On Tuesday, the Kerala assembly passed a resolution demanding that Parliament withdraw the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. This comes after 11 states have announced their refusal to implement the National Register of Citizens. Two of the states – Kerala and West Bengal – have even stayed work on the National Population Register, the first step of the NRC.
By any measure, the refusal of states to follow Union laws creates an unprecedented crisis for India. Legally, states have no say when it comes to citizenship. Yet, since states do most of the work to actually implement many policies of the Union government, this sort of boycott could be devastating.
Much of the blame for this constitutional crisis needs to be laid on the doorstep of the Modi government for using its huge Lok Sabha majority to ram through controversial policies that have limited purchase across the political spectrum.
Ironically, while Modi has shied away from working with the states to build consensus, he has reached out to godmen. On Monday, the prime minister tweeted out a video explainer of the CAA from Jaggi Vasudev, a religious guru.
This absurd contrast showcases the central problem of the Modi administration: a my-way-or-the-highway attitude that has dangerously centralised power in New Delhi, ignoring the vast complexities of a union spanning a sixth of humanity.
This was seen most acutely during the 2016 demonetisation of high currency notes. This snap decision by the prime minister was taken without any consultation with crucial stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, the move was a disaster and the Indian economy is still recovery from the aftermath.
We see the same pattern in the National Register of Citizens-National Population Register-Citizenship Amendment Act package, where a decision taken arbitrarily by New Delhi is creating dangerous rifts in the fabric of the Indian Union, forcing states to take positions on matters of citizenship.
The Modi government must take stock of where its frenetic politics is taking India. For that, it must seek lessons in our history. Though the Hindutva thinkers whom Modi reveres claim that the subcontinent is welded together by an ideological coherence, he should remember that the current shape of the Indian Union came about in the chaos of the end of the British Raj. There was nothing inevitable about it.
It was as late as May, 1947 – only four months before Independence – when Jawaharlal Nehru forced the British Viceroy to accept a plan to transfer power to two countries. Otherwise, once efforts to keep India united had failed, the British were ready to dissolve the Centre and give independence to the provinces of British India.
Standing in refutation to Hindutva view of nationhood is the fact that Hindu-majority Nepal has never been part of India – nor has it demonstrated an inclination to merge with its Hindu-majority neighbour. Besides, the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 is a stark reminder that the Two Nation theory is imperfect at best.
To this, add the unique, umbrella nature of Indian identity. While mono-identity nation states, usually constructed on linguistic lines, are the norm around the world, India defies that model. In India, citizens have multiple identities: a formulation that political scientists Alfred Stepan, Juan J Linz and Yogendra Yadav have called a “state-nation”.
Keeping these constraints in mind, Indian rulers have always taken things slow. Unlike in many other countries, abrupt changes are not the order of things in India. We have had no Cultural Revolution, which sought to violently erase vast sections of China’s past; nothing like the sudden seizure of the vast estates of the church during the French Revolution.
In India, even an event as cataclysmic as the departure of the British was sought to be effected with consensus and continuity. The British negotiated extensively with Indian leaders before transferring power. Moreover, India’s Constitution largely kept intact the administrative structure of the British Raj.
Since 2014, Modi has made a sharp turn away from this model. This is a mistake, given India’s unique structure.
Ideally, Modi should not attempt to tamper with arrangements as sensitive as India’s citizenship laws. If he does, he should do so taking all states fully into confidence. Anything less puts India at risk.