all communities are fundamental democratic principles”.

Predictably, the spokesperson of the Indian Foreign Office retaliated strongly on March 15, saying that Miller’s remark was “misplaced, misinformed and unwarranted” and it amounted to “interference” in India’s internal matters. “The Citizenship Amendment Act is about giving citizenship, not about taking away citizenship. It addresses the issue of statelessness, provides human dignity, and supports human rights,” he pointed out.

What was more, the foreign office spokesperson went to the extent of questioning American wisdom. “Lectures by those who have a limited understanding of India’s pluralistic traditions and the region’s post-partition history are best not attempted,” he said, lamenting that “partners and well-wishers of India should (have) welcomed the intent in this step (CAA).”

Obviously, India did not expect the American reaction to the CAA to be like this, particularly when New Delhi and Washington are firmly committed to their otherwise deepening strategic relationship.

Dispassionately seen, the CAA is remarkably similar in background and nature to America’s Lautenberg and Specter Amendments. Let us see the CAA first.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) enables migrants/foreigners of six minority communities from three countries who have come to India because of religious persecution to apply for Indian citizenship. The three countries are Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and their six minority communities are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and Christians.

This Act is only for those who have suffered persecution for years and have no other shelter in the world except India. All told, Hindus, who constituted around 25 percent of the population of what was then west Pakistan (today’s Pakistan)  after the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947, have now been reduced to about 1 (one percent. And Hindus were about 27 percent in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) are now about 7 percent. Obviously, this decline is due to persistent persecution through forcible conversion, leading many of them fleeing to India illegally.

The same persecution was due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan (during its first regime in the late 1990s, the Taliban had even destroyed the world-famous statues of Lord Buddha in the country).

It is to be noted that the CAA talks of those persecuted minorities who have migrated from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, all of whose official religion happens to be Islam, into India up to 31.12.2014 on account of religious persecution.  And here, the CAA will only speed up or expedite their process of naturalization as Indian citizens by just five or six years, compared to other foreign applicants.

Unlike other foreigners, they are eligible to apply for citizenship after a total residency period of six (1+5) years in India. For other foreigners, this period is twelve (1+11) years. In addition, their application waives the requirement of providing passports or similar documents of the countries they have fled from—nothing more than that.

In other words, any foreigner, including Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, can apply for registration or naturalization as a citizen of India like any other foreigner if he or she fulfills the minimum qualifications laid down in The Citizenship Act of 1955.

Under this, India had offered citizenship and resettlement to 461,639 persons of Tamil – origin from Sri Lanka (under agreements in 1964 and 1974), 208,959 persons from Myanmar, erstwhile Burma (1963 onward), and 2,775 persons from Uganda (after a coup in the 1970s).

Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan can always avail of the present legal process of acquiring Indian citizenship by any foreigner of any category through naturalization or through Registration of the 1955 Citizenship Act, which remains operational.

The CAA does not amend or alter it in any manner whatsoever. During the last six years, approximately 2830 Pakistani citizens, 912 Afghani citizens, and 172 Bangladeshi citizens have been given Indian citizenship.

In 2014, after the settlement of Indo-Bangladesh boundary issues, 14,864 Bangladeshi citizens were given Indian Citizenship when their enclaves were incorporated into the territory of India. Thousands of these foreigners were Muslims. We have the case of famous singer Adnan Sami, who gave up his Pakistani citizenship and acquired Indian citizenship in 2016.

It is against this background that we may now see similar American laws. In 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment established a reduced evidentiary burden for applications for refugee status from certain categories of people, including Jews and some Christian minorities from the former Soviet Union, as well as some individuals from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

It said that a refugee applicant can qualify for refugee status by demonstrating, among others, his or her “inability to study or practice religious beliefs or ethnic heritage” or “denial of access to educational, vocational or technical institutions for which he or she is otherwise qualified” or “adverse treatment in the workplace stemming from prejudicial attitudes toward members of his or her standard profile.”

Modi with Biden
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden

In 2004, the Specter Amendment added certain Iranian religious minorities who face increasing discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment – Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Baha’is, Sabaean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. Now, it is known as the Lautenberg-Specter Amendment. The 2004 Amendment had to be brought because the Lautenberg Amendment has to be extended every year by the U.S. Congress, and that has been done ever since 1989 through legislation each fiscal year by September with broad bipartisan support.

To put it differently, the Lautenberg-Specter Amendment liberalizes the process of obtaining refugee status in the United States by easing the burden of proof and permitting the fast-track processing of applicants from countries like Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

India’s CAA exactly reflects the same spirit. As has been noted above, it liberalizes the naturalization process of the persecuted minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and fast-tracks their application by a few years.

Some over-smart critics, of course, could argue that, unlike India, the U.S. does only provide refugee status, not citizenship. The point here is the spirit, not exactly the content, though it is also a fact that after residing for five years as refugees in the U.S., people can apply for American citizenship, and their children can derive U.S. citizenship immediately once the parent refugee gets citizenship. This means that they do not need to go through the formal naturalization process, something akin to the persecuted religious minorities under the CAA in India.

Therefore, if the Lautenberg-Specter Amendment is not discriminatory, then how is the CAA, unless some countries believe in double standards?

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: