Winter of Unrest: Citizens vs Section 144

Winter of Unrest: Citizens vs Section 144

It’s a winter of unrest as city after city cutting across region and religion was spooked by protests and rallies as students, civil society activists and politicians articulated their opposition on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) turning some campuses like Delhi’s Jamia Millia, Aligarh’s Muslim University and Lucknow’s Nadwa University and districts into warzones reflecting their angst against the Government.

Clearly, the Act’s unanticipated violent consequences have overwhelmed the law forcing Home Minister Amit Shah to brazen it out and clarify the Act did not “take away citizenship of any Indian born in India before 1987 or whose parents were born before 1987 are bona fide Indian citizens according to law and need not worry due to CAA,” even as it clamped Section 144 in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, many cities in UP, Maharashtra etc as the police strongly crack downed on protestors.

But what does the CAA mean? Will every citizen have to appear before a tribunal?  What happens to those who fail, would they be deemed foreigners? What are the documents required to prove citizenship?

Certainly, the Act has brought relief and cheer to a section of Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Christian and Parsi refugees who will transit from living in squalid camps as ‘Stateless’ people to Indian citizens. But it won’t change the status quo of Lankan Hindu and Afghan Muslim immigrants.

Yet, many feel the CAA fails the Constitutional test of treating all religions equally. Besides, where does the Government plan to settle the refugees as already India is bursting at its seams with a burgeoning population, limited resources and rising unemployment.

Arguably, whether polarisation on religious lines was part of the ruling BJP’s plan or not, some wonder whether these were only ‘Muslim protests’. But how does one explain the strong pushback against the CAA across the country which has provided them an outlet to express their accumulated grievances against the Government.

Pertinently, the North East specially Assam which was the first to rally against the CAA has a problem not just with immigrants of any particular religion but all migration including Bengali Hindus as it fears them. Ironically, it was also the first State to go through the exercise of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which left out 19 lakh people, mostly Hindus, but the protests have been only against the CAA.

However, unlike the region, the rest of the country thinks the CAA is a communal problem led by vociferous Opposition Parties. They view the CAA and the prospect of a nationwide NRC as a fundamental shift in the secularism embedded in India’s Constitution. The leaders appear interested in utilising the Hindu-Muslim binary created by the Government on both.

While the Congress accuses the Government of shutting people’s voices, friend-turned foe Shiv Sena’s Thackeray warns against the ‘Yuva bomb’ likening Jamia to Jallianwala Bagh. DMK leader Stalin leads protests across Tamil Nadu and Kerala sees rare camaraderie between bitter political foes —CPM Chief Minister Vijayan and Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Congress’s Chennithala coming together in joint protest.

Shockingly, Trinamool’s Mamata is out on the streets demanding a UN referendum (which she later backtracked), making clear she will not allow CAA or NRC to be implemented in West Bengal. Understandable, as her protestations seem to be grounded in real politik: Assembly elections are due in 2021 and some districts have 30-35% Muslims, her vote-bank. Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh along-with AAP-ruled Delhi ditto her.

Among, the BJP allies, the JD(U) vetoed both in Bihar and “guaranteed” the minorities will not get a raw deal “as long as we are around”. Ironically, BJD’s Patnaik who voted for the CAA in Parliament has refused to implement it in Orissa. The Saffron Sangh too is planning a series of workshops and lectures to “properly” educate people , specially Muslims on the CAA.

Internationally, Modi’s well-cultivated global image has come under some stress. The immediate fallout of the CAA was the cancellation of Japanese Prime Minster Abe’s visit followed by a backlash from Western countries US, UK, France etc. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina Government has also deferred State visits. The Government is struggling to disassociate the current friendly regimes in Afghanistan and Bangladesh from the charge of religious persecution. Universities like Harvard, Oxford, MIT have condemned the police crackdown.

Not a few feel that the CAA and the NRC are pieces of a larger puzzle which the Saffron Sangh is using to recast the terms on which the Republic was founded, not overtly by changing the Constitution, but covertly with ‘reforms’ it can defend. Who would be against protection for persecuted minorities?

Asserted an acamedician, “Historically, the BJP has used religious polarisation as an electoral strategy. Now it uses the same trope to change the law. On its own, CAA is more symbolic as it does not affect Indian citizens. But combined with the NRC, it becomes a powerful weapon the Government can use to disenfranchise Muslims and maintain them in a state of precariousness.

“The objective is Hindu-Muslim polarisation all over the country, which benefits the BJP politically as it thinks that if Muslims come together, they are not likely to rally behind the Congress. Nevertheless the CAA has sown seeds of doubts which is acquiring its own dynamic. A classic case of majoritarianism road-rolling the country.”

Interestingly, a sociologist views the CAA’s right-to-return of persecuted minorities as ‘ethnic democracy’ which resonates with BJP’s concept of a Hindu Rashtra. Some critics suggest it is a repeat of Modi-Shah’s Gujarat model: divide, polarise, expurgate. Whereby, protests against the CAA and NRC would have a long-term impact of reducing Muslims to second-class citizens in India, as in Gujarat.

Countered a Sangh leader, “The more the tukde tukde gang, Urban Naxals and pseudo secularists rise in revolt, the more they solidify our image as heroes of Hindutva. This is the remaking of history where Muslim vote-bank politics will be considered political hara-kiri.”

Further, not a few feel India needs to begin having a conversation about the kind of secularism it wants. For under its garb all manner of assault on religion has happened wherein various sects have fallen victim to this legalised multi-religious State. For Muslims, secularism means their personal laws aren’t secure and for Hindus, their religious practices. Christians feel some laws prevent them from missionary activities that could be used to target church services.

In the prevalent fear psychosis the Opposition and people need to debate secularism and arrive at a consensus on what we want of future India. Merely because there exists a word in the Constitution doesn’t mean that it is something that ought to be put beyond the realm of debate.

In sum, it is incumbent that the Centre-States and the entire political establishment do whatever it takes to find a solution to CAA-NRC logjam and maintain peace. In a thriving democracy respect of citizens right to protests or opinions of the young-old and those who agree or disagree are paramount.

In the face of a big political challenge, the Government must initiate dialogue with all and come up with some understanding to restore the people’s confidence urgently. Either way nationalism is entering a new phase of assertion and praxis. The unrest is a sign that India’s democracy is still alive and kicking!



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Winter of Unrest: Citizens vs Section 144