Citizenship Amendment Bill is a bid to fashion an ethnic democracy

This week Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president and Union Home Minister, Amit Shah will effectively launch the campaign of his party for the 2024 general election. He will do so by introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Parliament. The Opposition is unlikely to have an effective counter-strategy and the six decade old Citizenship Act will be amended to the ideological will of the ruling dispensation.

The Modi government is fashioning something much more than an electoral strategy--- a system that is democratic but also majoritarian. It wants to dismantle multicultural democracy in India -- ironically, using democratic methods.

Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha first coined the term “ethnic democracy” to describe a system that combines majoritarian electoral procedures, respect for the rule of law and individual citizenship rights with the institutionalised dominance of a majority ethnic group.

The Modi government is doing in India precisely what the Jewish state does.

Is this a part of the Hindutva agenda? It would certainly seem so. Several markers of such a state are already there. It was always central to the political imagination of the BJP and its mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS). Many of its goals have been met at a pace that the RSS itself may not have envisaged.

From abrogating the provisions of Article 370 and removing Article 35A from the Constitution and firmly ‘integrating’ Jammu and Kashmir with India, criminalising “triple talaq” amongst Muslims and indicating a movement towards a Uniform Civil Code, to securing a favourable Supreme Court ruling for the construction of a grand Ram Temple at the disputed site at Ayodhya, the BJP has done what it had promised. The Modi government has even militarily ‘punished’ Pakistan for its trans-border terrorist activities. With this the ‘weakness’ of Hindu society, with which Hindutva ideologues had been historically obsessed, has been symbolically demolished.

The BJP’s quest for the next big polarising issue has led it to the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), one following the other. The NRC will be completed by 2024 just in time for the next general election.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah who once described illegal immigrants as termites, has now come to the conclusion, as a wag put it, that there are “good termites” and then there are “bad termites” eating away at India’s resources. Their classification depends on their religion.  

The justifications being offered for the CAB/NRC exercise may appeal to the majority – that Hindus or those whose religions originated in India (Indian ethnic religions) must have a homeland of their own just as various other religions have theirs; that immigrants are a drain on limited national resources or even that some immigrants (read, Muslims) are a national security threat. For all these reasons, it is argued, the issue of illegal immigrants must be sorted out once and for all.

The CAB seeks to offer fast-track citizenship by naturalisation to non-Muslims escaping persecution from India’s neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan). They would be granted citizenship within one to six years. Earlier the time limit was 11 years and one’s religion was irrelevant.

Politically, the resulting social instability and polarisation would be beneficial to only one party – the BJP | Photo: PTI
The CAB/NRC move raises constitutional, social and political questions. The Constitutional question relates to the CAB being ultra vires of the Indian Constitution. Constitutionally the Indian state cannot deny any person “equality before law” and “equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. Any discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is prohibited by Article 14. This applies equally to all residents and is not limited to citizens. Equality before law has been recognised as one of the basic features of the Indian Constitution.

The Modi government must know that its tinkering with citizenship law will be legally challenged. Its persistence therefore suggests that it is more interested in the social and political fallout of legislation process.

The immediate consequence of the CAB/NRC exercises will be to heighten social tensions. The Muslim community in India will be pushed to the wall with the government demanding documents which even the best of them may not be able to provide. Cleavages would emerge in society along religious lines akin to those during the partition of India. Anyone with a grudge against his Muslim neighbour can designate him an “infiltrator” or an illegal immigrant with the burden of proof being on the victim.

Politically, the resulting social instability and polarisation would be beneficial to only one party – the BJP. All those opposing CAB and NRC would be dubbed minority appeasers or those who indulge in vote bank politics. A trailer of these arguments is already being played out in the Jharkhand elections.

Home Minister Shah thus said in one of his rallies referring to the next general elections: “Rahul baba says, ‘Don’t expel them, where will they go, what will they eat?’ I want to ask him, are these immigrants his cousins? Let Rahul baba say whatever he wants to, I can assure you the BJP government led by Narendra Modi will implement NRC across India, and all infiltrators will be thrown out before we come to you to seek votes the next time.”

The signal to the public is that the state and the nation belong to the majority.

Smooha, however, has pointed to the basic contradiction of an ethnic democracy saying, “The founding rule of this regime is an inherent contradiction between two principles – civil and political rights for all and structural subordination of the minority to the majority.” This is precisely what the Modi government is doing, reducing democratic functioning to seeking Parliament’s approval for the CAB in order to establish an explicit constitutional inequality, preference and, therefore, dominance based on religion.

The minority Muslim community would be faced with proving its loyalty to a state in which it is neither numerically equal nor has safeguards. Political forces that never fought for India’s freedom would have hijacked it after its emergence as a society that rejected religious or ethnic nationalism and chose to be a multicultural, democratic, secular republic.


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