With a tense situation prevailing in north-east states – particularly in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura – due to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), it appears the Centre miscalculated the intensity of the blowback. North-east states have long been sensitive about migration to their region and fear that the new legislation will endanger their cultural and linguistic identities. Elsewhere as in Bengal where protests have turned violent, CAA is being criticised for unconstitutionally equating citizenship with religion and discriminating against Muslims.
But another unintended consequence of CAA has been on the diplomatic front. Two Bangladeshi ministers cancelled their India visit after CAA was passed in Parliament. Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe postponed his India trip for an annual bilateral summit with PM Narendra Modi after hosting the meet in Guwahati became virtually impossible due to the protests. This is a big blow for India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Simultaneously, the UN human rights office issued a statement that CAA was fundamentally discriminatory and inconsistent with India’s international obligations on human rights.
If this weren’t enough two US panels – Commission on International Religious Freedom and the House Foreign Affairs Committee – have criticised CAA for undermining the basic tenets of democracy. This is bad for India’s foreign policy objectives and image abroad. One of the things for which the Modi government rightly deserves credit is strengthening India’s foreign policy heft and outreach. Over the last six years, India has been recognised as a rising power and has cemented its place on important international platforms. In fact, the US and other Western powers had come to see India as an important democratic partner in hedging against China’s aggressive power projection in Asia, the most important factor constraining India’s rise. But all of that risks coming undone with New Delhi’s recent moves such as CAA, nationwide NRC or overly tough restrictions in Kashmir.
It will be a real tragedy if foreign governments as well as foreign investors think twice before pegging India as a stable and functional democracy and instead re-hyphenate it with Pakistan. Against this backdrop, government needs to ask itself if pushing CAA is worth it. Internally, if the Modi government wants to bring about a strong and united India, CAA is defeating the purpose. It should be rolled back. There is no harm in admitting a mistake. Or if that proves too difficult, perhaps a ten-year moratorium can be declared, while more consensus is generated around it.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.