CAA protests: Relentless resistance

The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the NPR and the NRC keep gaining momentum, with reaffirmation of the basic spirit of the Constitution emerging as their dominant feature, despite the BJP government’s efforts to portray them as anarchic and divisive.

Published : Feb 08, 2020 07:00 IST

Muslim women protesting against the CAA near Ghantaghar in the old city area of Lucknow on January 22.

Muslim women protesting against the CAA near Ghantaghar in the old city area of Lucknow on January 22.

AT a rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, organised on January 21 in support of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), Union Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated that there would be no going back on the legislation. In the course of the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (people’s awareness campaign) conducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the Act, Amit Shah took on the opposition, especially the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who also addressed the meeting, said that money was being paid to the protesters, a charge that has been repeated by BJP leaders in Delhi as well. Adityanath cautioned that those raising the slogan of “azaadi”, as was heard earlier in Kashmir, would be dealt with firmly and charged with sedition. Uttar Pradesh is one of the States where the largest number of people, 21, were shot dead by the police during protests against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). The Citizenship Bill, which was passed by Parliament on December 11, received Presidential assent on December 12, and was notified in the Gazette of India on January 10, 2020. It seeks to confer citizenship on illegal immigrants belonging to six religious denominations who allegedly escaped persecution from a defined set of three countries, namely, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and arrived in India on or before December 2014. The six communities are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis. The exclusion of Muslims as a whole from this category and preferential treatment to six communities have been viewed as discriminatory and in violation of the basic features of equality of religion and secularism as underlined in the Constitution. For more than a month now, large-scale citizens’ protests have been organised across the country against the CAA.

Curiously, Amit Shah did not mention the NRC or the NPR, both of which are part of the chronological process beginning with the CAA, in his speech. It was Amit Shah who first explained the chronology in April 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha election. “First the CAB [Citizenship (Amendment) Bill] will come. All refugees will get citizenship. Then NRC will come. NRC is not only for Bengal. Infiltrators [ ghuspathiye ] are the country’s problem. This is why refugees should not worry, but infiltrators should. Understand the chronology,” he stated. The “infiltrator” subtext was used repeatedly by the BJP in the run-up to the election with some leaders using terms such as “termites” to describe them.

It is also interesting that although the constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance supported the CAA on the floor of the House, the BJP alone launched an awareness campaign to garner public support for the Bill. In fact, not all the NDA constituents have been supportive of the CAA outside Parliament.

While the North East Democratic Alliance in the north-eastern region hung on a slender balance vis a vis its relationship with the BJP, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have repeatedly expressed their discomfiture with the CAA and the NRC. The United Democratic Party (UDP), a coalition partner of the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance, has opposed the CAA in principle. On January 22, UDP general secretary Jemino Mawthoh told newspersons that the party had debated the CAA at length and was opposed to it as it had no rationale. According to the news agency PTI, he also said that the party would wait for the “wisdom of the Supreme Court to make its interpretation in this regard”.

In several places, including the north-eastern States, protests against the CAA, the NRC and the NPR have been unabated, with women taking the lead in most of them. On January 21, in Kalaburagi (Karnataka), almost three lakh people from across the State gathered in a peaceful protest, which was similar to the one organised in the city on December 19. In smaller cities, women have taken the lead and many “Shaheen Baghs” have emerged, eponymously named after the site of the protest led by women in south-east Delhi.

In Delhi, Shaheen Bagh has become synonymous with quiet resistance, with many small protests modelling themselves on it. The protest site at Shaheen Bagh is a small tent pitched on one side of a two-lane concrete road. Under this tent, hundreds of women and a few children sit day in and day out. The atmosphere there is festive, but with a mixed sense of trepidation and quiet optimism. The women’s presence is symbolic of the cumulative anger at the constant targeting of the minorities, Dalits and the poor. There are wall posters, protest graffiti and even a library with reading material on progressive thoughts for all and poetry reading and singing sessions. The protest has spawned a range of cultural expressions that have included art, poetry and songs of resistance, including vernacular renditions of the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” or “Bella Ciao”, a popular anthem of the anti-fascist Partisan movement in Italy during the Second World War, which resonated in the anti-Brexit protests in the United Kingdom, the ongoing protests against pension reforms in France by the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes), and protests by the “Sardines”, anti-right-wing protesters in the Italian town of Bologna. There are readings from the Indian Constitution and the Preamble, too.

Although a predominant feature of the protests has been its peaceful nature, BJP Rajya Sabha member Vijay Goel said that the Shaheen Bagh protests were a threat to security. At a protest in Lucknow, the police took away the blankets and other materials that were kept by the protesters in view of the cold winter. The protest continued despite the lack of warm clothes. Similar sporadic attempts to frustrate the protesters have been taking place with some sections of the media playing an active role. Two television channels were in the forefront of disproportionately highlighting the “discomfiture” of commuters and the loss of income of shopkeepers in the Shaheen Bagh area following the road block since mid December although it was the Delhi Police that put up barricades. The TV coverage appeared more as a ploy to prevent people from participating in protests and expressing solidarity with the issue. The women who have been leading the protests in Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere were pretty resolute that the protests would not be called off until the government gave an assurance of repealing the Act and assuaging their concerns.

In an instance of unsolicited concern, and on the basis of videos wherein children were allegedly heard saying that they would be sent to detention camps by the Home Minister or out of the country by the Prime Minister, the Chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, Priyank Kanoongo, came to the conclusion that the children who were with their mothers at the Shaheen Bagh protest site were traumatised by rumours on the CAA and proceeded to direct the District Magistrate of South East Delhi to identify them and send them for counselling.

Despite attempts by the Central government to portray the protests as driven by Muslims alone, posters at all the protest sites are anything but that. The only flag that is visible is the national flag and the only portraits are that of Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. One poster that exemplifies the syncretic spirit of the protests reads: Bhagat Singh ki himmat, Ashfaq ka jazba, Bismil ka raag hoon, ae hukumat, aankh mila mjhse, main Shaheen Bagh hoon (I am Bhagat Singh’s courage, Ashfaq’s resolve, Bismil’s song; rulers of the people, look me in the eye, I am Shaheen Bagh).

The majority-minority binary just does not seem to be working. The BJP’s charge that the protests have been engineered by the opposition have not been substantiated by ground evidence. But there was little doubt that the progressive and egalitarian content of the protests had got to do with a strong Left and liberal ethos as most of the slogans and songs originated from the progressive cultural movements in the country and elsewhere. The disaffection owing to the state of the economy brought the youths, including the highly educated ones, out on the streets. The reclamation or the re-appropriation of nationalist slogans and symbols by the protesters from the proponents of cultural nationalism has been one of the most interesting features of the protests. A retired professor of German in Delhi University recalled how the Nazis had “stolen” the symbols and slogans of the working class. The Far-Right National Socialist German Workers’ Party, also called the Nazi Party, and its precursor, the German Workers’ Party, had nothing to do with egalitarian working class movements, or for that matter, socialism. It was the antithesis of all that was Left and progressive. Both the German Workers’ Party and the National Socialist Party were foregrounded in German pride, German nationalism and anti-Semitism.

A similar “stealing back” was observed in the course of these protests in the form of slogans, poetry and symbols where readings from the Constitution has been a predominant feature. Writings such as “ Samvidhan ki raksha kaun karega, hum karenge, hum karenge ” (Who will protect the Constitution, we will, we will) and posters with “No NRC, No NPR, No CAA” inscribed have been a common feature in these peaceful protests. Although most of the smaller protests have been led by women, an interesting message from Bengaluru was circulated. It read: “A women-led protest against the CAA/NRC/NPR is slated to begin on January 23, 3 pm. Venue: The footpath and the general area around Hajee Sir Ismail Sait Mosque. M M Road, Fraser Town, Bangalore. The protest will be for 24 hours. Men are welcome.”

While students in several universities across the country, including in colleges where protest meetings were an unknown entity, held meetings against the CAA, former Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat was denied permission by the university administration to address students at Ambedkar University, Delhi, on the grounds of model election code of conduct. Karat addressed the students from behind the gates of the university.

The pro-CAA rally in Lucknow was held on January 21, a day before the Supreme Court was to take up petitions challenging the Act and the processes of the NPR and the NRC. The court declined to stay the Act and the NPR and NRC processes, referred all the petitions to a five-judge Constitution Bench, and asked the government to file a comprehensive reply within four weeks. The petitions from Assam and Tripura would be heard separately within two weeks as they concerned issues pertaining to the Assam Accord where the cut-off date for the grant of citizenship to illegal immigrants from Bangladesh was changed from March 24, 1971, to December 31, 2014, according to the CAA. Meanwhile, the list of State governments passing resolutions against the CAA in their Assemblies grew.

Kerala was the first State to pass a resolution in the Assembly against the CAA and seek the Supreme Court’s intervention under Article 131 of the Constitution. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala moved the court even as several Central Ministers, including Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, declared that the State governments were obliged to implement the CAA as it had been passed by Parliament. Following Kerala’s example, where the LDF and the opposition United Democratic Front passed a unanimous resolution opposing the CAA, the Punjab government passed a resolution in the State Assembly, bringing to the fore the fissures within the opposition SAD and the BJP. The SAD, which had voted in favour of the CAA in Parliament, has since voiced its opposition to it. The party has parted ways with the BJP for the upcoming Delhi Assembly election, preferring to contest alone, citing its opposition to the CAA as one of the reasons. The Congress-ruled States of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have declared their intent to pass similar resolutions.

Even as opposition to the CAA has grown within the country, the repeated assertion by the Narendra Modi government that the legislation was for the persecuted minorities in the three neighbouring countries (all Muslim-majority countries) has not gone down well with the leadership of those countries. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the media that while the CAA and the NRC were an “internal exercise” of India, they were unnecessary.

Earlier, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen had rejected the allegations of minority repression in Bangladesh. In December, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister and Home Minister cancelled their scheduled visits to India. Momen was apparently miffed with Amit Shah’s repeated comments on the repression of minorities in Bangladesh. The Hindu population in Bangladesh is estimated at around 10 per cent and the Buddhist population at 0.6 per cent.

The former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, told The Hindu that there were no persecuted minorities in Afghanistan and that the whole country was persecuted. People of all religious denominations had suffered, he said. He also said that Pakistan and Iran had welcomed millions of Afghan refugees. The Pakistan Foreign Office rejected the claim of dwindling population of minorities made by Amit Shah in Parliament on the basis of the 1941 Census. Amit Shah had said that the minority population in Pakistan had declined from 23 per cent in 1947 to 3.7 per cent in 2011. This claim, the Pakistan Foreign Office said, was based on the 1941 Census and ignored two major developments, Partition and migration following the separation of East Pakistan. The Hindu population had increased from 1.5 per cent in 1951 to 2 per cent in 1998 while the percentage of minorities as a whole had risen from 3.12 per cent to 3.72 per cent in the same period, he said.

Although there is uncertainty over the outcome of the petitions in the Supreme Court and over whether State governments would be able to indefinitely stall the divisive mapping and granting of citizenship, reaffirmation of the basic spirit of the Constitution has emerged as the dominant leitmotif in the protests against the CAA, the NPR and the NRC. The directive by the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in Maharashtra to make compulsory the reading of the Preamble in school assemblies is being interpreted as a positive change in this direction. Although BJP leaders have tried to portray the protests as disruptive and anarchic, not all view it similarly.

Speaking at the first Sukumar Sen Memorial Lecture organised by the Election Commission of India as a tribute to the first Election Commissioner of India in Delhi on January 22, former President Pranab Mukherjee said that the assertion and belief of the youths in the Constitution of India was heartening and that the ongoing protests would deepen the country’s democratic roots.

A new debate has sprung up regarding the polarising potential of the protests.

While some are concerned about its sustainability in the present form, others are optimistic about the new awakening around and about the Constitution and its guarantees in popular imagination.

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