Why the Narendra Modi government has invested so much political capital in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) beggars the imagination. The Act is plainly illogical, not least because it leaves out of its purview the largest group of Stateless refugees currently living on Indian soil – Tamils from Sri Lanka – many of whom are in fact Hindus. The Act is also manifestly immoral, in that it singles out one particular religion, Islam, for particularly spiteful treatment.
If the logic and morality of the CAA are suspect, the timing of the Act is mystifying. Had not the abolition of Article 370, the conversion of India’s only Muslim-majority state into a mere Union Territory, already done a great deal to satisfy the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s hardline Hindutva base? Had not the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Ayodhya dispute, mandating the building of a grand new Ram temple, satisfied them further? Is the greed of the base really so insatiable that this third bone had to be thrown their way so soon after the other two?
The downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir and the building of a temple in Ayodhya were issues of enormous symbolic importance to the BJP. One could understand why a second successive majority in the Lok Sabha emboldened the Modi government to act quickly in these matters. But the CAA was of relatively trifling importance. It was estimated that just a few thousand refugees would get Indian citizenship as a result of its passing. Why then was it given such a high priority? Particularly at a time when the economy was in such a mess, and its revival needed urgent attention?
There are perhaps two reasons behind the Modi government’s unseemly haste in passing the CAA through Parliament. The first is bigotry, the ideological compulsion to rub it in even further to the Muslim citizens of the Republic that they live here on the grace or mercy of the Hindu majority. The second is hubris; the sense (or delusion) that since the Muslims of India did not offer any dissent at the abrogation of Article 370 or at the court verdict concerning Ayodhya, this time, too, they would meekly accept this wanton humiliation heaped on them by their own government.
It has turned out otherwise. Indian Muslims have turned out in large numbers to protest this dangerous piece of legislation. This is, in part, because – despite the post facto, and altogether unconvincing, denials by the prime minister, the Government of India, and particularly the home minister, have repeatedly made it clear that the CAA would be implemented in conjunction with a National Register of Citizens (NRC). This provoked the (wholly legitimate) fear that Muslims would be made particularly vulnerable by this twin pincer operation – for any non-Muslims left out by from the NRC could immediately reapply for citizenship on the basis of the CAA.
One striking aspect of the popular protests against the CAA and the NRC has been that people of all faiths have enthusiastically participated. In cities like Kolkata and Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, tens of thousands of Indians who are not themselves Muslims have recognised the new Act for what it really is – a body blow to the founding ideals of the Republic. This is particularly true of students, whose presence and leadership has been particularly noteworthy and impressive.
A second striking aspect of the protests has been the widespread international coverage they have garnered. This is for two reasons; the scale of the participation, and the savagery of the State’s response. Since May 2014, no action of the Modi regime has attracted remotely this kind of opposition. Not demonetisation, not the abrogation of Article 370 either. For weeks on end, thousands and thousands of people have poured onto the streets to express their anger and disaffection with the ruling regime. In cities like Delhi, the regime has responded with panic; by imposing Section 144, by shutting down the Internet, by closing metro lines. In states like Uttar Pradesh, it has responded with brute force.
The international coverage of the issue has been uniformly negative. The Act has been seen everywhere for what it is – a discriminatory piece of legislation. For many decades, India was praised as a pluralist beacon in a sea of majoritarian States in South Asia. No longer. Now, we are increasingly viewed as a Hindu version of Muslim Pakistan and Muslim Bangladesh, or of Buddhist Sri Lanka and Buddhist Myanmar – that is to say, a State driven largely and, sometimes solely, by the interests of a religious majority. That the government has responded to the protests so harshly, has only further corroded the country’s international reputation. Even friendly countries like Israel issued an advisory to their citizens not to travel to India. In places like Goa and Agra, tourism is down by more than 50 per cent.
Illogical, immoral and – not least – ill-timed, the CAA has dealt a body blow to India’s image in the world. And perhaps to the prime minister’s image and legacy, too. When Narendra Modi first became prime minister, in May 2014, many people – this writer included – were struck by the extraordinary emphasis he gave to foreign policy. In his first term, Modi travelled ceaselessly across the world, meeting and befriending world leaders. Not since Jawaharlal Nehru, it seemed, had an Indian prime minister invested so much of his personal capital and personal energy in foreign policy.
All that effort has now come to naught, obliterated by a single piece of legislation that was as unnecessary as it was unwise.
The prime minister’s own reactions to the popular protests suggests a normally sure-footed politician ill at ease with himself. To invoke the support of a so-called “godman” on social media, to ask protesters to criticise Pakistan rather than the CAA, are not signs of authority or command. The prime minister has been damaged; but the country has been damaged far more.