Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has claimed that the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were aimed at “undermining the elected government” and disturbing the stability of the country, The Indian Express reported on Tuesday. She also took a potshot at the Congress over its stand on the CAA protests, and claimed that the party has “moved further to the fringe”.

“It [anti-CAA protests] is definitely undermining the elected government,” Sitharaman told The Indian Express in an interview. “People have given a vote, it’s a solid vote, majority, but I can’t digest it. I will do anything to disturb the stability of this country. You are unable to remain out of power and fight for the causes close to your heart.”

Sitharaman accused the Congress of not playing the role of a responsible Opposition.

“At a time when people have to come out as responsible Opposition to say, don’t worry, we tried doing it [countering the law] in Parliament but because we didn’t have the numbers we couldn’t, but we will engage with the government to ensure nothing goes which you fear. They didn’t do that on the CAA. What was the statement given? Aar paar ki ladayi ho jaayegi…Till today, these 18-23 people who are writing letters, professors, thinkers, writers, never questioned Congress leadership to say, what does that line mean? Will that lead to riots? Is that a responsible line to take?”

— Nirmala Sitharaman

She said the Congress’ leadership lacked maturity. “Congress and the level of maturity of their leadership is such that they can never play the role of a responsible Opposition. And more so, now. They have moved further to the fringe.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act provides citizenship to refugees from six minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The Act, passed on December 11, has been criticised for excluding Muslims. In December, at least 28 people died in protests against the Act, 19 of them in Uttar Pradesh itself. Most of those who died had suffered bullet-inflicted wounds.

On coronavirus and the economy

Sitharaman claimed that production, and utilisation of capacities were almost near pre-Covid levels. “From many areas, workers have started coming back; industries are spending resources to get them back, offering them a slightly better deal,” said the finance minister. “In some industries, pickup in export of produce is far better than the domestic pickup. Some good news I heard from some core industries, for example, steel, which has seen a strong demand from China. Then labour-intensive areas like textiles, hosiery, have started using their full capacities.”

She, however, added that the service sector continues to be hit.

“Hospitality, hotel, tourists are really badly affected. You hear in some pockets, domestic tourists have started coming. Hopefully, there will be some improvement in the festival season. Weekend destinations closer to metros have started seeing people coming for a day, those tired of being locked up. Food takeaways are showing some signs of activity. There is a mixed story about revival.”

— Nirmala Sitharaman

The finance minister said the government was not averse to taking risk, adding that there was no hesitation to spend more. “The Atma Nirbhar package consists of so many different things for so many different sectors… it’s not as if what we announced got exhausted within 24 hours,” she said. “Actually, it’s rolling on even now. Take the example of this emergency liquidity guarantee. We have expanded its scope from MSMEs now to cover proprietorships, partnerships, and even individual professionals. So, what was announced [across the board] has expanded in its scope and scale…we have kept ourselves open to the idea of… in case, there is any need for further stimulus.”

On farm laws

Sitharaman defended her government’s new contentious agricultural laws and claimed that they do not hurt farmers.

Sitharaman had announced these agricultural reforms on May 15 as part of the Atma Nirbhar fiscal and monetary package to revive the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. The bills were then promulgated as ordinances in June and rushed through Parliament in September. The legislation was passed in Parliament during the Monsoon Session amid protests by the Opposition. President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to them on Sunday evening.

“When the protests are going on – look also at the places where the protests are being held – what exactly are you protesting for?” she asked. “Which part of the Act is hurting you? Hurting the farmers, how pray? I challenge these people… ask us that one question, where we won’t be able to answer you.”

When asked why the Centre did no just re-promulgate the ordinances and refer the bills to a select committee like the Opposition demanded, Sitharaman said: “There is no end to the debate… It is not in the merit of the matter.”

Also read:

Agriculture laws do not hurt farmers, Opposition doing a disservice, claims Nirmala Sitharaman

Sitharaman says that protests against the Centre become "gilt-edged" and get traction, and implied that in fact, there is less freedom for people in states not ruled by the BJP. (Image credit: PTI)

On Delhi riots and the subsequent chargesheet

Sitharaman said protests and violence were not new. “Now, I’m asking you a question: protests happening now, is there an aura added to it because it’s against this government whom we love to oppose?” she asked “When protests happen now, I find it gets gilt-edged, it attains a certain halo, oh, look at this. And it’s followed up by a lot of international voices quickly. And it, therefore, acquires a greater traction.”

The minister said the current dispensation believes in the institutions of the country. “We still believe in our courts, however long-drawn their process is,” she added. “That’s why we even quote in international fora, that whether it was a terror accused in the (26/11) Mumbai attack, caught red-handed, we ensure due process from every stage until the mercy petition to the Rashtrapati. We believe in the institutions in this country.”

She asked if ever an individual has been held or chargesheeted because he attacked the prime minister or spoke against the BJP or any minister. “Whereas I’ll name non-BJP states, where journalists have been arrested, questioned, how many such protesters are put inside for questioning,” she added.

Sitharaman then went on to cite examples from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal – all ruled by non-BJP parties. “What is the questioning of a journalist in Mumbai or what is that which is happening in Rajasthan – Dalit atrocity in Rajasthan – goes unnoticed,” she said. “No professors or teachers or thinkers write about that.”

“Yesterday in Telangana, an honour killing happened. Professors, where are you? Kerala, such a major incident is happening every day, about thrashing political opponents. Where are the professors writing about it? West Bengal, you utter a word against the government there, I’m not talking about individuals, people are hanged in public on branches of trees. Tell me where are the professors writing letters about that oppression?”

— Nirmala Sitharaman

In multiple chargesheets connected with the February riots, the Delhi Police have claimed that the violence was part of a well-planned conspiracy to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and was hatched by those who organised the protests against the amended Citizenship Act. The act, which was passed in December, introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship that critics said was discriminatory towards Muslims. The protests against the CAA started in Delhi in mid-December and quickly spread across the country. The violence in Delhi left over 50 people dead, hundreds injured and thousands displaced.

On calling critics anti-nationals

Sitharaman said calling anyone anti-national was wrong but justified in some ways.

“Calling anyone anti-national is wrong? Yes, it is wrong. But what was the other way around? We don’t believe in our systems, we go outside to achieve our norms, you did that. We have not written to any country saying please stop so and so from coming. We have not written to any country saying, Oh My God, I’m scared to live here, I want to get out the moment X gets elected. Or the moment X gets elected, I will run away, my wife will run away, we don’t want to live in this country…Who’s uttered these kinds of things, they may not be anti-national, but they did enough…”

— Nirmala Sitharaman

On the Congress

Sitharaman said the Opposition plays an equal, if not, more significant role in a democracy.

“We look forward to having them do that, I felt in the Rajya Sabha, the leader of the Opposition, if anything, I was very saddened when I heard him speak. The role of the leader of the Opposition has been undermined, he said in Rajya Sabha. I am not sure if it is the House which is undermining the leader of the Opposition or the Congress party’s internal politics is undermining him.”

— Nirmala Sitharaman

She said the Congress was losing a “golden opportunity” to earn people’s confidence. “The public will feel confident that there is this responsible party which knows how to govern the country, and therefore when it is sitting in Opposition, we are sure the government will every now and then be watched, pulled up and made to answer. It is not doing that,” she added.