Need a more mature response to citizenship protests

The big question as the New Year dawned was whether the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis, raising questions about some fundamentals of the Indian Union. Police brutality against critics is no reason for not hailing the CAA as an act of humanity of which Mahatma Gandhi, B R Ambedkar and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad — three persons the protesters invoke — would surely have been proud. But as pressures mount, Narendra Modi should think of a more mature response than tweeting a complimentary certificate from a supposedly holy man he may revere but of whom many others, including this writer, had never heard.


Two weeks ago, this column testified to an inability to understand why all those frenzied people who keep passionate vigil and chant high-pitched slogans were up in arms. One only guesses from their emotional outpourings that they fear the National Register of Citizens (NRC), National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), National Population Register (NPR) and the CAA will be manipulated somehow to deprive 200 million Indian Muslims of their birthright to make room for vast numbers of foreign Hindus, presumably meaning the 17 million in Bangladesh. This is carrying conspiracy theory to absurd lengths, especially since no Central leader is so enamoured of East Bengal’s fisherfolk and boatmen. Nevertheless, even Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias waded into the fray with the jejune claim that citizenship should never be based on religion. “The time of Christmas is a time for peace, justice and unity,” he declared. It’s also a time for Christian charity and compassion for the unfortunate minority community in Pakistan and Bangladesh.


The latest challenge to the Centre’s authority is the Kerala Assembly resolution demanding that Parliament withdraw the CAA. Eleven states had already announced their refusal to implement the NRC. Two states — Kerala and West Bengal — have reportedly even stopped work on the NPR without which there can be no NRC, leave alone an NRIC. Of course, these are not legally state subjects. But how does the Centre intend to cope with the inevitable constitutional gridlock? The Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive Lok Sabha majority can take it only so far. Parliament can pass laws like the CAA but execution and implementation rest with state administrations. In this instance, not only are the governments of certain states refusing to cooperate but as the protests unfortunately prove, they can claim a huge reservoir of support from misguided people who don’t understand that the CAA is not anti-secular.


Far from denying secularism, it goes some way in affirming the secularism whose denial led to partition. Including Muslims in the CAA would subvert the basis of partition. Also, being neither militant nor proselytising like Islam or Roman Catholicism, Indian secularism seeks no converts. It suffices if the state avoids displaying religious bias, doesn’t demand majoritarian privileges, and if all the country’s religions co-exist peacefully. Pakistan and Bangladesh are none of India’s business. But Hindus there are because as the successor state of the Raj, post-independence India has a moral obligation towards people who were Indians until the subcontinent’s division on religious lines made them virtual aliens in the land of their birth.


True enough, central ministers have been less than candid about the NRC, NRIC and NPR, encouraging suspicion about their motives. But that doesn’t affect the CAA’s validity. Objecting to fast track citizenship for victims of persecution because they are Hindus is tantamount to opposing any relief to them precisely because they are Hindus. It’s difficult to believe Indians can be so mean. Since the CAA is likely to apply mainly to Bangladeshi Hindus, West Bengal’s response is crucial. Objectors probably fear the financial and other costs of another refugee influx. West Bengal has always resented East Bengalis who may be politically useful but whose accents are ridiculed and lifestyle mocked. The word “colony” has become a derogatory term because poorer refugees live in colonies.


The problem is of the Centre’s own making. It should have taken the people into confidence and built up a consensus in a worthy cause. Instead, with the country against him, will Mr Modi use Article 356 against recalcitrant states such asWest Bengal and Kerala? Or will he send the Central Reserve Police Force or even the army? Neither may amount to civil war such as the Americans faced in 1861 or the Pakistanis 110 years later, but both signify a breakdown of communications which are essential for a harmonious consensual federation. Jaggi Vasudev, also known as “Sadhguru”, may be Mr Modi’s guru but is hardly a credible instrument to restore federal confidence.       


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