Politics of the Citizenship Amendment Bill: A Fragmented Discourse

By Rohit Sarma

The discourse surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 (CAB) can best be understood as fragmented, for the contentions presented by the civil society and the masses exist on two different levels, often uninformed by the other. Drawing on the opposition to the bill presented in Assam I argue that the discourse at the national level is disconnected from the masses who are concerned with the bill from the perspective of its costs and benefits, rather than abstract principles such as that of secularism. Therefore, I argue that at the expense of creating a fragmented discourse, opposition to the bill must be presented at the level of both the civil society and the masses, in order to successfully mobilise against it. 

On the level of the civil society, the discourse is primary one regarding a certain idea of India encoded in our Constitution. Here, the contention is regarding values such as secular tolerance, equality, and democracy. Opponents of the bill argue that provision of citizenship on the grounds of religion smacks in the face of our secular constitution, giving birth to a State akin to Jinnah’s Pakistan which was predicated on the Two-Nation Theory. Proponents argue that the bill sanctifies India’s commitment to secularism, for it grants protection to religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who have been victims of religious persecution by the common majority religion in these three States – Islam. The back and forth between the proponents and the opponents at the level of the civil society has highlighted certain glaring issues regarding the bill that have remained unanswered. These will hopefully be addressed by the opposition when the bill is discussed in Parliament next week. This article does not seek to rehearse either sides claims since countless articles have already done so. Rather, it indicates that these claims are largely alien to discourse prevalent in the border state of Assam.

Here, in Assam, due to the decades of migration-related concerns and the ongoing NRC process, discourse regarding the CAB has permeated into the day-to-day realities of the masses. This has replaced the abstract debate surrounding broad principles which typifies the debate at the level of the civil society, with a pragmatic discourse regarding the costs and benefits of the bill. Here, the opponents argue that the CAB invalidates decades of anti-immigrant/anti-outsider sentiments which are premised on real concerns such as land encroachment, cultural and linguistic imposition, and vote-bank politics. These concerns, the opponents argue, are not exclusively raised due to immigration by a single religious community. Rather, these concerns are blind towards the religion of the migrant and are, therefore, in one sense, not communal. The opponents also argue that the CAB would render the ongoing NRC process, which has been an incredibly gruelling exercise, completely futile. Together, these concerns have led to protests on the streets which are driven by the fear of Assam and the North-East becoming a dumping ground for migrants. The veracity of these claims aside, it is evident that proponents of the bill have been unable to counter these claims and have therefore resorted to either complete silence or closed-door discussions with select members of the representatives of the masses. Previously, when the bill was met by similar protests in the North-East, it was amended in order to make it more palatable to the masses. Evidently, that didn’t prove beneficial.

Despite the failure to meet the criticisms of the opponents at the level of the masses in Assam and the North-East, proponents have raised a valiant fight at this level on the nation-wide scale. Here, proponents have argued that no Hindu can ever be an outsider in India and that India is, and has always been, a Hindu Rashtra. These claims are far from the pristine language of civil society, which factions within the BJP and its supporters have themselves selectively employed. Like the concerns raised by the masses in Assam, these claims are not based on the law, but rather on the interests of certain ethnoreligious communities which calls for a change in the law or the creation of an exception for this specific instance. Unfortunately, these claims have not been addressed at the level of the masses at the nation-wide scale by the opponents. Take, for example, the concerns of the Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka who have been languishing as refugees all these years whose concerns could have been mobilised but have not. Or those of the Tibetan refugees that have gotten limited recognition from the Delhi High Court but not at the national scale. As the experience from Assam and the North-East suggests, these claims, which are not in the sanitised language of the civil society, have been far more successful in creating a unified front against the proponents, for they have been able to invoke the energy of the masses. This does not imply that the discourse on the level society ought to be disregarded. Rather, it implies that it must be supplemented with a discourse at the level of the masses in order to put on a more valiant opposition.   

Such politics that mobilise the civil society with their laws and the masses with their interests, draws on a tradition typified by the politics of B.R. Ambedkar who acknowledged the need for both the pragmatic politics of interest and the legalistic politics of principle. In a time when his name is routinely invoked to call for the protection of our constitution, his politics of interest must not be forgotten if we are to combat the injustices of the CAB in a successful manner.      

(Author is a Law Graduate. Currently practicing at the Guwahati High Court, Assam. He can be contacted at Sarma_Rohit@alumni.ceu.edu)


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