Nitish Kumar today said he was open to a debate on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in the Bihar assembly, signaling, for the first time, his reservations on the controversial law that his party Janata Dal (United) supported in parliament. On the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), Nitish Kumar said that there was "no question" of or need for implementing it in Bihar.
While Nitish Kumar had ruled out the NRC in his state earlier, this is the first time he emphasized it in the state assembly, making it official.
The Chief Minister broke his month-long silence on the CAA protests after Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)'s Tejashwi Yadav attacked the religion-based citizenship law in the special one-day session of the Bihar assembly called to ratify a quota measure.
"There should be a debate on CAA. If people want, then there will be a discussion in this house," the Chief Minister told the house.
"As for NRC, there is no question of the NRC. This was in the context of Assam and no need for it. Even Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) had clarified on this," he said.
He went on to clarify on the National Population Register or NPR, which has also been opposed by many non-BJP states that feel it is a precursor to the NRC. The NPR requires people to declare the "date and place of birth of both parents" for the first time; such data was not collected for the NPR in 2010.
After the NPR was notified in Bihar, Mr Kumar was accused by his critics of accepting the NRC to appease his ally BJP.
"I will ask for the details on the modified questions on which everyone is raising objections," Mr Kumar said on the NPR.
After his comments in the assembly, the Chief Minister told reporters later that states have a limited role in the implementation of the citizenship law.
Regardless, the comments mark a climb-down after the JDU in parliament supported the citizenship law, which has been at the core of nationwide protests by students, activists and political parties. His silence till now has been chalked up to alliance compulsions; sources say he sees better prospects for the JDU in alliance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP in the state election this year than with the RJD and Congress, which he dumped in 2017.
In his tricky balancing act, Mr Kumar has been nudged to spell out a clear stand more than once by his deputy in the party, poll strategist-turned-politician Prashant Kishor. On Sunday, Mr Kishore said he would "like to reassure to all -- CAA-NRC will not be implemented in Bihar."
Last year, a section of the JDU was openly upset at Mr Kumar's change of heart on the citizenship law after he criticized it at a party forum and in press conferences.
Prashant Kishor posted several tweets critical of his party boss and even offered his resignation. Another senior leader, Pawan Verma, also went public against the leadership.
The CAA says non-Muslims who fled religious persecution in Muslim-dominated neighbours Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh can become Indian citizens easily if they entered the country before 2015. It is the first law to make religion a criterion for citizenship. Critics fear the citizenship law, along with the NRC, will be used to target Muslims.
Several non-BJP states have refused to implement the NPR as they suspect it lays the groundwork for the NRC.
Another ally of the BJP, the Akali Dal, had earlier expressed reservation on the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. "Akali Dal wants Muslims to be included in the Citizenship Act. We have always talked about the welfare of people of all the religions, not just of the Sikhs," Akali Dal leader Sukhbir Badal had said in November.