A stunning moment in the Rajya Sabha proceedings on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was symptomatic of the larger political and governance context in which Union Home Minister Amit Shah and his associates in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government were pushing through this controversial piece of legislation. Amit Shah was arguing that the CAB posed no threat to the Assamese people and that the government would protect their rights. Members of the opposition, raising their voices in unison, vociferously contested the claim, which led to an animated and heated situation.
Both Houses of Parliament have witnessed many such occasions in the past, and people across the country and the world have had the opportunity to witness them through the live telecast of the proceedings. But on December 11, this moment of heightened tensions was followed by something strange and unprecedented: the stoppage of the live telecast of the proceedings. Just before this extraordinary development, Rajya Sabha Chairperson M. Venkaiah Naidu was heard telling opposition members not to interrupt the Minister and even warning them that they would be “named”, a procedure that prevents an MP from participating in the proceedings of the House for the rest of the day. As he said that, he also ordered that nothing the opposition members were saying would go on record. Immediately after this, Rajya Sabha TV stopped its live broadcast. Although the House-run channel gave no official explanation for this stoppage, informal indications from within the organisation were that this unparalleled situation arose because the Chair had pressed the red light button in his controls, giving the signal to stop the telecast. It was resumed only after the opposition voices had been silenced and Amit Shah had the floor entirely to himself.
Later that evening, long after the passage of the CAB, this stoppage of the telecast and the manner in which it happened were being discussed in the corridors of Parliament and the Central Hall by MPs of all hues. A salient point in these conversations was the challenge posed to the concept of transparency in disseminating parliamentary proceedings. Talking to Frontline on the passage of the CAB, veteran Bihar politician and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Shivanand Tiwari pointed out that almost everything related to the CAB was shrouded in mystery, especially the flip-flops that many political parties and their leaderships had performed during the course of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament.
“Right from the beginning of the second tenure of the [Narendra] Modi regime, there has been a definitive drive aimed at killing transparency in all institutions, especially governance. The stoppage of telecast is of a piece with the advisory given by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting restraining the media from full-fledged coverage of the Assam agitations and the switching off of Rahul Gandhi’s mike while [he was] speaking in Parliament. All the anti-democratic tendencies ingrained in the BJP’s ideology and practice are making their presence felt more aggressively and vilely now. Beyond these, it would be worth probing how parties like the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], the Biju Janata Dal [BJD], the Telugu Desam Party [TDP] and the YSR Congress [Party] dramatically turned into supporters of the Bill after declaring their opposition to fixing citizenship on religious grounds for long. It was the support of these parties that turned the vote division in the Rajya Sabha in the government’s favour. The murmurs that one is getting to hear from many of these organisations point to murky dealings and goings-on,” Tiwari told Frontline .
Indeed, the numbers that these regional parties added to the BJP tally were of significant value in the Rajya Sabha. The 245-member Rajya Sabha has a strength of 238 currently. For the passage of any Bill, the government requires the support of 120 members as the BJP’s current tally in the House is only 81. It could count on the support of its long-standing ally the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has three members, and the Republican Party of India, which has one. The JD(U)’s six members were not fully in agreement with the CAB when it was originally passed by the Lok Sabha in January 2019, about five months before the general election. At that time, the party had a coalition government with the BJP in Bihar under the leadership of JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar, but it had still flagged its reservations about the Bill. The BJD and the TDP had expressed similar reservations. Yet, by the time Amit Shah presented the CAB in the two Houses of Parliament in December, the parties had effected a quiet political somersault, without presenting a credible explanation for it.
The departure from its original political position has already generated notable dissent within the JD(U). Party vice president and election strategist Prashant Kishor, considered to be the number 2 in the organisational hierarchy, expressed disappointment that his party was “supporting a Bill that discriminates against the right of citizenship on the basis of religion”. He also pointed out that this new turn was not in sync with the constitution of the JD(U). “It’s incongruous with the party’s constitution that carries the word secular thrice on the very first page and the leadership that is supposedly guided by Gandhian ideals,” Kishor tweeted. Pavan Varma, JD(U) spokesperson and a former officer of the Indian Foreign Service, was also open in questioning his party’s stand. Following this seemingly significant churning within the JD(U), its traditional political adversary in Bihar, the RJD, proclaimed that Nitish Kumar had “become 100 per cent slave of Modi” and that the Chief Minister “seems to be not in a position to think for himself”. “How else would one explain the party’s support to devious Hindutva agenda like the Article 370, triple talaq, NRC [National Register of Citizens] and now CAB?” Manoj Jha, RJD party spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member, told Frontline .
Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Sudhirkumar Panwar said that it was pathetic to see leaders like Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan, once hailed as champions of secularism, meekly finding their place in the gallery of shame constructed by the Modi-Shah combine and its associates in the BJP and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar. “Remember, Nitish Kumar used to hold forth on building an inclusive national landscape which would be sensitive to the concerns and rights of the Indian minorities, and Paswan was someone who resigned from an Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Ministry citing the anti-Muslim communal carnage in Gujarat under the rule of the Modi-Shah duo.”
Parallelly, the Shiv Sena—which broke away from the NDA just as recently as November to head a coalition government in Maharashtra with its new-found allies, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—went through a series of flip-flops in the run-up to the passage of the Bill. As a long-standing Hindutva-oriented ally of the BJP, the Shiv Sena had favoured the CAB and stated early on that it would not change its position. However, on December 9, the day the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, Shiv Sena supremo and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray proclaimed that the CAB was a problematic piece of legislation that sought to create an invisible divide between Hindus and Muslims. The general impression after this statement was that the Shiv Sena would go against the CAB. However, when the voting on the Bill took place that night in the Lok Sabha, the Shiv Sena stuck to its long-standing position and voted in favour of the CAB. Not that this support really mattered for the BJP, given its brute majority in the Lok Sabha. When the Bill came up in the Rajya Sabha two days later, the Shiv Sena performed yet another somersault: its three representatives in there staged a walkout. But the government sailed through with a tally of 125 in its favour and 99 against.
Adding to the confusion among the parties opposed to the CAB was the inexplicable reduction of votes in the opposition tally in the Rajya Sabha. On paper, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, has 64 MPs in the Rajya Sabha while the cumulative total of the non-UPA opposition—comprising parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the S.P., the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—was 46. Two members of the NCP and one each of the S.P. and the TMC were absent on the day of voting. Thus, the votes against the Bill should have been 106, not 99. How these seven votes were lost continues to be a point of debate among opposition leaders.
Despite this defeat in terms of numbers, the spirited ideological and political fight that large sections of the opposition put up against the “poisonous and divisive” provisions of the Bill in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha was noteworthy. Some of the most forceful presentations came from leaders such as P. Chidambaram and Manish Tewari (Congress), Asaduddin Owaisi (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen), T.K. Rangarajan of the CPI(M), Javed Ali Khan (S.P.), K. Keshav Rao (TRS) and Derek O’Brien (TMC). The leaders pointed out the Bill’s blatant discrimination against Muslims and the sabotage of the Indian social ethos as envisioned in the Constitution and questioned the constitutional validity of the amendments in the Bill, the choice of only three countries and the controversial cut-off date, and the manner in which the government was planning to link the CAB to the proposed national roll-out of the NRC. Chidambaram asked: “How do you group three countries and leave out the rest? How do you categorise six religious groups and leave out the rest? Why have you excluded Sri Lankan Hindus and Bhutanese Christians? Semitic religions are three, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Why have you left out Islam and Judaism from the beneficiaries? And why only religious persecution… are people not persecuted on political and linguistic grounds?” Owaisi tore a copy of the Bill and accused the BJP of inflicting a second partition on India. In a spirited intervention, A.M. Arif, CPI(M) Lok Sabha member from Kerala, reminded the House how President Ram Nath Kovind had quoted the secular teachings of the venerated Kerala spiritual leader Sree Narayana Guru in this very Parliament and pointed out that the current government was employing insidious communalism to blatantly violate the high values cited by the President.
Amit Shah’s response in both the Houses followed the beaten path. He reiterated that the “Bill is not to hurt anyone or person of any religion. There will be no injustice caused to the Muslims of our country. CAB will not hurt citizenship of Muslims. It is about granting citizenship and not taking away their citizenship.” But then he went on to say, in his usual rhetorical style: “Should the Muslims of Pakistan be made citizens? Should Muslims from Bangladesh and Afghanistan and the rest of the world also be given citizenship? The country cannot run like this.” He said that the opposition was “not appreciating inclusion of six communities, including Parsis and Sikhs, but [is] only talking about Muslims…. When the country’s main religion is Islam, there are fewer chances of persecution of Muslims.... But even so, if they want to apply for citizenship citing persecution, we have the provision to grant them citizenship too. Our definition of minority is not so narrow.”
Prime Minister Modi hailed the passage of the CAB as a historic and heart-warming happening that would remove long periods of marginalisation and oppression suffered by many communities. When hundreds of thousands of people of the north-eastern region took part in widespread mass protests against the passage of the CAB, he sent messages seeking to reassure them. However, the justifications and reassurances of the Home Minister and the Prime Minister have had no effect on the agitated people of Assam and the other north-eastern States.
In the midst of the growing protests marked by intense emotions and widespread violence, the opposition parties, including the principal opposition Congress, have started moving the courts with appeals to repeal the controversial Bill. What trajectory these initiatives will take is yet to be seen. Given the larger political climate in recent times, as evidenced by the stoppage of the live telecast of the Rajya Sabha and the vacillations of the judiciary on many vital issues, political and legal practitioners and observers can only wait and watch with fingers crossed as the Supreme Court begins to consider these appeals.