In its zeal to fulfil its majoritarian social agenda, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has displayed a tin ear when it comes to understanding the rights and aspirations of India’s multicultural citizenry. The contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed with astute floor management in the Upper House, may have enabled the party to tick off a key manifesto promise. And they may have bargained for protests in states with significant Muslim minorities such as Kerala, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, since the exclusionary nature of the legislation has been glaringly evident. If the raison d’etre for the CAA is religious persecution then Muslim sects in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan should have been included as well as those from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Nepal.
It is ironic that the Northeast is up in flames over the Act, since the first version of the Bill, which was introduced in January, was modified to account for the region’s reservations. Union Home Minister Amit Shah admits to expending many hours consulting with Northeastern leaders to include amendments that it thought would assuage regional fears about the CAA. The revised Bill, thus, excluded tribal areas and others that come under an older regulation in these six states. Perhaps the fact that the party won 17 out of 24 seats (in the region) in the last Lok Sabha elections gave Mr Shah the confidence that everyone was on the same page. But as with the National Register of Citizens
(NRC) exercise in Assam, the outcome of an accord signed in 1985, the BJP leadership has consistently confused ethnicity and religion in the Northeast. The region is averse to Bengali settlers irrespective of religion; the BJP’s agenda is focused on Bengali Muslims, which is why it has protested against the expectedly large number of Hindus who have been excluded in the NRC exercise. It is difficult to agree with the Northeastern protestors, but the fact is that these states entered the Indian union on assurances that their complex tribal and ethnic identities would be protected. Legal restrictions on land acquisition and residence similar to those that were scrapped in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) ensured that, apart from Assam, these tensions did not explode into paralysing political crises.
Six months into the party’s second term, therefore, it cannot be said that the BJP’s ideas for India have been constructive for the country. Scrapping Article 370 and converting J&K into Union Territories have not brought the region into the mainstream. Four months after the change in status, the region remains under lockdown. The Northeast has exploded in a manner that has not been seen since the days of the Assam students’ agitation of the 1980s, requiring the army to be called out and the Indo-Japan summit to be cancelled. No less worrying, relations have been soured with Bangladesh, one of India’s strongest allies that extends invaluable assistance in curbing Islamic terrorism. Suggesting that Hindus were persecuted in the country has caused the foreign and home ministers of that country to cancel visits. Mr Shah now says the CAA may be tweaked. It is hard to see how doing so will undo the divisive destruction the CAA has forced on the national discourse. If he is truly concerned about tempering the deleterious impact of this Act, he should scrap the nationwide NRC, which he says will follow. With the economy in a shambles, contestations of Indian identity is the last thing India can afford.