On Thursday, addressing an election rally in West Bengal, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the government would implement the Citizenship Amendment Act once the COVID-19 vaccination programme was completed. In the days since, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, speaking at meetings in Kerala and Assam respectively, responded to Shah and reiterated their opposition to the CAA. A political pushback against this contested and controversial Act can be expected from Opposition parties in these states, where assembly elections are due.
The CAA, which has been put on the back burner since its passage in Parliament in December 2019, allows the Centre to fast-track citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — by its exclusion of Muslims, the law introduced religion as a criterion for the first time in deciding Indian citizenship. It roiled politics across states, and sparked opposition from parties and civil society groups, especially in West Bengal and Assam. In Assam, the CAA was viewed as an avenue and recourse for non-Muslim immigrants left out of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) process. The issue acquired a sharper edge when Shah and other BJP leaders promised to implement the NRC across India to throw out all “illegal migrants”, or those who did not have papers to prove their citizenship. Popular mobilisations erupted across the country on the issue before the pandemic and the lockdown forced people indoors.
The BJP seems to have zeroed in on the CAA as a potentially powerful plank in the election-bound states of Kerala, Assam and West Bengal which have significant Muslim populations. For the Congress, CPM and Trinamool, opposition to the CAA does not just stem from their postures and professions of secularism, but also from political exigency in view of their support among the Muslim minority. In Assam, where the Congress seems set for a pre-poll alliance with AIUDF, which attracts support from Muslims of Bengali origin, the party has nuanced its position by leaning on the 1985 Assam Accord which takes a secular view of the immigration issue. In both Assam and West Bengal, the BJP hopes to win over the Hindu migrant vote and benefit from religious polarisation, while the CPM, Congress and the Trinamool will need to craft and calibrate a response that avoids polarisation on religious lines. In the process, it seems probable that, once again, other important issues and problems of the people will get short shrift.