The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), has been debated up and down the country. In many parts of the North East, West Bengal and Delhi, people have protested the Act violently. Some legal challenges to the Act have been mounted in the Supreme Court, more are likely to follow. It is against this volatile background that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made some comments on Sunday while on the campaign trail in Jharkhand, which is likely to complicate matters further " he blamed the Congress for orchestrating protests across the country, after which he added: "People who are setting fire (to property) can be seen on TV... They can be identified by the clothes they are wearing." The prime minister did not qualify this remark.
Before we examine his observations, a bit of background to the CAA is essential. It does seem to appear, prima facie, that the Act violates Article 14 of the Constitution, the first substantive provision in Part III, which deals with Fundamental Rights. It says the 'State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India'. Any person. It will, of course, be for the Supreme Court to adjudicate on the merits of the Act and, willy-nilly, that will be the final word.
Matters will then move to the implementation phase when this piece of discriminatory legislation will get inextricably wound up with the preparation of the countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the Union government has threatened to institute. In states like Tripura, Meghalaya and West Bengal, the CAA will have to be rolled out first to protect Hindu immigrants/refugees who might be deprived of their citizenship by the NRC exercise, but that can of worms will take some time to open.
Given the violence unleashed by the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on 11 December and its enactment via presidential assent on 13 December, one expects that the Union government will move only after the violence has abated or been brought under control and the situation in the affected states returned somewhat to normal, with the dissipation of existing tensions.
In the meanwhile, one would have expected that the Union government and the party that runs it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would have played a constructive role in tamping down, rather than stoking, the fires that are still burning. Let's look, first, at what the Union government and ruling party have been saying about the Citizenship Amendment Bill before and after its passage through Parliament and subsequent enactment.
The person most closely associated with the Act has been BJP president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who piloted the Bill through Parliament. His pronouncements are most salient. Shah has argued that CAA is not anti-Muslim, as its critics have argued because it will have no effect on Indian Muslims, who are already citizens. This is disingenuous.
The CAA specifically excludes Muslim (and, unaccountably, Jewish) refugees from benefiting from the relaxations afforded to refugees fleeing persecution in three neighbouring states: as we know, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If the Act had not specified the religion of the refugees or the countries of origin, for instance, and offered fast-track citizenship to all persecuted refugees from neighbouring countries, it would have brought into its ambit Rohingyas from Myanmar, arguably the most persecuted people in the world today; liberal Muslims from Bangladesh, which at one point saw the murder of a number of dissentient bloggers, both Hindus and Muslims; and, Ahmadiyas, Shias, and other minority Muslim sects from Pakistan.
There can be little doubt, whatever the Supreme Court rules in respect of the Act, that it is not primarily a humanitarian legislative gesture. Alongside the abrogation of Article 370, it is primarily an attempt to mobilise and consolidate electoral constituencies, widely called vote-banks, behind the ruling party. In the case of Article 370, it was the hyper-nationalist (but not necessarily sectarian) constituency; in the case of the CAA, it is sections of the Hindu constituency, in both its sectarian avatar, that is, the committed followers of Hindutva, and those who are happy that 'persecuted' Hindus are being accommodated in India, but do not necessarily buy the BJP's core communal line.
While Shah insists that the government, in which he is now unquestionably the Number Two, has not been actuated by sectarian considerations, and is only correcting a historical wrong committed through the Partition of the country based on the two-nation theory that was accepted by the Congress (subtext: by Jawaharlal Nehru), the prime minister's comments in Dumka, Jharkhand, rather gives the game away.
What he said was that the Congress and its allies were fanning the protests, including arson, against the CAA because they didn't get their way (and here we were, under the impression that India was well on its way to becoming Congress-mukt). He then added that those who were perpetrating violence could be identified by the clothes they were wearing.
Obviously, the prime minister was not making an innocent sartorial observation. What he was trying to say was that the people who were protesting were Muslims and the clothes they were wearing revealed their religious status. Truth is, the protests in Assam were driven by Assamese chauvinists, mostly Hindu, and tribal groups in Meghalaya and Tripura. Given this, it appears the BJP is looking at the issue through a sectarian lens.
At a time, when violence is rocking swathes of the country and India's global stock as a liberal democracy is plummeting precisely on account of initiatives like the abrogation of Article 370 and the passage of the CAA, it would appear that conciliation would be the best way forward to contain violence and reassure those in need of reassurance, pending a determination by the Supreme Court on the constitutional validity of the Act.
What is certainly not needed are incendiary statements and irresponsible finger-pointing on the basis of no evidence.