Spontaneous countrywide upsurge against the CAA

Print edition : January 31, 2020

A protest rally against the CAA in Kochi on January 1. Photo: PTI

Women leading the protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on December 31. Photo: PTI

Students and local residents during a protest against the CAA, the NRC and the NPR outside a gate of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi on January 1. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A demonstration against the CAA at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The government, in spite of the growing countrywide opposition to the CAA, takes a defiant stand.

ON January 1, braving the bitter winter cold, people gathered at India Gate in New Delhi, sang songs, held placards and shouted slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). In another part of the city, several women were huddled under a tent in Shaheen Bagh, some with their children, with the same objective: oppose the CAA. The outrage over the CAA was not confined to Delhi; it spilled over to almost every city in the country, the only discernible difference being the size of the protesting crowds. The protests have resonated abroad as well—in the United Kingdom, in the United States and even in Cape Town in South Africa.

The CAA has been perceived as highly discriminatory as it offers the naturalisation of citizenship to refugees and “illegal migrants” from six specific communities (Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Parsi) from three neighbouring countries, namely, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It ignores the citizenship claims of others who might be already residing in India either as refugees or as illegal migrants but do not belong to the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist or Parsi communities. The implicit message is that all the six communities selected in the CAA for preferential citizenship are inherently “Indian” while other refugee groups or migrants are not.

The bias could not have been more apparent as the CAA singularly excludes Muslims (political refugees or economic migrants from any country whatsoever) or, for that matter, thousands of Tamil refugees residing in camps in India from such regularisation of citizenship. The law to arbitrarily decide who is a refugee and who is not in the absence of a refugee policy has also been an area of contestation, as has been the selection of only a few and not all neighbouring countries.

The opposition parties protested in Parliament against the proposed amendment, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies were able to pass it through. The whole of north-eastern India was up in arms against the CAA, for it was seen as a ploy to grant citizenship to those from the majority community who had been left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Concerns pertaining to the preservation of cultural and ethnic identity, despite the latent chauvinism, were also felt very strongly. The declaration by Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, on many occasions that the NRC process would be set in motion after the passage of the citizenship law also resulted in sparking apprehensions and giving an impetus to the protests across the country. All of them were remarkably peaceful, barring in States ruled by the BJP and in Delhi, where the police is under the jurisdiction of the Union Home Ministry.

There is little doubt that the trigger for the countrywide protests were the shocking visuals of the vicious crackdown by the Delhi Police on students and protesters in and around Jamia Millia Islamia and Daryaganj in Old Delhi. The vandalism by the Delhi Police on the Jamia campus and in the library and the assault on the students were seen across the country. Parts of Uttar Pradesh erupted in spontaneous protests, which were met with force by the police. As more and more performing artists joined the expanding ring of protesters, songs of peace and equality and against oppression were sung. The poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge”, written in 1979 during the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq and immortalised by the prominent ghazal singer Iqbal Bano, was translated into several languages and sung by many in the course of the protests. Iqbal Bano had sung it in an open stadium in 1986 in Lahore amid shouts of “Inquilab Zindabad”. But even this poem penned by Faiz, who was a communist, did not escape the ire of the loyalists of the government. A faculty member in Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur filed a complaint alleging that the poem was anti-Hindu. Now a panel has been constituted by IIT Kanpur to examine the complaint.

The composition, which uses religious imagery in a subversive form, is essentially a protest song just as the painting Guernica was Picasso’s artistic expression of the mayhem after the bombing of the eponymously named city by fascist-nationalist forces during the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s regime.

Unabated protests

Since the passage of the CAA by Parliament on December 11, the protest against it and the NRC has continued unabated. In Uttar Pradesh alone, where the reprisals for the protests were brutal, 19 persons, all from the minority community, died because of mostly gunshot injuries. The number of those detained has been steadily increasing, with a combative State government keen to “recover” the costs of damage from those it claims had indulged in vandalism. In Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi, the administration clamped down heavily on the protests. Elsewhere in the country, the heavy-handedness by the police was not all that stark. Protests in the rest of the country were peaceful despite large turnouts.

Meanwhile, in an open letter, 106 former civil servants from the All India and Central services said that India did not need the CAA, the NRC or the National Population Register (NPR). Calling themselves the Constitutional Conduct Group, they said that the objective of the letter was to “inform the citizens”. Their statement, addressed to “fellow citizens of India”, was released on January 9. In an ostensible reference to the NRC and the NPR, they expressed the apprehension that the “vast powers to include or exclude a person from the local register of Indian Citizens that is going to be vested in the bureaucracy at a fairly junior level has the scope to be employed in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, subject to local pressures and to meet specific political objectives, not to mention the unbridled scope for large-scale corruption”.

They quote the example of the NRC in Assam, where citizens were made to spend their lives’ savings running from pillar to post to establish their citizenship credentials. “Worrying reports are already coming in of people in different parts of India rushing in panic to obtain the necessary birth documents,” they wrote. The letter also pointed out that the problem was complicated in a country where “maintenance of birth records was very poor coupled with highly inefficient birth registration systems. Errors of inclusion and exclusion have been a feature of all large-scale surveys in India, the Below Poverty Line Survey and the Socio Economic Caste Census being prime examples.” The letter also said that most citizens had already been covered by Aadhaar and that the gathering of additional data was unclear, giving rise to “reasonable apprehension that the bona fide citizen could be enmeshed in an interminable, costly bureaucratic exercise if his/her citizenship status comes under doubt”.

Both the NPR and the NRC were unnecessary, they said, pointing to the wasteful expenditure that would be incurred in gathering such data. Another very important issue they highlighted was the amendment to the Foreigners Tribunals (Amendment) Order, 2019, which allows for District Magistrates to set up tribunals to identify illegal migrants. In Assam, they pointed out that people had to present themselves to these tribunals to prove their citizenship. The letter also criticises the Central government for giving the go-ahead to States to construct detention camps while denying the existence of these camps in Assam and Karnataka. The signatories include N.C. Saxena, Jawahar Sircar, Sujatha Singh, Shyam Saran, Aruna Roy, Julio Ribeiro, K. Sujatha Rao, Deb Mukherji, Shivshankar Menon, Aditi Mehta, Najeeb Jung, Wajahat Habibullah, Keshav Desiraju, M.G. Devasahayam, K.P. Fabian and several others.

Protests by political parties and their grass-roots organisations have also gained momentum. On January 8, an all-India strike called by 10 central trade unions against the economic policies of the government turned out to be an occasion for the striking workers to reiterate their opposition to the CAA, the NRC and the NPR. Sharad Pawar, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, which is part of the ruling front in Maharashtra, flagged off a three-week-long national yatra against the CAA and the NRC from the Gateway of India, led by former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. Sinha, a former BJP member, has been bitterly critical of the government. Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress, Prakash Ambedkar of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and the Trinamool Congress MP Nadimul Haque were present on the occasion. The CAA, the NRC and the NPR have been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Cultural expressions of protest have been interesting. In Mumbai, in the aftermath of the police action in Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University, members of the film and artistic community in Uttar Pradesh came out criticising the CAA and the associated exercises of the NRC and the NPR. Prominent directors Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha (of Article 15 fame) and the singer-lyricist Swanand Kirkire spoke out about the need to protest. Kashyap, director and producer of many path-breaking films, has been at the receiving end of trolls for some time for his positions on the targeting of minorities and the divisive politics of the Sangh Parivar.

Trolls on social media threatened his daughter with violence for his positions. Kashyap has been very critical of the Central government, which he described as “fascist” when the police stormed Jamia. He is one of the few who have been consistently speaking against the CAA and its divisive objective.

At the Gateway of India in Mumbai, where anti-CAA, -NRC, -NPR protests were held by the film and artist communities, a poem titled “Hum Kaagaz isliye nahi dikhayenge, Hindustan se mera seedha rishta hai; tum kaun ho be” (We won’t show our papers because we have a direct relationship with India. Who are you to ask proof of citizenship?) by Puneet Sharma, a Mumbaikar, went viral on social media. Artists have been at the receiving end too. Deepak Kabir, a Lucknow-based cultural activist and theatre actor, was arrested during the anti-CAA protests on December 19 and released on January 9. He has alleged that he was tortured and denied basic amenities such as food and water, a charge that the police have denied. Kabir was arrested when he had gone to the police station to inquire about his friends.

BJP on the offensive

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which came to power with a bigger majority than before in 2019, had not anticipated the outpouring of support against the CAA. Several NDA constituents expressed their unease with the NRC, including Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who said he would not implement it. Similarly, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which supported the CAA, has now expressed strong reservations against it. The Naga People’s Front, which is an alliance partner of the BJP, suspended its Rajya Sabha member K.G. Kenye for supporting the CAA in Parliament. But rather than back down or reflect, the BJP has gone on the offensive, launching an awareness campaign on the CAA. It has accused the opposition of misleading people on the CAA.

On January 3, while addressing a meeting in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Amit Shah attacked the opposition again and said the BJP would not budge an inch on the CAA. He said the party would go to the minorities and the youth explaining what the CAA was about.

With the protests against the CAA gaining momentum, the BJP went into an overdrive to mobilise support for the CAA. One television channel, known for its political proximity to the ruling government, asked its viewers to give a missed call on a number if they wished to support the CAA. Soon after, the BJP launched its own “missed call” service to elicit and claim such support. Amit Shah claimed with pride that 52 lakh missed calls were received in support of the CAA.

A 10-day door-to-door “Jan Jagran” (people’s awareness) campaign was launched by the top leadership of the BJP on January 5 to inform people about the CAA. In the course of one such campaign in Lajpat Nagar, South Delhi, where Amit Shah was to visit, two young women lawyers put up anti-CAA placards in their balcony and shouted slogans. Local people staged an angry protest against the lawyers, compelling the landlord to evict them. The young women have stood by their stance.

It is notable that minority groups that stand to benefit from the CAA have also come out and spoken against it. A group of leaders representing the Christian community in Karnataka, including the Archbishop of Bengaluru, have opposed the CAA. The Karnataka United Christians Forum for Human Rights submitted a memorandum to the President and the Prime Minister through the Governor appealing for citizenship to be granted on the basis of each individual case and not on religion.

The protests against the CAA, the NRC and now the NPR that began with opposition on the floor of Parliament have become more widespread, not confined to any community despite efforts to project it as such. Even though most protesters might not have read the law in its entirety, they are aware that it is discriminatory, flawed and not legislated with good intent. By adopting a combative stand, the BJP plans to keep the CAA issue alive as such combativeness helps it to distract attention from the economy. Efforts by loyalists of the government to brand all opposition to the CAA as anti-national may not work this time given the broad-based nature of such youth-led opposition to the citizenship law and the NRC.

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