Untied States

The contours of the federal showdown over the CAA and NRC

30 January 2020
When the West Bengal government advertised its resistance to the CAA and a nationwide NRC, the Calcutta High Court stood in its way. The CAA and NRC are splitting open federal fissures across the country.
Abhishek Mondal / Sipa USA / AP
When the West Bengal government advertised its resistance to the CAA and a nationwide NRC, the Calcutta High Court stood in its way. The CAA and NRC are splitting open federal fissures across the country.
Abhishek Mondal / Sipa USA / AP

The West Bengal government ran an ad campaign on local television channels in mid December proclaiming its intention to resist the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed nationwide rollout of the National Register of Citizens. The state’s governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar—a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party—castigated the move. The advertisements were “absolutely unconstitutional,” he said. “It is a criminal use of public funds.” Within a fortnight, the Calcutta High Court imposed an interim ban on the campaign.

On the last day of 2019, the legislative assembly in Kerala adopted a resolution denouncing the CAA and demanding its repeal. Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, argued before the assembly that the CAA “contradicts the basic values and principles of the Constitution.” Arif Mohammed Khan, the governor of Kerala, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, the law minister of the BJP-led central government, responded with outbursts. The assembly had “ventured beyond its brief,” Prasad complained. “It is only the parliament which has got the power to pass any law with regard to citizenship.”

Punjab’s chief minister, Amarinder Singh, sent an open letter to Prasad soon afterwards, endorsing the Kerala resolution. He wrote that the Kerala assembly “has not passed any citizenship law,” but formalised “the will and wisdom” of the people of the state and invited the centre to reconsider the CAA. The states, he asserted, “are neither naïve nor misguided,” but performing a constitutional duty in transmitting local voices into a national debate.

The CAA and NRC are splitting open federal fissures across the country. The CAA’s selective sympathy is a coup against the idea of a plural, inviting India. It offers an accelerated path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and Parsi refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, to the deliberate exclusion of Muslims. The nationwide NRC, a sister initiative, aims to identify and oust illegal aliens from India. The two together will unleash an inquisition against India’s two hundred million Muslims, strip many of them of citizenship and slyly doctor the country’s demography. Convinced of these measures’ unconstitutionality, the governments of twelve states—Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana and West Bengal—as well as the union territory of Delhi, have threatened to disobey the CAA and disregard the proposed NRC. 

The states will to defy the centre; the centre wills to impose its arrant writ upon them. Implicated in this clash of wills are distinct ideas of federalism. Whether the states can defy the centre depends on how sharp the constitutional lines dividing them are.

Shubhankar Dam is a chair professor of public law and governance at the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. 

Keywords: CAA NRC NPR federalism Constitution
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