It is disingenuous for those who oppose it to profess surprise because it was part of the agenda on which the BJP got elected
Much ink has been spilt on the government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed by both houses of Parliament, approved by the President, and set to become law. Unfortunately, with extreme positions staked out by defenders and critics, much of the discussion has generated more heat than light.
First, and for the record, let me be clear that I am no particular fan of the CAB, nor of the idea of citizenship rights being granted on the basis of religion—or, in this case, persecution on grounds of religion in India’s neighbourhood. Nor am I enthralled by the idea of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to follow on, the combination of which may have the effect of disenfranchising some members of India’s Muslim minority. On the CAB, in particular, it would have been fairer to have included those fleeing religious persecution on the basis of any religion, including Islam, or, indeed, of no religion at all.
Second, it is clear that there should have been greater preparedness of the government in dealing with the expected protests in the North-East of the country. These unfolding protests augur ill for the region, and open the unenviable possibility of the region slipping back into endemic violence and lawlessness. The government has, thus far, applied a relatively light touch in taking on the protesters, and this is, in my judgement, correct. What must be avoided is a brute and heavy-handed response by authorities to the expected consternation in this complex and remote region.
Having offered these caveats, it is necessary to point out the rather obvious fact missed in much of the criticism—that the CAB has been put forward in the context of a democratically elected government’s normal legislative agenda, and, what is more, that the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had signalled its intentions by including the CAB in its manifesto; indeed, there was discussion of this since soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014.
Modi and the BJP’s thundering re-election victory this past summer can only be interpreted as a broad endorsement by the electorate of the various planks of their agenda—political, social and economic, among others. That is the nature of parliamentary democracy. Once a government is elected, one should expect it to act on the promises made while campaigning. And, as long as these are consistent with the basic law of the land, in this case India’s Constitution, the only legitimate recourse available to those dissatisfied is at the ballot box at the next opportunity.
There has been a fair amount of cant and hypocrisy on all sides of the CAB debate, not excluding its vociferous detractors. It is noteworthy that the opposition to the bill from assorted Opposition parties has been rather weak and incoherent, to put it mildly. Indeed, and ironically, the most spirited opposition has come from those clearly representing a sectarian, minority perspective and not those who purport to speak for India’s secular traditions.
There is also considerable misunderstanding of the roots of the protests in the North-East. Protesters there are not rallying for the Nehruvian concept of secularism embedded in the Constitution, but rather for a regional chauvinism which would exclude all outsiders of any religion. To put it bluntly, many do not welcome the legitimization of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, as it would unsettle an established social order in that region. That may be true, and perhaps it may even be defensible, but let us not pretend that it represents anyone taking up the cudgels on behalf of Nehruvian ideals.
In terms of the BJP’s ideological moorings, the CAB represents an important piece of the puzzle. Hindutva ideology views India as the natural home of the world’s Hindus, perhaps much as Zionist ideology views Israel as the natural home of the world’s Jews. In both cases, there is a certain justice to the claim. Modi and the BJP have been consistent that this is their view, and it is disingenuous today for those who oppose this ideology to express surprise, shock, or consternation that it is being implemented. The fact that they put their larger cultural agenda on the back-burner during their first term in office should never have been interpreted as a signal that this was going to be a permanent state of affairs.
Opposition to the CAB remains weak and confused, in contrast with Modi and the BJP’s certainty—whether justified or not—that they are doing the right thing and keeping their promises. In particular, the complaint that the CAB makes India “look bad" or unsettles relations with its neighbours is a red herring, at best, and mischievous, at worst. A government’s domestic legislative agenda is, or should be, based on its assessment of national priorities, and in keeping with its ideology and election promises, so long as these are consistent with the Constitution. The fact that one or the other foreign leader cancels a visit, or that the country gets bad press in the international media should not be the basis for deciding national policy. Indeed, it reveals the intellectual weakness and incoherence of criticisms made on this basis.
There is no question that, under Modi, India is changing course. Critics who oppose this change need to convince Indian voters, not editors in London or New York.