It is a strange twist of irony that on Dr. Ambedkar’s 63rd death anniversary, the country is embroiled in one of the clearest cases of changing a basic tenet of Constitution. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government has placed an amendment bill in the Lok Sabha which will change certain provisions of law for giving citizenship to illegal immigrants into the country. This bill is called the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 (CAB) and it amends certain provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955.
A careful analysis of what the CAB does will show that it militates against some of the core values that Dr. Ambedkar stood for and fought for.
The CAB says that all illegal immigrants except Muslims from three of India’s neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) will not be considered illegal and will be naturalised as citizens in a much shorter time frame than provided for others. How does this go against the very spirit of the Constitution and the values of Dr. Ambedkar?
Attack on Secularism
The Indian Constitution declares that India is a secular country. This is generally interpreted to mean that the government does not discriminate against any religion nor does it favour any particular religion. Clearly, the CAB violates this core or basic principle. It will actively discriminate against Muslims coming from the designated three countries (which are Muslim majority countries). They will be imprisoned, deported or asked to prove their credentials for naturalisation which includes proof that they have stayed in India for 11 of the last 14 years.
Also read: What is the Real Intention Behind CAB and the Future Pan-Indian NRC?
Besides this, there is another aspect of discrimination. The argument being given in favour of this is that non-Muslims are persecuted in these three countries and hence, they will be given shelter in India. But what about other Muslim sects like the Ahmediyas who also face persecution in some of these countries? Under the new law, they will be dealt with in the same way as all Muslims. In other words, it is not about persecution but about religious belief.
Here, it is necessary to clear the air about some fake news that the Sangh Parivar has been propagating assiduously. According to this, Dr. Ambedkar was opposed to secularism and that is why he rejected the proposed amendment to the Constitution that called for characterising India as a ‘secular’ country.
Actually, on November 15, 1948, Prof. K. T. Shah had proposed in the Constituent Assembly that the words “Secular, Federal, Socialist” be inserted in Article 1 of the Constitution. Dr. Ambedkar rejected the proposed amendment (as did the Constituent Assembly). In his argument, he only gave reasons to why adding “Socialist” is superfluous and enunciated the principle that such matters as the economic system to be developed are best left to Parliament. He made no comments on secularism. This has been distorted to imply that he was against secularism.
Moreover, other interventions in the debate on the Constitution make it amply clear that Dr. Ambedkar firmly stood by the principle that religion is a private matter and that it should not impinge upon public policy. For example, on the question of government’s financial support to such educational institutions that imparted religious education, he remained firmly opposed, saying, “We have accepted the proposition which is embodied in Article 21, that public funds raised by taxes shall not be utilised for the benefit of any particular community.” He, in fact, went on to say, “Unfortunately, the religions which prevail in this country are not merely non-social; so far as their mutual relations are concerned, they are anti-social, one religion claiming that its teachings constitute the only right path for salvation, that all other religions are wrong. ….. In view of this, it seems to me that we should be considerably disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of an institution if these controversies with regard to the truthful character of any particular religion and the erroneous character of the other were brought into juxtaposition in the school itself.”
Also read: Citizenship Bill -- A Thoughtless, Dangerous Business
The canard that is opportunistically spread by the Sangh Parivar about Dr. Ambedkar being opposed to secularism has been used to mislead many people but it is just another one of those lies that are so common today.
Attack on Equality
The CAB is also an attack on one of the fundamental rights, as enshrined in Article 14. This Article reads as under:
14. Equality before law. - The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
It is included in Part III of the Constitution, entitled “Fundamental Rights”.
What this means is that not only will the State ensure equality through its actions for “any person” within the territory of India, but, it will also ensure that all such persons get the equal protection of law. Note that the Article is specifying “any person” and not citizens. This means that even foreigners or illegal immigrants will be guaranteed the right, which is a profound and fundamental vision.
But the CAB does precisely the opposite – it discriminates against illegal immigrants of one religious persuasion. In this sense, it is violative of a fundamental right.
Does the government have a right to amend such rights? Some may be misled into thinking that after all, can’t the government amend the Constitution?
The answer has been more or less provided by various Supreme Court judgements on what can be amended and what cannot be changed. Of these, the Keshavananda Bharti case is the seminal one, which laid down that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be changed and also that Fundamental Rights are part of the Basic Structure. Other subsequent judgements, too, have reiterated that Fundamental Rights are part of the Constitution. In short, it can be very robustly argued that CAB is an attempt to change the basic structure of the Constitution and hence, liable to be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Also read: In My Own Voice: Citizenship Amendment Bill and You
Finally, it should be remembered that the present government has been systematically destroying various features of the Constitution – federalism, democracy, rule of law, rights of individuals, rights of oppressed classes especially dalits and adivasis, etc. CAB is yet another attack. On Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, it is necessary to remember this and to fight against this destruction of his legacy.