Representational image. | Image Courtesy: The Economic Times
Just before the Covid-19 outbreak in India, the Bihar government—the first from the NDA camp—passed a resolution against the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state. Importantly, the Bihar Assembly also passed a resolution seeking implementation of the National Population Register (NPR) as per the format as it was in 2010, and not the souped-up version now prepared by the Centre.
After months of nationwide anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, 12 states either passed resolutions against both or refused to implement them in their jurisdiction. Such measures brought the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the back-foot. Their defensiveness reflected in the statements made by the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
For instance, BJP national spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao claimed on 2 March that “there is no plan to implement NRC as of now”. He also said that in the future, the NRC would be implemented in a transparent manner after involving all the stakeholders.
However, both inside and outside Parliament, ministers and politicians linked with the BJP continued to campaign to amass support for CAA, NRC and NPR. In the Rajya Sabha, the Home Minister declared on 13 March that no one would be marked “doubtful” if they are unable to submit the required information demanded during the NRC process. He repeated, “No document needs to be submitted, and you can give whatever information you have and leave the other questions blank.”
These are just promises, like the ones he had made in Parliament before, a day after which he reiterated that a nationwide NRC would be conducted.
However, despite these contradictory tendencies, the government has been consistent in doing absolutely nothing to amend the regulations governing the CAA, NRC and NPR. As legal experts have pointed out, the laws and regulations covering CAA, NRC, and NPR are filled with clauses that are open to discriminatory usage by officials, even in the presence of a benevolent central government.
Now with the Covid-19 pandemic infecting well over 1.6 lakh Indians and a host of other problems in its wake, there has arisen a new tendency: BJP leaders using this moment as an opportunity to strengthen support for the CAA. A case in point is a video posted by BJP Member of Parliament Saumitra Khan, who represents the Bishnupur constituency of West Bengal in the Lok Sabha, on his verified Facebook page. The video features his wife Sujata Khan distributing surgical masks among women. As she distributes relief, she can be heard saying, “This mask is a gift for you by BJP.... You should wear it all time whenever you go out. You need to live healthy, and most importantly, you know about the CAA. Is not it?”
Khan then pulls up a leaflet and says, “The law (CAA) is to give you citizenship and not to snatch citizenship from you. No one will be able to remove you from the lap of your mother India…” She goes on: “You just think why we should shelter Bangladeshis in India? Mother India is our county; it is not a hospice.”
In the same video she suggests that the CAA will “protect” citizens from infiltrators (read, Muslims) from other countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. “...this law has been passed to stop them from coming to India and become settlers here, so they can’t remove you from your own country. So, support the CAA,” she can be heard saying.
It is clear that Khan is attempting to generate fear and hatred among Indian citizens by accusing invisible infiltrators from neighbouring countries of wanting to supplant them.
But it is not just one video; hundreds of social media posts in favour of NRC and CAA are going viral. In some, Muslims, Covid-19 and NRC are being linked. For instance, some videos explicitly state that “Muslims got Coronavirus”, and that the NRC is the right “treatment” for them.
This is a systematic campaign, if one observes the videos in conjunction with several other incidents that have taken place during the Covid-19 lockdown. When the PM announced a one-day janata curfew on 22 March, it was speculated that a nationwide lockdown was already on the cards. This was confirmed when a lockdown was indeed announced on 24 March evening for 21 days, effective from 25 March. However, on the morning of 24 March, at around 7 am, the Delhi Police (under central government control) went to the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest site and cleared it within half an hour.
The police also cleared the protest site at the Jamia Millia Islamia campus. Banners, posters, tents and other structures used during the anti-CAA campaign which began on 11 December 2019 were hastily removed. Even a map of India that highlighted the protester’s opposition to CAA and NRC, along with a replica of India Gate installed at Shaheen Bagh, were removed, broken and/or disfigured.
The protest graffiti on the walls of Jamia were also disfigured and removed. This was done to all anti-CAA public material/art across the country.
It is indeed surprising that the Indian government, hours before announcing an unprecedented national lockdown to control a deadly pandemic, had its police force dismantling anti-CAA and anti-NRC art installations and graffiti. It is odd that this was considered, in the government’s reckoning, as the first and most “essential government service” while India stood on the brink of a health and economic crisis.
The next shocking step taken by the Centre was to begin arresting activists in connection with the anti-CAA/NRC protests during the lockdown. By the end of March, the Home Ministry had instructed Delhi Police to ensure that arrests related to the communal violence that had broken out in Delhi in late February should not slow down. It was reported that Delhi Police has been making six or seven arrests every day and that at least 1,000 people have been arrested or detained in cases related to the Delhi violence.
It is also apparent from reports that a good number of those who have been arrested are Muslim and young activists. For instance, on 1 April, the police arrested Jamia student leader Meeran Haider, on 11 April, another Jamia student leader, Safoora Zargar, who is pregnant, was arrested, and so on. These two and the former JNU student and activist Umar Khalid have been charged under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. In their FIR, the police argue that the violence in Delhi was a premeditated “conspiracy”, allegedly formulated by Umar, two others and their unnamed associates.
On 27 April, police raided the house of Kanwaljit Kaur, the Delhi Unit president of the All India Students Association (AISA) and confiscated her mobile phone. On 23 May, JNU students Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, both founding members of Pinjra Tod, were arrested for participating in a sit-in protest against the CAA in north-east Delhi. They had been granted bail on that very day by a Delhi court, which had noted that they were “merely protesting”. However, as has happened to some other student-protesters, within minutes of getting bail, the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police arrested them under charges of “murder, attempt to murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy”.
The government seems to be using the lockdown as an opportunity to serve its sinister political purposes since there are restrictions in place on legal services under the lockdown and the media is not functioning as in pre-lockdown times either.
In the second week of May, the BJP released a video celebrating its six years in power. This nine-minute video highlights the Citizenship Amendment Act as one of the successes of the second term of the BJP government. Thousands of party members posted this video on their social media profiles. Thus there is no denying that the BJP and politicians affiliated with the ruling party chose to gather support for the controversial CAA even while the country is reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is clear that the nationwide campaigns and protests against CAA and NRC have not made any difference when it comes to the attitude of the government. In December 2019, the Union Cabinet had approved a spending of Rs. 3,941 crore on updating the NPR, an exercise which was to be conducted between April and September 2020. The government ignored all the calls to amend the CAA to make it non-discriminatory. And now it is promoting CAA and preparing the ground for implementation of the divisive law and the NPR and NRC on a nationwide scale.
First the budget approval for NPR (the Union Budget has allocated Rs 4,568 crore for “Census, Survey and Statistics”) came amidst nationwide protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR triad. Then, the government decided to use the pandemic-triggered lockdown as a means to gain support for CAA, at a time when the media and citizenry’s attention is diverted by the health crisis. Further, before it took any steps to counter the pandemic, it covered the anti-CAA and anti-NRC paintings and graffiti with paint, and has ordered mass arrests of anti-CAA protestors by linking their protests with the Delhi violence. All of this proves its desperation and determination to implement CAA and conduct the NPR process.
The arrests also send a clear message to the activist community that if anybody in post-lockdown India seeks to oppose the CAA and NRC, they will face the same consequences as Meeran, Safoora, Devangana, Natasha and scores of other students.
The author works with the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi. The views are personal.