In the eyes of some people, particularly the paid-up members of India’s small Left-liberal community, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the yet-to-be-designed National Register of Citizens have acquired mythical status. On the evening of the last day of 2019, social media was witness to many activists in Delhi — these days most also tend to be journalists of one description or another — posing wistfully before a dharna at a place called Shaheen Bagh. They ushered in 2020 by singing the national anthem, an experience that caused some of the romantics to experience goose bumps.
Those who have experienced extended dharnas feel undeniably motivated and charged, especially if the cause is seen to be noble. Anna Hazare’s long dharna at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan evoked similar responses and was the prime factor in the establishment of the Aam Aadmi Party that now governs the city of Delhi. What contributes to the headiness is not merely the bonding of the participants, the shared stories and the inspirational songs. The constant presence of TV cameras and the awareness that some of the footage is likely to be viewed nationally, if not internationally, keeps up spirits. There have been similar dharnas elsewhere too and outside the gaze of TV cameras, but these tend to fizzle out amid angry allegations that the media is heartless.
Outside India, I remember well the long-drawn protests against the deployment of nuclear-powered missiles in Greenham Common in the United Kingdom in the early-1980s. The protests went on for nearly a year and was marked by the presence of many determined women who made the perimeter of the air-force base their temporary home. They were determined but they were also perceived by the outside world to be a bit peculiar. In any case, these protests made not an iota of difference to the way Britons thought and voted. In the British general election of 1983, the Left suffered one its most crushing election defeats.
It is not always appropriate to believe that the experience of other lands will automatically translate into India. However, certain features of the present round of anti-CAA protests need to be borne in mind.
First, it is by now acknowledged — at least by the discerning — that the anti-CAA protests are led and driven by the Muslim community. The mobilisation has been effected through traditional community organisations, notably the local mosques. Initially, there was an attempt to deny this denominational character of the protests but that has since been given up. Indeed, in Uttar Pradesh at least, the whole issue has been painted as a battle between Muslims and a Hindu state. In West Bengal, however, after the bout of violence by mobs from Muslim-dominated localities between December 13 and 15, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee chose to divert attention by making it a Trinamool Congress versus BJP battle. In the process, she tried to underplay the strategic overweight of the Muslim community in the anti-CAA protests. However, even this has not prevented the protests from degenerating into communal clashes, as happened in Duttapukur, not far from the border with Bangladesh, and in parts of Muslim-majority Murshidabad district.
Secondly, the role of liberal constitutionalists concerned with the alleged dilution of secularism, has so far been confined to according respectability to organisations which had hitherto been regarded as fringe. The Indian Union Muslim League organised a monster demonstration in Kochi on January 1 which led to a section of the English-language media going absolutely gush-gush. More important, the AIMIM and its leader Asaduddin Owaisi, hitherto regarded as a representative of the ghetto in Hyderabad, have now been conferred the honour of being projected as the defender of constitutional values. Indeed, these organisations have played some role — in alliance with the liberals — in successfully presenting the anti-CAA protests as a united front of all minorities against a Hindu government. In Kolkata, for example, breaking with a long tradition of staying away from all political activity, the church authorities in St Xavier’s College extended full support to a silent march in solidarity with the students of Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. There was a feeble attempt to disguise the anti-CAA orientation of the march but few were fooled.
Thirdly, the biggest contribution of the liberals has been to create a hostile environment for Indian diplomacy. This has been carefully managed by activist reporters in international publications who have tried to underplay the Muslim dimension of the protests.
Fourthly, although the main motivation behind the CAA was to give citizenship to the many lakhs of Hindus who have left Bangladesh over the years in fear of religious persecution, this aspect has not received as much public attention as it should have. Part of this owes to a general lack of awareness of the fact that Partition in the east was not only as horrific as it was in the west, but that the exodus has been a continuing process. The over-secularism of the Bengali intelligentsia is also responsible for this long-term denial. On its part, owing to organisational weakness, the West Bengal BJP’s attempts to highlight this aspect has been patchy. The situation has also been complicated by the fact that in Assam and the North-eastern states, the anti-CAA stir has taken on a unique dimension and been directed against all foreigners.
Finally, it is also apparent that a large part of the anti-CAA stir has been designed to have a maximum effect on the perception of the judges of the Supreme Court who will hear the judicial challenge to the legislation. The calculation is that judges respond to public opinion and that the impression the country is in turmoil will influence their interpretation of ‘Constitutional morality’. Whether it does or doesn’t will be interesting to watch.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.