Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, January 6, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
A WEEK AFTER PARLIAMENT passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), a city of banners, posters and tents arose not far from the banks of the Yamuna in south Delhi. Located at the city’s edge, the area lies in a sliver of territory close to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP). Jamia Millia Islamia is not far. Since mid-December, the locale has turned into the national capital’s protest central. Every evening, singers, poets, artists and, of course, a mass of Muslim women gather here, demanding a repeal of the allegedly discriminatory legislation that protestors fear will victimise Muslims.
But away from the characterisation of Shaheen Bagh as a protest and a celebration is a different reality. It is normal to hear slogans of azaadi in the area and in one controversial video that surfaced earlier this month, allegedly ‘Jinnah wali azaadi’. From a protest against a law, the transformation into a Muslim political mobilisation was quick. Perhaps this was something just waiting to happen. Initially, political parties saw the protest as a crack in the phalanx that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had created, an opening at last through which the opposition could craft a path to recovery.
What made this plausible was the violence in UP and Assam where two communities—Muslims and Assamese Hindus—organised along very different lines rose against the CAA. But as time elapsed, Assam was pacified after an initial week of violence and so was UP.
A month later, some of that sheen is coming off from protest central. For one, with the protest increasingly seen as largely a ‘Muslim agitation’, political parties have begun distancing themselves from it. This is in contrast to early noises from many opposition parties. The best example of this distancing was the remarks by former Union minister and senior Congress party leader Kapil Sibal. Speaking at a literature festival in Kozhikode on January 18th, he said: “If the Citizenship Amendment Act is passed, no state can say ‘I will not implement it.’ It is not possible and is unconstitutional. You can oppose it, you can pass a resolution in the Assembly and ask the Central Government to withdraw it. But, constitutionally, saying that it won’t implement it is going to be problematic and going to create more difficulties.”
A similar stand was taken by his party colleague and another former Union minister Jairam Ramesh in Delhi. He was asked why Congress governments were not stopping the data-gathering exercise under the National Population Register (NPR). In response, he said: “The NPR is an executive action. You are sending out state government employees to gather the information. Now the state government can say that we will not depute our officials, teachers, local revenue officials… The state government can say that we will not have NPR in our state. I’m not 100 per cent sure what the legality is… CAA is a clear violation of the Constitution. Constitutionally that is very clear. But whether a state Assembly passing a resolution negating CAA will pass constitutional scrutiny, I’m not sure.”
These statements came after leaders in two Congress-ruled states, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh (MP), had opposed the CAA. On January 17th, the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed a resolution against the CAA and termed it ‘unconstitutional’. Later, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, a vocal critic of amendments to the citizenship law and the NPR process, tweeted: ‘I have sworn on the Constitution and I will continue to fulfil my duty as a loyal soldier. Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji had said, ‘Na koi Hindu, Na Mussalman’ (no one is a Hindu or Muslim) and, it is in this spirit, Punjab Vidhan Sabha passed the resolution to appeal to central government to repeal CAA for India’s interest.’ Earlier, Kamal Nath, Chief Minister of MP, had stated that his state would not undertake any action that “divides society or has the potential to divide.”
In opposing the CAA, these states join the list that includes Kerala—where the Assembly passed a resolution against the CAA and the government challenged its constitutionality in the Supreme Court—Jharkhand and Maharashtra.
Beyond their fire and brimstone quality, these statements and resolutions mean nothing. Citizenship falls squarely within the Centre’s legislative purview (the 17th entry in the Union List). There is, however, potential for friction between the Centre and states as Ramesh hinted in his response. Consider a hypothetical situation where a state refuses to allow local officials who normally double as Census enumerators to participate in NPR work. This is certainly possible as teachers, revenue officials and many other employees are on the payroll of the state government. But even in this case, the Centre is constitutionally empowered by Article 256 and Article 257(1) to issue ‘directions’ to state governments to do what is necessary to implement laws enacted by Parliament and, in this particular instance, execute NPR-related work.
It is a far-fetched thought that a situation will so emerge that these coercive tools will be used to resolve the CAA or NPR-related issues. What Sibal, Ramesh and Salman Khurshid said almost at the same time reflects a political reality that no one can ignore. The daily diatribe against the CAA, with chanting of slogans about azaadi, have now acquired a largely religious cover even if the organisers are careful to wrap everything they say in national symbols like the Tricolour and the Constitution. Any dispassionate observer, let alone seasoned politicians who regularly gauge the public pulse, will question the notion of azaadi in a country that does not have a state religion and does not discriminate in any matter on the basis of religion. That is one reason why after initial enthusiastic support, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) quietly backed away from the protests. Party leaders like Amanatullah Khan, who originally came out overtly supporting the protests, have now adopted a low-key approach. The support continues but not in terms of roadshows and speeches of defiance. With Assembly elections round the corner, the AAP is being very cautious—openly supporting any azaadi-related cause has the potential to boomerang on the party. Another instance where this attention to political reality is on display is the total absence of party leaders from protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the hotbed of political radicalism in Delhi.
In Lucknow, Home Minister Amit Shah threw a challenge at opposition leaders to debate with him and show that the CAA took away the rights of Indian citizens
Share this on
Nearly 40 days after the protests began there are signs of an impasse. While there is no letdown in the number of people who turn out at the protest sites in their localities, the so-called movement against the CAA is not gaining traction beyond selected urban and semi-urban locations. Indians at large appear to have accepted the legitimacy of the CAA as it does not affect the rights of any citizen. In contrast, protests like the one at Shaheen Bagh are fuelled by fears of Muslims that they will be declared non-citizens once the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process is completed. Virtually no one who has bothered to inform himself of the nature of these processes is convinced. To give one example, if the proof of documentation in the NRC will be as onerous as the detractors of the CAA claim, then surely a far higher number of poor Hindus will be affected? So far, there has been no instance of a ‘Hindu only’ protest against the CAA.
TWO OTHER FACTORS are at work as well. In the initial days after the CAA’s passage, protests had a dual nature. In Delhi and other metros like Mumbai and Bengaluru, the protestors were young people led by their teachers and intellectuals. In Delhi, these protests lasted for barely a week to 10 days. These were so-called secular protests that claimed the CAA went against Indian secularism. They died from a lack of wider participation by workers, labourers and trade unionists, the usual catchment of people who participate in such protests. In contrast, in places like Sambhal, Muzaffarnagar and other parts of UP, protests were violent and led to extensive damage to public property. Here the UP government used the law enforcement machinery effectively to quell the violence. In the bargain, the danger of these ‘protests’ acquiring a political colour was removed.
But in protests, from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to Islamic organisations in Kerala’s small towns, from UP to Maharashtra, provocative slogans left little doubt that religious sentiment played a big role in the mobilisation of Muslims. As this wing of protests grew, unsurprisingly the ‘secular’ protests in urban India paled into insignificance. Alarmingly, in Kerala for example, parallels were drawn with the Khilafat agitation of the 1920s. This has turned out to be a self-limiting feature of these protests.
Protestors at Shaheen Bagh—an event described as a mass eruption without any leadership—proudly declare that they have not allowed any political party to hijack their protest. For idealists, this is how a movement should be. But in a democracy, it is the path to political suicide. With the protest being seen as a ‘Muslim only’ affair and the political class shunning active participation, there is no way to link such protests with the wider political process that could have led to the withdrawal of the amended law. Protestors can block a vital artery for a month and hold an entire area to ransom but that won’t make any difference in the arena where the real action takes place—Parliament.
If further confirmation was required, it was provided by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on January 21st at a rally in Lucknow. He said: “Let me say this here and now, this law will not be withdrawn, no matter who protests… We are not scared of opposition, we were born in it.” Not only that, the Home Minister threw a challenge at opposition leaders from the state and elsewhere to debate with him and show that the CAA took away the rights of Indian citizens.
That challenge is unlikely to be taken up. The initial fury against the law now remains just that— anger at Muslims from neighbouring countries not being allowed into India and becoming citizens. Fear and fury, it seems, have hit an impregnable wall. The protests may linger but that’s about all that can happen.