The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposal to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC) have galvanised thousands of people in an unparalleled display of anti-government opposition. The spark lit by the protests in Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) has taken the country by storm. Police brutality inside the university’s campus and library gave further momentum to the wave of demonstrations.
Public protests are not uncommon events in India. But, the scale of discontent this time against the redefinition of ‘citizenship’ is quite remarkable. The government has made concerted attempts to suppress these displays of dissent through draconian methods involving widespread Internet shutdowns, arbitrary arrests and ban on assemblies. This scale of repression and extreme use of state power has not been seen since the Emergency. However, the government’s efforts have not deterred protesters; they have flooded the streets in defiance across the length and breadth of the country. That people have not been frightened by these authoritarian methods and by the general tendency of this regime to paint all criticism as anti-national is even more remarkable.
Biggest since 2014
After the unconscionable police action in JMI, political parties such as the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) organised marches and some State governments are now pushing back against the Centre. Still, the acts of dissent do not readily fit the contours of party politics. As of now, these agitations are spontaneous — the largest and most widespread in decades and certainly the biggest since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Although they are not organised or coordinated, they represent an extraordinary instance of anti-government forces rallying around the issue of an exclusionary citizenship Bill.
There are three questions that need to be addressed at this juncture. One, how does one explain this historic moment? Two, are these agitations different from other mass protests of the last decade? And, three, what will be their impact on the project of Hindu nationalism?
The CAA is closely related to a key project of the BJP government — the NRC. Despite protestations to the contrary, the NRC remains a crucial part of the BJP’s bid to declare India as a natural home of Hindus. The register aims to identify genuine Indian citizens through a process that could cast doubts on the citizenship of millions of Indians. Consequently, the CAA-NRC has evoked a much sharper reaction than several other recent achievements on the Hindutva list — like the revocation of Article 370, criminalisation of triple talaq and the Supreme Court verdict on the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute. The unfair discrimination evident in the open espousal by the state of a religious criterion for citizenship has divided the country as nothing else has done in decades. This is the most explicit attempt to push forward a Hindu nationalist agenda. The Home Minister’s repeated assertion in Parliament that the Bill is part of the “unfinished business of Partition”, unequivocally underlined this agenda. This business of ‘righting’ the ‘wrongs’ of Partition goes against the categorical rejection of the two-nation theory by India’s freedom struggle and the secular and inclusive constitutional framework that India adopted despite the surcharged political circumstances in the aftermath of Partition. In fact, it validates the two-nation theory by introducing a religious criterion.
Asserting rights as citizens
There is no doubt that the country’s Muslims, who feel most threatened by this move, are in the forefront of the widespread protests. But the protests started by students of JMI and Aligarh Muslim University have since developed into a much wider opposition. Tens of thousands of people have come out on the streets against CAA-NRC in numerous cities, universities, public squares and maidan s to express their opposition to the CAA, with a marked emphasis on upholding the Constitution. Clearly, the rallies are not limited to minority educational institutions or to any particular community. Further, they are taking place outside the framework of identity politics with young men and women, especially at the JMI, articulating their rights as citizens. In other words, these protests have given shape to a new youth identity that is not predicated on community alone.
Economic and governance failures are also stoking dissent. The pent up frustration against the government’s failure to fix the economy provides the broader political context for the discontent that spans a range of issues, from fee hikes to increasing joblessness to purposely created social divisions. The agitations also reflect growing wariness with the decline in freedoms due to the BJP’s authoritarian mindset.
This dramatic moment has been compared to the agitations against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule and to the two major movements of the last decade, the Anna Hazare and Nirbhaya campaigns. But, one point to be noted here is that despite the high stakes, large parts of the country had remained untouched by the earlier protests. Both of them were concentrated in Delhi. Equally, the anti-corruption movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s was limited to certain States.
Broader scope and impact
The anti-CAA protests are appreciably different. The earlier agitations were centred on specific policies and demanded new laws — a Lokpal, for example. The current protests, on the other hand, are not centred on specific policies. They are driven by a disquiet against attempts to define India as a Hindu nation. Furthermore, they are taking place after the passage of the legislation. This difference highlights a deeper issue about the possibilities of opposition when a law is already enacted and legislative channels appear to have run their course. The crucial issue here is related to the significance of public pressure exerted by anti-CAA protests to change the political landscape beyond a repeal of the law. This can happen only when the student protests that sparked this resistance are sustained by an organised political opposition.
These demonstrations have yet to have a tangible effect on the current dispensation as it is unwilling to either listen to or talk to the protesters. But they have already made an emotional impact on the people. The veil of fear that had gripped the country for six years has been lifted. A determined counter-mobilisation cutting across religious lines has begun to challenge the BJP’s Hindutva project. The lines are clearly drawn as the Sangh Parivar’s effort to redefine Indian nationhood has finally provoked a popular upsurge and created unexpected obstacles in the path of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University