Glimpses 2019: Amit Shah's strong-arm tactics finally hit a roadblock with CAA

The reverberations of MHA's historic decisions in 2019 will be felt for years to come

PTI11_4_2019_000152A (File) Home Minister Amit Shah

History was rewritten in 2019 in North Block atop Raisina Hill in the national capital. The second term of the Modi government brought BJP president Amit Shah to the Union home ministry housed in North Block, in June. Two months after assuming charge, Shah declared in August that his government was abrogating Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

From Kashmir to Assam in the northeast and the hinterland, the reverberations of the historic decisions taken by the Union home ministry in 2019 will be felt for years to come as they impacted national security, shaped the government's policy and affected the daily lives of people.

Congress called it a murder of the Constitution when the government threw out the provision that allowed the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly to make its own Constitution, thereby giving it an autonomous state power. By the time the year came to a close, the opposition once again repeated its allegation; this time over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the “proposed countrywide” National Register of Citizens. However, this time, it was joined by students and civil society, making it one of the most challenging times for the home ministry.

The abrogation of the state's special status meant that Jammu and Kashmir would be like any other Indian state under the law. While nationalists welcomed the move, the heavy security clampdown in the state to avoid any law and order problem brought life to a standstill for the locals.

The Union home ministry under Shah displayed how it was the most overarching central ministry with vast resources at its disposal, especially in terms of security forces. The heavy troop deployment, clampdown on communication—internet and landlines—detention of protesters, including three former chief ministers, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, led to a curfew-like situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The geographical boundaries were redrawn and the state was bifurcated into the twin Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh with Parliament passing the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganisation) Act, 2019.

The home ministry also released a new map of India depicting Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as part of the newly created Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, while Gilgit-Baltistan part of the UT of Ladakh and within the geographical boundary of India. The developments in Kashmir heightened tensions between India and Pakistan this year as New Delhi asserted its position on Jammu and Kashmir and PoK, internationally. This was strongly challenged by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who told the United Nations General Assembly in September about the risk of a conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries.

Islamabad had been feeling the heat since the beginning of 2019. After the Pulwama terror attack on a CRPF convoy earlier this year, New Delhi's retaliatory response had been unprecedented. The Balakot airstrike by the Indian Air Force in February 2019 had changed the rules of engagement between India and Pakistan. The developments on the western border and handling of Jammu and Kashmir will chart out New Delhi's policies for the coming years and determine the national security strategies.

This year also saw major steps in the war against terror with the passage of the National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Act, 2019 and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019. The NIA (Amendment) Act empowered the counter-terror agency with extraterritorial jurisdiction for investigation of terrorism-related offences taking place outside India, in which Indian citizens or Indian property is victim. The mandate of the NIA was expanded by inclusion of new offences related to explosive substances, human trafficking sale of prohibited arms and cyber terrorism. The UAPA Act was tweaked to allow the government to declare an individual a terrorist. MHA had long been toying with the idea of proscribing individuals as terrorists and with the enactment of the law, the Pulwama terror mastermind and Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Mumbai terror attack accused Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and fugitive underworld don Dawood Ibrahim were declared individual terrorists.

Not just national security, the MHA is also the nodal authority for the Union government's relation with states which makes it a politically sensitive arm of the government. The Congress-led opposition accused the government of using this authority for political gains after the MHA revoked President's rule in Maharashtra on November 23 by invoking a special provision of the government rules to bypass the requirement of holding a meeting of the Union Cabinet for such a crucial decision. This helped the BJP-NCP alliance to form the government and after the President's signature on the proclamation, a gazette notification was issued by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla at 5.47am, facilitating the formation of the government in Maharashtra.

The year 2019 also saw the withdrawal of the Special Protection Group (SPG) security cover given to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka, replacing it with a CRPF security cover. For over two decades, the SPG had been associated with guarding the first family of the Congress party. The withdrawal of the elite force from their security led to ruckus in Parliament, with the Congress up in arms against the move. Once again, Shah backed it up by bringing a bill that mandated the SPG to guard only the prime minister, his or her immediate family members if they live with him or her. As per the new provisions, a former prime minister will be given SPG security only for five years after demitting office and his or her family members only for five years if they live along with him or her. The home ministry said this was done to increase operational efficiency of SPG in ensuring the security of the prime minister.

The year 2019 also saw the Union Cabinet passing a resolution on November 22 to celebrate the historic occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in a grand and befitting manner, throughout the country and across the globe. India signed the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor Agreement with Pakistan on October 24 to facilitate Indian pilgrims of all faiths to undertake year-round Visa-free travel to Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib through the Kartarpur Corridor. This had been a long-standing demand of followers of Guru Nanak.

The agreement happened after the MHA had wide-ranging discussions with their Pakistani counterparts, a task not easy with the escalating tensions on the border. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor also brought with it security concerns in the backdrop of the Khalistani terror threat and the 2020 Sikh referendum with Indian agencies warning that Pakistan could use the opportunity to fuel the pro-Khalistan movement.

In the northeast, the fast-paced developments were keeping the pot boiling for the home ministry. Firstly, the assurance of Nagaland governor and interlocutor for Naga peace talks, R.N. Ravi, of signing of the historic Naga deal by the end of the year kept states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal on their toes. The people waited to see whether the Modi-Shah combine were going to announce a historic Naga peace accord to end the decades-long insurgency. But the wait for everlasting peace continues.

The year 2019 also saw the home ministry patting itself on the back for the decline in Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) in the country. During the UPA regime, threat from LWE was called one of the biggest internal security challenges but this year showed little activity in the LWE corridor. However, the activities of “urban Maoists” remained a potent threat and a big challenge for the home ministry. The year witnessed continued crackdown on alleged urban Maoists and their bases in cities. The snooping scandal hit the MHA this year with voice and messaging data of a large number of citizens getting leaked allegedly to the government agencies. The charge that the government was allegedly snooping on dalits and human rights activists was denied by the ministry.

But what finally culminated in the biggest challenge to the MHA this year was the protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which grants Indian Citizenship to persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities on ground of religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Marathon deliberations held by Shah with various stakeholders from northeast and their concerns against the revised bill were addressed in the final CAA but MHA miscalculated the situation and did not foresee the large protests that gripped the country.

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The NRC has already failed in Assam, as the Assamese people felt it would benefit illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have settled in large numbers in the region. The CAB, along with the proposed National Register of Citizens for the entire country, was seen as a potent mix where the government was allegedly trying to exclude the Muslim community and further its agenda of a Hindu rashtra.

The Amit Shah-led ministry, which handled the law and order situation at the time of the Ayodhya verdict by the Supreme Court in November, was caught unawares on the CAA issue. The accusations came thick and fast not only from the opposition parties but from students and civil society who are protesting against the amendments to the citizenship law on the basis of religion. The MHA worked overtime to tide over the alleged misconceptions and claimed that false propaganda machinery was behind it.

Countrywide protests broke out in several states and the worst hit was Uttar Pradesh, where 15 lives were lost. The MHA had to finally buckle down under pressure and Shah said that the countrywide NRC was not being discussed by the government at this stage.

Meanwhile, the MHA is preparing to conduct the exercise for the updation of the National Population Register along with the 2021 Census, refusing to give into pressure from states like Kerala and West Bengal over the issue of enumerating the number of residents in the country. The MHA’s handling of Kashmir to the CAA and NRC protests and Shah's tough approach towards national security and implementing his government's policies is expected to keep the ministry on its toes in 2020 as the bitter sweet 2019 ends.