The growing protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act has resurrected the cherished ideal that all Indians, regardless of their religious identity, are equal before law and enjoy the same citizenship rights. This ideal has been eroded, over the last five and a half years, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues, through their rhetoric, policies and action.
This ideal of equality was powerfully and poignantly articulated by Anugya, a law student of Jamia Millia Islamia, where the protest against the amended citizenship law witnessed a brutal police crackdown. The video-recording of her remarks went viral on social media and defined, for all of us, the meaning of the ongoing protest against the Act.
To the TV reporters, Anugya said she was not even a Muslim, but had been at the forefront of the protest against the changed citizenship act. She said she did this because, in her understanding, the purpose of education was not to just run machines, but to stand up for those wronged, who belonged to her ghar, or home. Anugya said that she was not sure whether her friends would be deemed Indian tomorrow.
Anugya may have provided, even though unconsciously, the manifesto for the movement against the Act. For one, in Anugya’s imagining, the Act is discriminatory and has wronged Muslims. For the other, it is the duty of every Indian to stand up for them, to fight on their behalf to secure them justice. They must do this because Muslims belong to India, or “her home.” In other words, the only way to save India from dissension and conflict is to withdraw the Act.
Even before Anugya outlined the manifesto, the protest against the Act had spread across campuses countrywide. It is hard to tell whether the protest will peter our or gather fresh momentum. Yet the protest has already marked its selfless nature—since many of the participants are not Muslim, they do not stand to gain from the abrogation of the Act, which does not, in any way, imperil their status as Indian citizens. From this perspective, their inspiration to protest draws from the idea of creating an inclusive political community or nation.
The protest also marks a watershed in the political life of Muslims. Even though Assam was the first to fire a volley against the Act, the protest would not have acquired such a sweep without the Muslims publicly opposing it.
For the last five years, the Muslim community has chosen to remain sullenly silent in the face of grave provocations from the Hindutva brigade and its patrons in power. They did not take to the streets even though their brethren were lynched, and the community demonised for the conduct, real or imagined, of Muslim rulers centuries ago, and treated as the Fifth Columnist.
Even the Supreme Court judgement in the Ayodhya title suit, despite being egregiously flawed, did not goad them into protesting. Perhaps they were afraid of retaliation from the Hindutva brigade commanding state power. Yet their endeavour to become invisible in the public arena did not dissuade Hindutva from targeting them. Over the last one year, there was scarcely a week when Home Minister Amit Shah did not issue threats of implementing the National Register of Citizens to weed out infiltrators, code-word for Muslims.
The Citizenship Amendment Act has convinced Muslims that regardless of their acceptance of mistreatment and bullying, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, will not alter their attitude towards them. They will be profiled and targeted not only for consolidating the Hindu vote-bank, but to also declare them as infiltrators, detain and deport them.
The protest of Muslims has won them the empathy of the larger public because they are not demanding special privileges for themselves. Their protest is an outcry against being subjected to brazen discrimination. Their protest signifies hurt and humiliation; it is akin to showing their wounds to people and asking whether their suffering is justified. This is what has elicited them a response from people.
A school of thought, a very influential one, says the protest movement against the Act will exacerbate the political polarisation in India. Modi thrives on protests directed against him; he will fan the anxiety of the Hindus to further widen and consolidate his base, this school argues. But given the Modi government’s inexhaustible capacity for polarisation, irrespective of the harm done to the country’s social fabric, a large segment of the educated youth has decided to call his bluff. The fear of polarisation, after all, cannot imply reconciling with unjust policies in perpetuity.
The protest against the Act also underscores the limitation of Hindutva as a national identity. It has failed to encompass linguistic identity within its ambit, palpable from the vehement protest against the Act in the North-east, particularly in Assam. The Modi government conceived the Citizenship Amendment Act in the hope that the Assamese will be satisfied with the banishment of those Muslims from Assam who were excluded from the NRC. The government’s presumption was that the Hindu Assamese will not insist on the detention and deportation of Hindu Bengalis because of the common religious identity that the two linguistic groups share. This theory lies in tatters, at least in Assam.
In Tamil Nadu, the common linguistic identity of Hindus and Muslims has led to the demand for the inclusion of the latter in the Citizenship Amendment Act. Tamil Nadu is undeniably upset that the Act chose to exclude Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka to escape religious persecution. For Tamil Nadu, the exclusion of Tamils appears deliberate, a form of punitive measure against their perception of Hindutva as a vehicle to re-impose the upper caste-Sanskrit hegemony of the yore.
The movement against the Act is likely to be challenged. The Sangh will bring out its cadres to abet the state violence against the protesters; there will be attempts to portray that those protesting against the Act are doing so at Pakistan’s behest. Should the BJP win the Assembly election in Jharkhand, it will project that the Act has won popular endorsement. Regardless of the fate of the movement against the Act, it is no mean achievement for India that its young boys and girls have resurrected the ideal of equality.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.