Protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens have as a side effect reopened the debate over the right to protest – a right asserted by activists as part of freedom of expression on one side and on the other believers of its lawful limits for orderly life. There is no blanket right in any society for anything. The protests continuing in many States despite Prime Minister’s clarifications need to be examined from many angles – causes, instigators, leaders, organisers, participants, methods, results, actions and reactions, and so on. The actors are many, some on the scene and some behind — unseen, heard or unheard. They are not the affected people.
Protest politics has intensified in recent times all over the world. The worrying factor is that not all protesters are aware of what they are protesting against, and many who are aware seem to be fed with misinformation, misinterpretation, and rumours and exaggerations circulating as truth. There is no consistency in the stand taken by some parties in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha or inside Parliament and outside. The malady has gone very deep as politics and political parties, always having an eye on elections and offices, try to catch every opportunity and twist every issue to collect votes.
The Act and the Register are different — a starting point that protesters, including many of their leaders, fail to see partly due to ignorance and partly due to political interest in complicating issues for propaganda. The only common feature is the term “citizen” though it is used for different purposes. It sounds like the story of “crying wolf”, which in a way is needed to compel the government to publicise the details of the two for public consumption without delay.
Parliamentary majority to enact laws or to frame regulations are not sufficient to build and to retain popularity with the people. Out of Parliament speeches and street-level politics are forceful weapons in the hands of parties and pressure groups which cannot be ignored by the government of the day. It is necessary first to understand the value of citizenship that has triggered violence on the roads.
In the West, since the time of ancient Greece, the title of “citizenship” has been considered an honour and to be a good citizen is something for admiration and respect. In the ancient Roman Empire, citizenship was a privileged political and legal status accorded to individuals with respect to law, property, and governance. In France, a distinction as “active citizens” and “passive citizens” was made — the former having the right to vote and the latter living under government protection. Right to have rights is the centre of citizenship in USA. How one becomes a citizen and what makes one a good citizen has been historically matters of difference of opinion and even dispute.
T.H. Marshall, widely accepted as the authoritative exponent of post-War conception of citizenship as rights, conceived three types of rights – civil, political and social. In Europe, the concept of citizenship is traced to the French Revolution.
State citizenship is a human creation, a status that carries political significance. It confers a number of rights and duties, but the citizen is inclined to claim the rights and forget the duties. Citizenship, in some countries, is also understood as an office, a responsibility, a status-cum-burden, and an entitlement. Battle over citizenship is for the rights it confers and not for the duties it imposes. It is concerned with the process by which people(s) become citizens.
Citizenship provokes disputes and disputes give rise to protests because it provides equality of status as the basic principle. It relates to quality of life meaning availability of opportunities, access to resources, chances to improve one’s prospects, freedom for independent and individual growth, and assurance of equal respect. Citizenship is intimately linked with progress and security. Only citizenship can ensure a lasting bond in a plural society due to its legal basis irrespective of the diversities within. Among citizens, there is a sentiment of equality. Citizenship requires members to be loyal to the society in which they are members.
Protests have erupted as the law intended for extension of citizenship is misinterpreted as a law for depriving some sections of the population of their citizenship and for differentially treating those seeking citizenship on grounds of religion. It is easier to escalate riot and disturbances if communal prejudice and minority position are attributed as the basis of this deprivation contrary to the spirit of the law meant to help minority population persecuted in some neighbouring countries for their religious persuasions and have migrated to India.
There is absolute need to publicise the actual intent of the two exercises so as to clear the doubts of the people fed with a variety of interpretations. NDA government has obviously failed in its duty to educate people while embarking on such important measures. After going with strong words in favour of the CAA, the government is now reported to be proceeding cautiously in framing rules.
As protests have spread to many parts of the country, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits assembly of four or more persons, was clamped in many States. It confers on the executive officers such as executive magistrates or sub-divisional magistrates powers for passing orders to tackle any urgent cases of “nuisance” or “apprehended danger” that may arise in their territorial jurisdiction where such orders will prevent or are likely to prevent any adverse impact upon human life, health, safety, or prevent “a disturbance of the public tranquility”. The Section can be imposed only after prior notice and hearing of the persons whose rights will be adversely affected and only “in cases of emergency” this condition could be waived.
Restrictions could not be minimal and reasonable as often advised by the Court as Section 144 was not enough to contain violence this time. In Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, statewide clamping of Section 144 was accompanied with blocking of mobile services and internet and in Delhi metro services were shut down in many places.
Arson and vandalism ruled in many cities in UP leading to police firing. Extensive damage to public and private property by protesters in UP and Karnataka is evidence of the extent of anti- CAA and anti-NRC campaigns and the ease with which masses can be provoked and incited to violence without even a knowledge of the cause of protest. The presence of the police has not been sufficient to control the situation. Violence could not be contained by limited action as false information spreads in split seconds giving no time for damage control.
This protest has firmly established the efficacy of slogans in the place of reasoning and fear mongering replacing fact verification. The way it is conducted raises a doubt whether there are professional protesters in this country out to destabilise orderly life or nursing a wrong notion that direct actions are the most democratic form of expressing views.
There is need to make an in-depth analysis of protest politics that is growing parallel to parliamentary politics. Indeed, it is enacted even inside Parliament.
The writer is Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi