A time has come in our national life when it has become essential to stand up and fight for the most important basis of our existence, the right to live with dignity. The fundamental tenets of our Constitution are under threat, our very life breath is becoming impure. It is time for a second coming.
This is not plain rhetoric. In our democratic country, we have today the obnoxious spectre of neo-fascism rearing its ugly head. The fury that has engulfed India in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) is not, as the government would have us believe, caused by any lack of understanding of the law, or because of any Opposition politics. Indians, irrespective of age, class, gender and faith have come together to protest the amendment.
And what have the BJP leaders been saying, some of it during the election campaign in Jharkhand? That the CAA has nothing to do with citizens, only with foreigners; that Muslims have nothing to fear; that Pakistan has treated its minorities badly and so we must do the same. And, strangely, our Prime Minister says that the protesters can be recognised by their clothes. This last comment was so obvious a reference to a particular community or class that it defies comprehension that such a divisive comment could be made by the Prime Minister.
This protest has nothing to do with one community or one political party. The solidarity which the young of the country are showing today is not related to any segment of the people; it is a fight against divisiveness. Perhaps, for the first time, the Narendra Modi-led government is feeling the pinch of true opposition, from the people of India, especially our young.
The ‘oratory’ of our Prime Minister has stoked the burning fire of polemics. Will the Congress have the guts, he asked rhetorically, to give Indian citizenship to all Pakistanis? But that is not the issue, is it, Sir? When has the Congress, or anyone else for that matter, said anything even remotely to suggest that all the Muslims of Pakistan be given Indian citizenship. The Prime Minister should not create a false narrative.
Many BJP leaders have asked if Pakistan can be unkind to their minorities, why could India not do the same? But that is exactly the issue. We are a democratic, secular country, and in this fundamental respect, India is “superior” to Pakistan. Why should we “stoop” to become a religious State?
One more point. If the government was truly mindful of the problems of Hindus in our neighbourhood, why was the Hindu minority in Sri Lanka excluded from being beneficiaries of this Act? In a so-called explainer that is doing the rounds on social media, the argument is that there has been no war now for 10 years and that there was never any persecution on religious lines in Sri Lanka, it was on ethnic or racial fault lines. But what this actually suggests is that the ethnic fault line comes out of the Hindi heartland against the South of our country, a divide that has been made more apparent by the deliberate exclusion of one segment of Hindus. And many such Sri Lankan Hindus are already in India as refugees in over a hundred camps.
But what is of the essence in the CAA imbroglio? It is a frontal attack on our Constitution, and the time has come to protest like we did when we sought independence from British rule. Not for the first time has this BJP government broken the bounds of constitutional ethics. That test-case rupturing of one provision of the Constitution in 2015 to get the Aadhaar Bill passed as a Money Bill has now grown into a monstrous interpretation of the fundamental principles of the Constitution.
That the CAA does not apply to citizens and therefore does not impact the citizens of India is a specious and dangerous argument. India as a secular and democratic nation is mandated by its Constitution to treat all people in its territory, not just its own citizens, as entitled to equal treatment before the law. There can be no law which makes any distinction between people based on religion. Period.
The BJP insists that the religious distinction would be relevant only for foreigners, meant for refugees coming to India, not for our citizens. But once they are inside our territory, are they not entitled to the same rule of law, the same equality guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution? And that is why we protest, why we must continue to do so. This is not a political issue; there is a basic structure to our Constitution which cannot be changed, the fundamental rights are inalienable.
Why is this new law particularly dangerous? For one, it could well be the starting point of other laws based on religion. If the courts do not strike down the CAA, it could create a terrible legal precedent. For another, the government’s formalisation of such an “us versus them” law may actually be the beginning of an attack on Indian Muslims. And it is much more than that; it is an attack on the basic structure of our Constitution and the privileges it guarantees – justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, which assure us the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.
The Supreme Court has not given any importance to this matter; there is no stay on the Act or on its impending notification, no early hearing to the many pleas placed before it. And all the while, detention centres continue to be built across our land.
(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India)