Uncovering the CAA’s larger stratagem

Student protesters have exacted their first concession from the powers that be. The Prime Minister has denied any official intent to compile a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC), nor to build detention centres to contain those classified as non-citizens. The implication is to delink any connection between the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019.

This signals an official intent to shift the focus of public attention from the NRC to the CAA. The reworked message: What could be more benign than an Act that reaches out to oppressed religious minorities in the neighbourhood? Those who continue to protest must either be misinformed, misguided or ill-intentioned.

The larger picture

There is a fourth possibility: the student protesters may be right. To make sense of the protester’s point of view, one needs to look beyond the list of those included, which is indeed the benign half of the picture. The other half is the list of those excluded. Only a grasp of reasons that explain both sides of the list, those included and those excluded, can give a sense of the whole picture.

Why does the list of minorities include only those from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan? Why not from other neighbours such as Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar? Could it be because the ruling powers in these countries are not officially Muslim? I can think of only one reason why a government pledged to Hindutva would exclude ‘persecuted Hindu’, such as the Tamils of Sri Lanka, from the list — because their oppressor does not claim to be an official representative of Islam. Here is one clue to the logic that informs the CAA: the legislation intends to present the perpetrator as Muslim, and only Muslim.

No ‘victim’

For a second clue as to the kind of reasoning that informs this double process of exclusion and inclusion, let us focus on the exclusion of the most persecuted minorities in the region, such as the Rohingya of Myanmar or the Uighurs of China. Just as the legislation recognises only Muslim perpetrators, it recognises no Muslim victim.

To complete the list of those excluded, we need to focus on oppressed Muslims in countries where the ruling power officially claims to be Muslim. Those oppressed may be targeted as groups such as Ahmadiyya or Shia, or they may be identified as individual critics. One such instance was headlined by the Karachi daily, The Dawn, of December 23, 2019: “Academic Junaid Hafeez Sentenced to Death on Blasphemy Charges by Multan Court.”

Whether intended or not, it is these reasons that make the CAA a demonic rather than a benign legislation. More than helping out persecuted minorities, its effect will be to demonise and isolate one group, Muslims, as exclusively a group of perpetrators. The official discourse thus seeks to present Muslims as a politically and morally legitimate target for persecution by a government-mobilised majority.

It is this stratagem that student protesters have exposed.

The student protesters consciously claim to follow an earlier generation of nationalist leaders — evoking names such as Gandhi, Ambedkar, Azad. Inspired by the Independence movement, they pledge non-violent action. Indeed, these non-violent protests have exploded in the face of brutal official repression.

A continuing process

Like the Independence movement, the protest is not a standalone event, but an ongoing process. It resembles what the South Africans used to call “rolling mass action” at the peak of anti-apartheid mobilisation. Few have bothered to draw up a blueprint or even define a destination for the protests.

Though many demand “independence”, the call does not adequately sum up what these protests are about.

Perhaps more accurate is the accompanying call for the defence of secularism, specifically as incorporated in the Indian Constitution.

Secularism does not necessarily translate into denouncing the presence of religion in the public sphere. Instead of a simple opposition between secularism and religion, protesters tend to distinguish different trends within secular and religious realms. They embrace secularism which accommodates diversity, but not the French-style laicity that openly shuns it. A recent Op-Ed favourably contrasted religious sentiment that reaches out to embrace as opposed to fundamentalisms that thrive on exclusions.

Their pledge to emulate the earlier generation of nationalists also hides the important ways in which the protests depart from the Independence generation in significant ways.

The protest leadership comes from loosely coordinated student groups. There are hardly any luminaries in the protest, whether from the world of finance or industry or entertainment.

They keep a distance from political parties. Indeed, many of these youthful protesters seem disillusioned with party politics.

Rather than look to representative democracy as the guarantor of people’s rights, they are in search of new and popular ways of defining and defending these rights.

In pointing to new possibilities, they seem to follow a trend that can be discerned at a global level, in places such as Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, France, Chile, Hong Kong, and so on, in what we may define as the contemporary post-Arab Spring era.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University and director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 3:05:00 AM |

Next Story