It is just as well that two contested pieces of legislation — the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill — have lapsed with the close of the Budget Session, the last parliamentary session of the 16th Lok Sabha. These bills had been passed in the Lower House and were awaiting introduction in the Rajya Sabha. Both had raised serious concerns that they would have a polarising effect, deepen ethnic, regional and communal fissures. Hopefully, the next government will make no attempt to revive the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, and will make an effort to forge a greater consensus on the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, commonly referred to as the triple talaq bill, before seeking the approval of Parliament.
The proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act viewed Indian citizenship as an exclusive privilege of Indic faiths, excluded Muslims, and projected India as a homeland of Hindus. The NDA government shrugged off the criticism that the bill militated against the constitutional idea of Indian citizenship. It chose to ignore the ethnic faultlines in the Northeast and sought to impose a religious binary onto the complicated identity question that is central to politics in the region. The BJP’s leader in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, made his party’s agenda clear when he reiterated on Wednesday that the BJP stands by the bill and that if it is not passed, as many as 17 constituencies in Assam “will go into the hands of Bangladeshi Muslims”. This seems in stark contrast to the wider public opinion in the region. It is not surprising, then, that besides civil society groups like AASU, even chief ministers from the region have welcomed the lapsing of the citizenship bill. The BJP needs to understand that the identity question in the Northeast is a nuanced one and it must shun steps that may force open new faultlines. On the other hand, the triple talaq bill is a potentially progressive legislation that has faltered primarily because of the government’s insistence on pressing the criminality clause, which has raised fears of a miscarriage of justice.
A lesson to be drawn from the 16th Lok Sabha, particularly the experience of these two bills, is that the party in power needs to engage creatively and persuasively with the Opposition. Consensus-building is a tough ask, but it is a task that is essential to the practice of democracy.