Editor's Note: This piece, first published on 5 December, 2019, is being republished in view of the Centre tabling the contentious citizenship amendment bill today in Rajya Sabha at 2 pm.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah is scheduled to table the much-debated Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday and the ruling government will make efforts to ensure that the lack of majority in the Upper House does not become an obstacle in its aim to fulfill a key election promise. The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha at midnight on Tuesday amid vehement objections from the Opposition.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB, which aims to provide citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, has been objected to by several Opposition parties, with Congress threatening to go to Supreme Court to challenge the proposed legislation.
Earlier in December, Union minister Prakash Javadekar said the government has taken care of the interests of everyone and "the interest of India". When asked about the protests in the North East, he said, "People will welcome it as it is in the interest of the nation."
However, the test of this claim lies in the Upper House where the BJP lacks a full majority, unlike the Lok Sabha, where it is able to steamroll any opposition to its policies with the help of a brute majority. NDA allies backing it is the icing on the cake. During the division of votes in the Lok Sabha on Monday, the bill was passed with 311 votes in favour and 80 against.
While NDA ally JD(U) voted for the bill, former NDA ally Shiv Sena, with whom the BJP had a falling out after the Maharashtra Assembly election in October, also supported the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha.
On Monday morning, the Shiv Sena slammed the Centre for creating an "invisible partition" between Hindus and Muslims with the bill, but the Uddhav Thackeray-led party voted for the bill in the Lok Sabha on Monday night.
On Tuesday, Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant was quoted by NDTV as saying, "We supported the bill in the interest of the nation. The CMP (common minimum programme) is applicable in Maharashtra only."
The BJP now has its resources trained on the Rajya Sabha ahead of Wednesday's session, as the citizenship bill is relevant to each party due to its implications on their core vote banks. The bill is deemed inherently anti-Muslim for excluding only those migrants who follow Islam.
In the past, the BJP has sought support from non-NDA parties that have shown some affinity towards the BJP, like Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal and Tamil Nadu's ruling party AIADMK (now a part of NDA). Whereas, NDA allies like JD(U) have refused to back the government on some contentious issues but have chosen to walk out of the House, to essentially help BJP by bringing down the number of the votes needed to pass the law.
Faced with another contentious draft law, it will be interesting to see which party comes down on which side of the fence.
Opposition leaders term CAB 'unconstitutional', allies on the fence over proposed law
The Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPM and a few other political parties have steadfastly opposed the bill, claiming that citizenship can't be given on the basis of religion.
Congress's Shashi Tharoor said it violates the basic idea of India. "Those who believe that religion should determine nationhood... that was the idea of Pakistan, they created Pakistan. We have always argued that our idea of nation was what Mahatma Gandhi, Nehruji, Maulana Azad, Dr Ambedkar have said, that religion cannot determine nationhood," he told reporters in Parliament premises.
Veteran Congress leader and three-time Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the Congress will move the Supreme Court against the CAB which is "unconstitutional" and "divisive".
"The Congress will move the Supreme Court because we believe that CAB is unconstitutional and against the spirit of secularism. It is divisive, and violates the constitutional provision — equality for all. There cannot be division on basis of religion, caste or creed," he said in a tweet.
TMC has remained silent on the vote as of now, but the party's vociferous criticism of a related exercise, a nationwide National Register of Citizen, is a telling sign. Furthermore, two of the party's representatives Saugato Roy and Derek O’Brien submitting dissent notes to the joint parliamentary committee. The party had also moved amendments to "secularise" the Bill by adding six minority communities and six neighbouring countries instead of three.
The All India United Democratic Front, has written a letter to Home Minister Amit Shah, requesting him not to introduce the CAB in Parliament as it is "against the interest of people of Assam and the country". Twelve MPs from the Northeast wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week saying civil society groups of the region are opposing the bill.
The influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), premier literary organisation Asam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) have announced agitation against the bill till it is withdrawn.
BJP's regional allies uneasy over bill
Meanwhile, the BJP's alliance partner in Assam government, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) appears to be divided on the issue with its founding president and signatory to the Assam Accord Prafulla Kumar Mahanta opposing the bill while the current chief and Agriculture Minister Atul Bora has come out in its support. Reportedly, "intellectuals" of the state are unhappy with the AGP over its "feeble" response to the proposed law.
Former Assam DGP Harekrishna Deka was quoted by News18 as saying that "the party is fast losing relevance having exposed their opportunistic stance to the Assamese community."
The ruling party's third alliance partner Bodoland People's Front, however, has not opposed the bill as it is unlikely to be applicable to the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) areas which are under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
An MP of a NDA ally in Meghalaya, National People’s Party, is likely to abstain from voting on the bill in Parliament, News18 reported. Agatha Sangma, Tura MP, cut short her honeymoon and returned to Parliament in anticipation of the BJP introducing the bill in the Houses, the report said.
In January, 10 regional parties participated in a meeting against the bill. These included: Mizo National Front (MNF), Naga Peoples' Front (NPF), NPP, National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), Indigenous People Front of Tripura (IPFT) , United Democratic Party (UDP), Hill State Peoples Democratic Party (HSPDP), AGP, Peoples Democratic Front (PDF), Janata Dal (United) and the Khnam.
CAB in the Rajya Sabha
The BJP-led NDA government had introduced the bill in its previous tenure and got the Lok Sabha's approval. But the bill was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha, apparently due to vehement protests in the North East. The bill lapsed following the dissolution of the last Lok Sabha.
According to the earlier bill, those who came to India on or before 31 December, 2014, will benefit from the proposed legislation. The government is believed to have carried out certain changes in the bill's new avatar.
However, this time BJP sources say that 122 members in the Rajya Sabha are already supporting the CAB and that the government is expecting more parties to join them, The Indian Express reported. The current strength of the Upper House is 238.
The BJP is making efforts to reach out to parties ahead of tabling the bill in the Parliament, because unlike in the Lok Sabha, it does not enjoy the strength of numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Stating that the Treasury Benches "are confident of having mustered a majority in Rajya Sabha", Hindu BusinessLine reported that the ruling party has spoken to "fence-sitters" like Naveen Patnaik-led BJD, K Chandrashekhar Rao-led TRS, and Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP.
However, the BJP might end up being abandoned by some of its allies during the crucial vote, although a political volte face, one way or another, can't be ruled out . BJP ally JD(U), in the past, has expressed strong reservations against the bill going on to lead a campaign opposing the legislation.
In January, Senior JD(U) leader KC Tyagi had said that party leaders planned to request Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to "speak for the people of the North East in New Delhi".
“The mainstream parties have failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Northeast — the Bill is against the basic spirit of Northeast, it will change the demography of the region, and the cultural heritage of the Assamese community and the northeastern people. We are a partner of the NDA government, but we have decided to oppose the Bill. We are here to support the people of NE without any political agenda,” Tyagi said.
After the Centre's failure to table the bill in the Rajya Sabha in its last session in February 2019, the party claimed that the bill was "shelved" because it raised objections against it.
JD(U) general secretary in-charge for the North East, Afaque Ahmad Khan, said that due to the party's objection, the NDA government was "pressured" to not bring in the bill in the Upper House. A report by The Economic Times said, " JD(U) is the first national party to oppose the bill and take a resolution in the party's national committee that it is against the bill."
However, The Indian Express now reports that a senior JD(U) leader has told the newspaper that the party’s stance had changed following discussions with some like-minded parties from the northeast which too have decided to support the Bill.
Another key player whose approach will be closely followed is the BJP's recently estranged alliance partner, the Shiv Sena. After cutting ties with the NDA over disagreements in power-sharing in the Maharashtra government after the results of the Assembly polls were announced in October, the Shiv Sena is now at the helm of the state government in an alliance with the Sharad Pawar-led NCP and Congress.
While both the partners are either against the bill or are maintaining a non-committal stand, the Shiv Sena was flip-flopping on the issue until after the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha. On Tuesday, Uddhav, clarifying the party's stand, said that the Shiv Sena will not support the bill in the Rajya Sabha if the queries raised by its MPs in the Lok Sabha went unanswered.
“We voted yesterday (Monday) to absorb various people facing brutalities in other countries but we have asked many questions. Those questions we thought would be answered, ranging from national security, to the rights of locals in various states of India. If these queries are not answered, we won’t be supporting the CAB in the Rajya Sabha. Every party supporting or opposing it, is asking for clarity in national interest," he said.
Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray: Anyone who disagrees is a 'deshdrohi' is their illusion. We have suggested changes in #CitizenshipAmendmentBill we want in Rajya Sabha. It is an illusion that only BJP cares for the country. pic.twitter.com/pmlenyTX0d
— ANI (@ANI) December 10, 2019
In a statement to India Today on 4 December, party leader Sanjay Raut had said that the party had "always been against intruders and is with the government on the issue of national security".
He said, "The Shiv Sena has always given importance to national security and prosperity. If intruders enter the country, it is a big threat. We have always held that intruders from Bangladesh and Pakistan have to be removed. I feel that all parties have a consensus on this, no one would want intruders in the country. No question of religion here, just national security. In this issue, every state has its own perspective, whether it is Assam or West Bengal. Our concern is with Maharashtra."
However, Raut skirted the question of whether the party will vote in favour of the bill in the Parliament. "We will see," he said.
Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant was quoted by ThePrint as saying, "We will support the bill as it is against the infiltrators and will also help give citizenship rights to persecuted Hindus, Jains and Buddhists living in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The bill should not be misused that is the only thing."
This is in stark contrast to the party's stand in January this year, when Raut said that they were "determined" to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 in Parliament. He had said that the decision had been taken after the AGP appealed to the then-NDA partner Shiv Sena to oppose the legislation.
On the other hand, Zee News reported that party MP Rajendra Gavit on Wednesday expressed "strong reservations" over the bill during a discussion in Parliament.
The BJD, with six MPs in the Rajya Sabha, has also emerged as an important vote for the BJP. The ruling party in Odisha is likely to support the bill if it "exempts tribal areas", The Hindu reported.
Orissa POST reported that senior BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab said the party will support the Bill in the House "if the Centre has addressed the northeast situation appropriately in the new draft".
"We have to see the Bill. Our only concern is northeast which is fragile because of large influx of foreigners into that part of the country. If the new citizenship Bill takes care of northeast, we are in support of it," Mahtab said.
Earlier, Mahtab had opposed the draft legislation. In a dissent note, he had written, "Already the population density in Assam is very high and if the present Bill is enacted and brought into force, illegal immigrants, who have entered Assam and built their residences in the state and even encroached upon government land, will become entitled to Indian citizenship."
On Wednesday, reports said that the new draft of the bill specified that the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime areas and those regions which are governed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution are excluded from the purview of the bill. This is being touted as a game changer, which has tilted fence sitters like BJD in government's favour.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Dec 11, 2019 07:21:46 IST