North-east protests: Stop and think. Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will create more problems than it solves

Following a fierce debate in the Lok Sabha, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was passed in the lower House of Parliament with a comfortable margin. BJP’s numbers were further shored up by the likes of recent ally-turned-rival Shiv Sena and NDA constituent JD(U), which has generally sought to keep a distance from the more controversial themes of BJP’s agenda. There is a strong possibility of the legislation going through Rajya Sabha, too, on Wednesday. But the real test awaits it in Supreme Court where it is set to be challenged on the ground that it is at odds with constitutional provisions – in particular, Articles 14 and 15, which forbid the state from discrimination on religious and other grounds. Union home minister Amit Shah argued that the bill meets the “reasonable classification” threshold of exceptions. But whether the legislation passes judicial muster remains to be seen.

The government will also have to answer why the bill does not cover Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Shah said that CAB wasn’t against any community and that it would not have been necessary had Congress not accepted Partition on the basis of religion. This argument may not hold weight as India was not created on the basis of religion, only Pakistan was. That, in fact, is the differentiator between India and Pakistan, and arguably the reason India is much more of a success story than Pakistan is. India is also held in higher regard among the comity of modern nations for that reason.

Predictably, CAB’s contravention of Assam Accord provisions has led to a severe reaction in north-east states, with student bodies and indigenous groups agitating. Yesterday saw widespread protests in Assam; normal life was also affected in parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya by a bandh called across the north-east. Even states with the Inner Line Permit system (ILP) – Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal – are apprehensive that the bill will see an influx of outsiders.

In fact, CAB’s exemptions for ILP states – Manipur is now one of them – and Sixth Schedule areas could create more complications. Identifying outsiders versus locals is a vexed issue in states like Manipur. CAB appears to being pushed through without adequate thought of social, political, constitutional and foreign policy consequences. The Rajya Sabha, acting as India’s House of Elders, may want to give it a hard look.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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