“The Citizenship Amendment Act is unconstitutional.”
We’ve heard this repeated again and again, by lawyers, politicians, journalists and so many others. In fact, it’s been repeated since 2016, when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act first came into the picture.
But what does it mean? Why should we care? How does it affect you and me?
The answers to these questions are not that difficult to grasp, if only we move away from legal jargon and focus on the spirit of the Constitution itself. But first, it’s vital that you understand why we even have a Constitution.
#Throwback: 8th Grade Civics
Forget what legal and constitutional experts are saying and look at the book that many of us are familiar with: the CBSE Civics Book. This is how it introduces the Constitution to students:
The government, currently, has picked up the ball and is running with it.
While people are trying hard to stick to the rules and kick the ball, every player from the government team is just clutching the football tightly to their chest and running to the goalpost. What’s even more bizarre is the crowd in the stadium is cheering the government along and questioning the other team, calling them “anti-national” whenever they point to rule violations.
“Scoring the goal is important here,” says one member of the crowd. “This government is a goal-scoring government. How does it matter how they do it?”
The reason why this line of thought is problematic is pretty simple. This is also the same reason why our Constitution exists in the first place.
We are a diverse country with different languages, cultures, religions, geographies, cuisines, and just different sensibilities in general. To hold a country like ours together, we need some basic rules that cannot be breached. These are the rules that our Constitution provides.
Since 1947, the reason why we’ve held together as a common country called India is thanks to this rulebook: our Constitution. Now, that rulebook is about to be breached, encouraged by a cheering crowd of spectators.
What these spectators are missing out on is the damage the government is causing by picking up the football while being confident that they won’t be penalised for it. Their confidence stems from one singular argument: “Hey, the crowd wants us to pick up the ball in our hands. How can we not do that?”
The crowd doesn’t realise that in their mad frenzy to support the government team, they’re ruining the entire game of football. For themselves.
Article 14: The Rule That Shall Not Be Broken
Our Constitution has some basic rules established. Rules which essentially define how India will stay together, despite being so goshdarn diverse. One of the rules is that the Indian state shall treat everyone equally, and not discriminate against the citizens of India based on caste, religion, language, gender and place of birth.
Again, understand the simple logic behind why this exists as a rule. Tomorrow if one Hindu fellow from Bihar hires a Hindu and a Sikh for the same job, but decides to pay the Hindu more because their religious beliefs match, that’s discriminatory behaviour. The Sikh fellow will feel isolated, go back to Punjab, and tell people how they all need to boycott Bihar in general.
This is a very simplistic example, sure, but you can see how cracks can form in the unity of the nation because of the simplest of everyday things, fueled by inherent biases we all have. Unless there is a constant reminder to the citizens of India that the law is applicable to all equally, that the state cannot discriminate against other citizens based on caste, religion, language, gender and place of birth, unless there is constant effort to defeat these biases at a societal level — this whole dreamy multi-cultural experiment called India which was started in 1947 just falls apart, bit by bit.
The recently-passed CAA breaks the basic core principles of the Constitution, especially the fact that citizenship of India is open to all without discrimination. The government, however, has put forward some legal terminology to argue how the CAA falls under “reasonable classification” so it does not violate Article 14. This tricky little thing will only be resolved in late January by the Supreme Court when the hearings against the CAA commence.
(To understand what the “reasonable classification” argument is, read this.)
If the Supreme Court also ends up allowing this law, it will open up a Pandora’s box for India. Now that is when the real divisions will commence. For the sake of argument though, let’s assume the Supreme Court does not exist. Let’s assume the government’s argument is correct and that this CAA law is constitutionally valid.
Now, read Article 14 again, but this time with Article 15:
Yes. Article 14 talks about equality before the law and, in Article 15, religion is not the only criteria mentioned. There is race, caste, sex and place of birth as well. As of now, because of the CAA, the conversation is centred around religion. But next, you never know, caste or sex will come into the picture.
Maybe not immediately, maybe in a few years, maybe under another government, what if a law is passed saying that Dalit Indians will have to fulfil certain criteria in order to continue being citizens of India? What if, in another decade, the same is done to women? The then government will point to the year 2019 when the CAA was accepted, an Act that does the same thing on the basis of religion.
Right now, at this point of time, we are looking at just one aspect of Article 14 being breached. The CAA is designed to act as a filter that will decide who will get citizenship, keeping religion as the primary criteria. This criteria can change in the future through another law cleared by the Parliament. It can be caste, sex, race or place of birth.
This might seem alarmist and dystopian to you but right now in 2019, if our current government continues lawmaking on the basis of sectarian divisions, in another 10 years, this will be reality.
Then, we will truly be in dystopia.
The article was updated to include a screenshot of Article 15.