The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has divided and united the nation in the same breath with differing points of view, in support and against the serious implications it has for the largest democracy of the world. It has attempted to divide the nation on communal lines and on the partisan ideology of majority versus minority; but has also provided an opportunity to unite around the national identity as to who we are, and around the constitutional values that are fundamental to the citizens. The trajectory of reactions and responses that followed the CAA could be interpreted as: 1) the voices of some sections of the society, or 2) as expressions of the cry of “we the people” of India.
This leaves the nation at the crossroads with a question: When the heart of India is shouting for attention, can it be just ignored, labeling it the voice of some sections; or should it be heard as the cry of “we the people” calling earnestly for a change in the course of action?
Voices of sections of society
Voice of dissent: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha with a majority of 311 votes against 80; and by the Rajya Sabha with 125 lawmakers voting in favour and 99 against, after just six hours of debate on the legislation. The Opposition parties vociferously criticized the passage of the Bill saying it marked a "dark day" in the constitutional history of India and termed it "unconstitutional".
Voice of vested interest: The passage of the Bill divided the country into factions who celebrate and those who protest. Most of the North-East remained on edge as large number of agitated students took to the streets, and also witnessed violent demonstrations. The people of the North-East were assured that they had nothing to worry about in the new law. The protests were then termed as being a result of misinformation, provocation and spreading of rumours by “those trying to hamper the national interest”.
Voice of a minority: The students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University became the spotlight of protests and brutal suppression by the police . The protests against the Act intensified across the country, organized by students from several other universities, various secular civil society groups, political parties and some Muslim organizations. A few p rotests turned violent in several places, and it was insinuated that the people “creating violence” -- the instigators and perpetrators of the violence -- could be “identified by their clothes” . The cry of the people on the streets across India was perceived as just the “voice of a minority”.
Voice of urban Naxals: After the events at Jamia Millia, the agitation intensified, involving the student community from different universities along with the people of all walks of life across India. However, official channels described the situation in 42 central universities in the country, except Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, as peaceful; and the protests regarded as the “voice of a handful of urban Naxals and anti-nationals”.
Thus, the response of the people across India was smeared with devious interpretations to build support for the Act and suppress the voice of those who stood against it. Attempts were made to convince people by providing the “right perspective” to remove the misunderstandings spread across by the ‘wrong propaganda’. In the bargain, while stating that CAA has nothing to do with citizens of this country and the NRC has not even been talked about officially, the ‘lies’ and contradictory views delivered by the highest authorities confused the ordinary citizens further.
The cry of “we the people”
The cry of “we the people” is not about the CAA or NRC, but about the fundamentals that are at the core of our country and its citizens. The people took to the streets because the fundamentals were shaken, and the Act made no sense to them. On the contrary, their conviction came from the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution of India enshrines the principle of equality, regardless of religion, race, caste, sex, language or place of birth.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 seeks to overturn this basic principle of democracy. When implemented along with the National Register of Citizens, it will cause untold suffering to millions of Indians, particularly the undocumented poor citizens and those belonging to a religion (Muslims). An Act, for the first time, was blatantly using religion as a criterion for citizenship. In doing so, it would destroy the fabric and very idea of India as a diverse, secular, multi-cultural society. It will change the nature of the Indian state fundamentally.
It seems clear that CAA is the first step of the agenda to change the Constitution; and bringing in religion-based citizenship is only the introduction of that change. An effort is being made to do away with the wisdom of Babasaheb Ambedkar that constituted a nation of people of different castes, creeds, cultures and languages and to replace it with a ‘reconstruction of Indian nation in the form of a Rashtra’ of one people, one religion and one language.
There is no need to read between the lines what is so clearly being stated on dotted lines. What is being said in every protest against the CAA is that it is not acceptable to “we the people” of India, who believe that ‘ blood, toil, tears and sweat’ have been invested by our founding fathers in drafting the Constitution. The people protesting against the Act have expressed an understanding that the sacrifices that have gone into building the idea of secular India which believes in diversity, pluralism and citizenship, beyond all narrow domestic walls, cannot be sacrificed. It is indeed the cry of those for whom the fundamentals matter and make sense as citizens of the country.
The remarkable pan-Indian nature of the outcry is a visible sign of the cry of the nation. From East to West and North to South; from the historic public protest sites like Jantar Mantar and the Rajghat in the national Capital, Town Hall of Bangalore, and August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai; from university campuses, including those that had never witnessed the sight of a protest earlier, and residential colonies like Shaheen Bagh in Delhi which is led by women of the area; in the streets of India and on social media, the magnitude of the protests is evident.
However, the magnitude of the protests is not only to be measured by the numbers and the sites across the country; but, much more, by what is at stake. It is not to be measured by just the who or where, but even more by what is being said and why. The magnitude can certainly be measured when a shrill voice transforms into a movement, when a spark turns into a fire and a protest becomes a process. This is an indication of the power of the ordinary citizen who is making a statement that cannot be taken for granted, nor it can be pushed under the carpet for too long.
The waves against the CAA and NRC have impacted a change of opinion in quite a few of those in favour earlier, and some regional governments are pushing back against the Centre, asserting that the state will not implement the law. It is evident from the response across India that no political party can afford to show arrogance against the public outbursts. How can this cry, loud and clear, that “protests will continue till CAA is pulled back” and “protests shall not end till the unconstitutional CAA has been scrapped", fall on deaf ears?
The trajectory of events provides evidence that the protests have led to the death of several protesters, injuries to protesters and police personnel, damage to public and private property, and detention of thousands of people. It has brought pain and agony to many citizens in different parts of the country. While agreeing that peaceful protest is a democratic weapon, there has been strong condemnation of the incidences of violence, as violence does not serve the purpose.
The attempt to suppress the dissenting voices with the strong arm of the law and order machinery, and by taking “revenge” on those who destroyed public property during protests, might succeed to a certain extent, but it will not be able to suppress the cry of “we the people” of the republic as it is beyond the might of the state. Those who dissent can be detained, but their silent protest will become louder and clearer, reaching out beyond boundaries.
Today, after many days of protests and agitations, one certainly gathers an impression that those in power are not interested in listening to the cry of the people. In a healthy democracy, an authoritarian leadership is indeed a misfit; and not listening to the cry of “we the people” is unacceptable in a democratic setup. On the contrary, there are reports that ‘instead of trying to heal the wounds inflicted by the new citizenship law, politicians of the ruling party are rubbing salt on them’. An aggressive campaign is being planned in favour of the government’s decision to implement the CAA by the ruling establishment.
Restlessness should never be considered a negative force in a democracy; nor should anyone in authority be so oblivious that, in a democracy, “we the people” are the ultimate masters. The citizens of this nation are well familiar with the Gandhian Ahimsa and the civil disobedience that could make the mighty British bend their knees and engage with the freedom fighters in dialogue. The voice of the people remains supreme. The situation prevailing today is disturbing. There is restlessness in the air, all over India, in the minds of the millions and in the hearts of concerned citizens. This restlessness will not subside till those concerned and responsible respond to the cry of “we the people” of India to bring peace and reconciliation among all the citizens of this nation.
(The writer is Researcher at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi)(Published on 13th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 03)