This Article is From Dec 12, 2019

In Defense Of CAB, Amit Shah Can't Say What He Really Wants

Now that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has passed the Rajya Sabha, let's step back for a moment and consider the extraordinary achievements that Narendra Modi's government can point to in the first months of its second term in office. Article 370 has been revoked, and Kashmir is now in a semi-permanent state of lockdown - success. The Ayodhya verdict is in and the courts unsurprisingly made the "right" choice - success. And now the CAB/NRC triad has been handed to the state authorities as a method of cleansing the Indian state of the imagined threat of mass Muslim immigration - success. Sure, growth might have collapsed to under five per cent, but who cares about growth when you are building the Hindu Rashtra?

The debate in the Rajya Sabha made for disquieting watching. It is interesting that so many of these new developments - so much more radical than in Modi's first term - are being stewarded by the Home Minister. It was Amit Shah who rose eloquently to the defence of the CAB in the Rajya Sabha today - at least most of the time, excluding the period when the feed was inexplicably cut just as the opposition managed to get its act together to protest him.


Tens of thousands of people against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill descended on the streets of Assam

The problem with Shah was not that his arguments had holes, though they did. The problem is that his heart was not in it. The defence of the law's "reasonable" nature and his plea on behalf of the persecuted victims of Partition was carefully framed, but everyone could sense that he was forced to hold back. Because even the new Iron Man of India cannot declare with his usual clarity what many in the country actually want from the CAB/NRC trio. After all it is not, and never has been, about protecting persecuted minorities in other countries. It is about persecuting our own. For some reason we still shy away from making that point out loud. I can't see why - it's not as if a million uncles' WhatsApp groups aren't saying it right now.

The exclusion of Muslims from CAB is not just incredibly petty, is so obviously gives away the game. A truly subtle government would have done no such thing - they would just have ensured that, in the Rules and in the implementation of the path to citizenship, the hurdles that Muslims would have had to clear would be much higher than those set in the way of people of other religions. But the BJP is faced with an odd dual responsibility: it must show its angry cadre that it can do in the bright light of day what they have for years have had to whisper in the darkness. They will only be satisfied when it is said, openly, that India has no place for more Muslims and that there are too many of them already, and that they should go to Pakistan. But the BJP must also retain the moral high ground. And so it must frame these admirably simple sentiments in terms of flawed history and leaky argumentation. But let us not complain. A time will come, perhaps, when we will look back with fondness on this period, when India's rulers did great wrong but at least paid lip service to virtue. 


Amit Shah speaking during Citizenship Bill debate in Lok Sabha

Perhaps I am being unfair to the BJP. After all, the Home Minister in particular is known for thinking several steps ahead of his opponents. Perhaps his speech in the Rajya Sabha was designed to appeal to a more august authority than mere virtue: the Supreme Court of India. For this amendment will have its day in court. Of course, it is entirely possible that the Indian judicial system will not pronounce on the CAB immediately. It cannot be accused of excessive speed when it comes to politically weighty matters. The Babri demolition, for example, seems to be taking some time to settle legally. Article 370 was revoked months ago, and a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court got round to listening to arguments this week. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether the differential treatment of Muslims and others is constitutional - if it is reasonable - and also whether it is in keeping with the basic structure of the constitution. There are perhaps some people who still believe the court will be able to stand up even in the face of the determination and political strength of the Modi government. Let us hope this dwindling minority of optimists are eventually proved right. Eventually. 


Guwahati, Assam's largest city and the epicentre of the protests, was placed under indefinite curfew while mobile internet services were suspended in 10 districts in the state

It would be ironic, though, if the BJP won the battle of getting the CAB through parliament but managed in the process to lose the war - by which I mean the struggle for the hearts of Bengal and the Northeast. There's little doubt that the NRC/CAB combination was designed as the BJP's trump card for its master plan to take over West Bengal. But it's an open question whether it will work in the end. Mistrust of the state machinery is so ingrained in places like West Bengal that being told the CAB would protect you from the oppression of the NRC is not going to change too many voters' minds. Remember, the BJP was just wiped out in the Bengal bypolls held under the shadow of the NRC. As for the Northeast, the streets have already erupted with rage. By pushing forward this NRC/CAB duo, the BJP has tacitly admitted that many of those unable to prove citizenship in the NRC will be protected by the CAB. But that is not what the protestors in the Northeast want. They, if anything, want as stringent an NRC as possible, and their notion of "foreigners" quite clearly includes many mainlander Indians. The BJP has stepped on a landmine thanks to its adventurism in the Northeast and it isn't certain what its plan to contain the anger might be. But where does the BJP of today have time for plans? It just moves forward, like an unstoppable tank. Get out of the way of the rath, or be flattened. 

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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