Cover Story

A nation awakened

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Students during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Kochi on December 18. Photo: PTI

The most determined attempt by divisive forces to overthrow the Constitution was met with the strongest resistance by those who believe in it, and their commitment to the secular and democratic character of our polity reinforces our faith in the future of the nation.

December 2019 will be long remembered as a decisive moment in the nation’s history. It saw the most determined attempt since Independence to overthrow the Constitution, to subvert its secular democratic character, and to move towards a fascist dictatorship under the guise of a Hindu Rashtra, for that unmistakably was the idea behind the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and its proposed sequel, the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

This attempt, which began in August 2019 with the abrogation of Article 370 on Kashmir, the incarceration of its entire political leadership and the virtual cessation of its communications with the outside world, reached its culmination in December in the CAA. It also saw massive resistance against this attempt on the streets, on a scale unparallelled since Independence, with people of different religions coming together to defend the Constitution. This resistance has forced the government to retreat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed, quite falsely, that the NRC was never mooted by his government, but that is just a face-saver to cover his current retreat. This resistance has been marked by several striking features. The first is its composition, the fact that it has been spearheaded by students and young people. The large-scale participation of Muslims, especially of young Muslim women, is quite remarkable and stands in sharp contrast to the passivity and helplessness that had afflicted the community for the last several years. Articulate, passionate and committed to the idea of India as an inclusive entity, the demonstrators have displayed, in a microcosm, the very inclusiveness that they uphold for the country.

The second striking feature is its spontaneity. Though these demonstrations enjoy the full support of several opposition parties, they are not called by them and do not consist simply of their followers or members of their front organisations. They are led by people who are neither professional politicians nor well-known political activists. The demonstrations constitute a spontaneous outpouring of protest and anger.

The third is their sweep and scale. From Jaipur to Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, from Mumbai to the north-east, lakhs of people have been attending these rallies and demonstrations. Students of prestigious institutions such as the Indian Statistical Institute, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, who have scarcely ever come on to the streets, have now joined their counterparts in universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University in opposing the CAA and the NRC.

The fourth is their commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution, the values for which the anti-colonial struggle had fought. This is not just an abstract commitment.

The young lawyers and doctors who, the moment they come to know of arrests, make it a point to visit police stations to attend to the needs of those arrested without a thought of any remuneration and often spend long hours arguing with the police to let them visit the prisoners, are in sharp contrast to the divisiveness encouraged by the government and its police. The women of Jamia taking lathi blows from the police to protect a targeted male colleague constitute a shining example of satyagraha no less inspiring than any during the anti-colonial struggle.

The fifth notable feature is the large-scale use of social media, of WhatsApp groups, to mobilise people. In this sense, a protest movement of this kind is totally unprecedented in Indian society and is reminiscent of the Arab Spring.

The sixth is its complete unexpectedness. The government, having perfected the art of using a combination of threats and blandishments to silence its political opponents, having terrorised the population at large with sedition laws, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and sundry other legislations of a similar kind, and having browbeaten a pusillanimous judiciary into submission, had taken acquiescence to its actions for granted.

Its actions in Kashmir were a trial run; since they did not arouse much opposition in the rest of the country, it became emboldened to move ahead. It even ignored the appeal by 1,000 top scientists of the country not to proceed with the CAA. In this mood of triumphalism, one Hindutva representative even claimed that passing the CAA had got the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 15 million additional votes. In the midst of all this, the mass demonstrations and protests against the CAA and the NRC struck like a bolt from the blue.

Spontaneous protests

Why such spontaneous protests erupted suddenly remains a moot point. The protests, perhaps, were not just in response to this particular move of the government. This move, and the brutality of the police action against Jamia and AMU students protesting against it, proved to be the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. The long suppressed fury at the government’s cynical manoeuvres to communalise society to camouflage its economic incompetence and against the pervasive atmosphere of fear with which it had built up its apparent hegemony suddenly found expression in the mass resistance to the CAA.

Just as fear is contagious, so is liberation from fear. People go from mute submission to assuming a “subject” role in a matter of moments, and the longer the suppression of their “subjectivity”, the more massive the resistance when it breaks.

This resistance has made the government and its supporters retreat for the moment. Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Reddy, all of whom had voted for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), have said they will not implement the NRC in their respective States, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has even claimed that it voted for the CAA under pressure.

These developments, however, must not mislead us into thinking that the government has abandoned its project of assaulting the Muslims. In fact, its world view is such that it is incapable of doing so. Its perception of the world is in terms of “Hindus” and “Muslims” not as empirically existing categories but as mental constructs, as two idealised categories existing in the minds of its ideological forefathers.

‘Hindus’, a mental construct

Hindu Rashtra is not something that is conceived as being of any material benefit to the empirically existing Hindus; it is conceived, rather, as entailing the supremacy of this mental construct called the “Hindus”. This is why when the empirically existing Hindus oppose any movement towards Hindu Rashtra, they are seen to be acting against this mental construct and hence labelled “anti-national”, “misled by the tukde tukde gang”, and so on.

This is also why Hindu Rashtra can, in actual fact, be nothing else but a fascist dictatorship, for it entails the rule of an idealised entity, and hence, necessarily, of “the leader” who alone can speak in the name of this idealised entity, as the embodiment of the single will that such an idealised entity is expected to possess.

Making concessions to the mood of the people, accepting the supremacy of the will of the people, seeking a consensus and accommodating different points of view are all foreign to this perception. A deviation from this intransigence can happen only temporarily at best, only under the exigencies of the situation, but the moment these exigencies have passed, the Hindutva juggernaut will once again roll on and the agenda underlying the CAA will once again be back on the table. Likewise, the Constitution of the country, which promises equal rights for all and hence runs fundamentally counter to this entire perception, is something to which respect can be accorded only temporarily, only for tactical reasons; the Constitution will be necessarily attacked when the suitable moment comes, when the Hindutva elements feel powerful enough.

The CAA is central to the agenda of Hindu supremacism, of abandoning the conception of a society with people having equal rights and of introducing unequal rights on the basis of religion. The idea that the CAA is harmless as long as the NRC is not implemented, which some Chief Ministers who had voted for the CAB are now trying to promote, is fundamentally erroneous. True, without an NRC the harm that the CAA can do to the vast masses of Indian Muslims is limited, and hence any abandonment of the NRC project in any State is welcome. But the CAA itself, by introducing the conception of unequal rights, is an assault on the Constitution and opens the doors for the entry of Hindu supremacism.

The Modi government, therefore, will simply not abandon the CAA or the NRC. Rather, it will adopt a dual strategy: to make false or misleading statements like “we have never discussed the NRC” (even though Home Minister Amit Shah has explicitly announced the NRC in Parliament) or “the National Population Register (NPR) has nothing to do with the NRC” (even though Kiren Rijiju has explicitly linked the two in Parliament) to bring down the scale of the resistance, and to divide it along communal lines both by spreading propaganda about “terrorists” and “anti-nationals” clad in lungis and skull caps fanning the agitations, and by unleashing police brutality selectively on the Muslim minority, at least in the BJP-ruled States where, significantly, all the deaths associated with the anti-CAA demonstrations have occurred until now. And the hope is that once the resistance has subsided it will bring in something akin to the NRC in an altered form; or alternatively, it will keep the NRC in abeyance until it has once again succeeded in changing the discourse back to promoting a communal divide (and even perhaps obtained a third term on the basis of this divide) and then bring back the NRC.

It is in this context that the demand of the anti-CAA demonstrators for a repeal of this law acquires great pertinence though a Lok Sabha where the Hindutva forces have a majority and a Rajya Sabha where they can obtain one by arm-twisting regional parties can scarcely be expected to oblige. This is where the role of the judiciary becomes particularly important.

In recent times, the judiciary, including even the apex court, has lost a good deal of its credibility by generally falling in line with the actions of the executive, no matter how arbitrary these actions may have been. The legal challenge to the CAA currently being heard by the Supreme Court provides it with an opportunity to redeem itself. If it strikes down the CAA as being unconstitutional, which it patently is, then that will provide a way out of the current political crisis, apart from restoring the credibility of the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court falls in line with the executive, then that, apart from making a further dent on its credibility, will also constitute a big blow to democracy in the country. It will, in effect, be a boost for the agenda of the Hindutva forces who will immediately use it both to discredit the anti-CAA agitation and to start work on the NRC, on which they are currently prevaricating.

The Supreme Court in Brazil recently struck a blow in defence of democracy by ordering the release of former President Lula da Silva from prison; his incarceration had prevented him from contesting the recent presidential election and helped Jair Bolsonaro, an ultra-Right politician, win. Can one expect the Indian Supreme Court to play a similar role?

But as events unfold, one can take immense comfort from the fact that the Hindutva forces, which had appeared over the last five years to have acquired a virtually unassailable position in our polity, are at last facing widespread resistance and that the youth of the country which is leading this resistance has demonstrated its deep commitment to the values of our anti-colonial struggle and of the Constitution.

This, no doubt, is testimony to the importance of public educational institutions in our national life; be it Jamia, or AMU or JNU or Jadavpur University, or the Indian Statistical Institute, they are all primarily publicly funded institutions; even the other prestigious institutions that have joined in the protests are at least partly publicly funded. Given the commitment of the students produced by these institutions to the secular and democratic character of our polity, the future of the nation appears safe, no matter what transient difficulties it may face.

A letter from the Editor


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Editor, Frontline

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