It has been over six weeks since the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests started in earnest in mid-December. The continuous sit-in in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, which has been replicated across the country, has become the model for these protests and stirred the imagination of the people.
It is time now to assess the positive and negative impacts of these protests. Let us begin with the positives. First, it has been heartening to note that these protests initially attracted support across communal lines and continue to do so, especially in States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The violence by the police in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University also sparked protests on various campuses across the country. In many locales, these two streams merged and augmented each other.
Second, it is probably the first time in the history of independent India that so many Muslims have come out on the streets demanding to be heard not just as a minority community but also as full and proud citizens of India. Carrying the national flag, pictures of Gandhi and Ambedkar, and reading from the Preamble of the Constitution, they have made it a fight for the protection of the secular spirit of the Constitution and not just their rights as a religious minority.
Third, ordinary Muslim women have finally become active political participants leading these protests in Shaheen Bagh and in other locations. During the debate on the triple talaq bill, the Modi government had loudly proclaimed that it had the interests of Muslim women at heart. These women have now challenged the government to live up to these claims by heeding their demands to rescind the CAA-National Register of Citizens process. The protesters assert that the future of their children stands threatened as they may be deprived of their citizenship rights.
Now, the negatives. First, the disproportionate violence allegedly used against the protesters, especially in U.P., and documented by journalists has sullied the image of India as a liberal democracy that tolerated dissent and protected the rights of citizens to protest. This has led to negative reports, especially in respected foreign publications such as The New York Times and The Economist .
Second, the government’s response to the protester’s demands has been absolute indifference. No Central Minister has deigned to engage with the protesters, not even of Shaheen Bagh just a few kilometers from the corridors of power. All we have heard is reiteration of the same mantra: that the government will not revisit the CAA; that the protesters are being “misled” by Opposition parties; and that the protests are being engineered by the Congress to defame the government. This attitude once again gives the impression that the government is impervious to criticism and subverts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message of “ Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas, Sab Ka Vishwas ”.
A fundamental error
Third, and possibly the most significant in the long run, is that these continuing sit-ins may have increased the Hindu-Muslim divide, especially in Delhi and U.P. This is reflected in anecdotal and impressionist accounts in the media that these protests, with their predominantly Muslim participation, may be alienating large sections of the Hindus. The organisers of the protest movements made the fundamental error of linking several demonstrations to Friday prayers because they found it the most convenient way of mobilising large crowds pouring out of mosques. The demonstration in old Delhi after Friday prayers at the Jama Masjid on December 21 was the most dramatic symbol of this strategic blunder.
While the anti-CAA protests have demonstrated many positive signs likely to strengthen India’s democratic political culture, there is a danger of communal polarisation if the protesters form too close a bond with a religious identity.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University