It has been more than a month since relentless protests against a discriminatory citizenship bill swept the country. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to follow a certain chronology of legislative and executive actions to establish the citizenship of residents of the country: Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to be followed by National Population Register (NPR) and then National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The BJP-led government’s resolve has deepened deep existential anxieties among minorities and all those undocumented citizens who fear that they would be pushed to depressing detention camps of the kind created in Assam. More than two dozen people have died in these camps after they failed to prove their identity still trapped in a tragic twilight zone.
Shah had earlier repeatedly and aggressively promised that the NRC would be implemented in all parts of the country. Hinting at minorities, the home minister had threatened that the “termites” and “infiltrators” would be thrown out. His rhetoric became suddenly subdued after he found himself in the post-NRC catch-22 scenario in Assam: Almost 19 lakh people were declared doubtful, but, ironically, more than half of them were Hindus, Adivasis, local indigenous communities like the Rajbongshis, Gorkhas and tribals like Bodos.
His unilateral and arbitrary decision backed by his prime minister represents not just a gargantuan challenge to the country’s inclusive and secular Constitution, but also to its democratic Opposition. Parties like Congress, DMK, TMC find themselves being overwhelmed by an aggressive government hell-bent on using a flawed understanding of both geography and history about the presence of so-called ‘outsiders’ to fulfil its majoritarian agenda.
The central government has used brutish force in certain places where they think they can get away, as in UP, but, otherwise, it has been patiently waiting for these widespread protests to die down. It’s been more than 30 days and their hope seem to have been belied, until now.
Two uncanny questions worry those concerned by this naked assault on India’s secular and democratic Constitution – how can the non-violent movement with no mainstream leadership, and often led by ordinary women and the young, survive without getting provoked into violence; and, whether the Congress party has it in it to provide leadership to a countrywide movement fighting to save the Constitution.
A cursory look at the protest landscape can be humbling. Millions of people without being cajoled by money or a free trip to a big city are converging at a thousand points in the huge Indian map, from mofussil to small and big towns, to a sea of relentless resistance in the metros, which they think lies, bulldozes and prevaricates on questions that revolve around the issue of citizenship. Non-metro cities like Mangalore, Bhiwandi, Aurangabad, Sholapur, Thrissur, Kota, Surat, Ranchi, Gaya, Malerkotla, Bhiwandi, among others, have also seen lakhs of people step out and step up to the demands of the time.
In states where the BJP is in power, the police have viciously and violently tried to put down these protests. In UP, especially, where its aggressive chief minister vowed “revenge” against the protests, the brutality that police and administration bared has shocked the whole country. In Aligarh Muslim University the students were chased down and mercilessly beaten, even inside hostels, as it was in the library premises of Jamia in Delhi.
When those opposed to NRC got together peacefully in Lucknow and other towns of UP, they have been baton-charged, shot and bloodied. Twenty-five people were killed and hundreds injured; hospitals refused to take the injured reportedly out of fear of reprisal of Yogi government. Houses of Muslims were violently raided at midnight ostensibly to search for protestors; their property and goods were damaged and allegedly stolen, including jewellery. This amounted to a criminal act by the law and order forces. Those who tried to intervene or defend them were also rounded up, beaten up and jailed.
The respected former Inspector Director General of Police (IDGP) SR Darapuri of UP, now a civil society activist, was bundled into jail. Sadaf Jafar, a Congress spokesperson, actor and activist, was also arrested, beaten up and branded as ‘Pakistani’. She was kicked and abused. A people’s tribunal detailed the excesses against Muslims while the government blamed them for all the violence. Hefty penalties were also imposed on them for allegedly destroying public property, without any iota of evidence. Indeed, much of the blame should have gone elsewhere.
The response of the party and the Gandhis has been erratic to inspire any confidence among those harassed by the belligerent tactics of the UP government. Priyanka showed courage when moving around, but it seemed as if she was holding herself back, lest she disrupts the proposed return of Rahul Gandhi.
General Secretary of the Congress party, Priyanka Gandhi, travelled to UP to commiserate with the victims of this violence, but the party seemed too feeble to provide strength to the party or the media to those opposing the government. Also, the response of the party and the Gandhis has been erratic to inspire any confidence among those harassed by the belligerent tactics of the UP government. Priyanka showed courage when moving around in UP, but it seemed she was holding herself back, lest she disrupts the proposed return of Rahul Gandhi as the president of the party.
Rahul had resigned from the party’s leadership after Congress lost the 2019 Parliament elections. He had hinted that there would be an election to the top job, but, later, the nation saw the familiar spectacle of Sonia Gandhi “unanimously” chosen to lead the party as ‘acting’ president.
Congress, under her leadership, has slowly managed to recover some lost ground. It is back in power as a coalition partner in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. In Haryana, it lost the state by a whisker. What is, though, evident is that Sonia Gandhi is holding operations for her peripatetic son. That worries many Congressmen who have had occasion to work with him. Except a handful, nearly all believe that he is not a team player and resents many important and senior leaders whom he perceives as self-serving and corrupt.
Rahul wants to hold organisation elections to recharge the party with a new and young leadership, which is resented by her conventional mother. A secular Rahul has shown courage when it comes to attacking the RSS or the prime minister on alleged kickbacks in the Rafale deal and other issues. He had to contend with vicious trolling and psychological attacks, but that should not come in the way of providing a robust and confident leadership at this critical juncture in national politics. This confusion and ambivalence is hurting the party, allowing the government to ride out this extraordinary movement.
In the absence of the Congress or other political parties stepping out to take charge of the mass movement and thereby prevent the BJP from using this campaign to polarise by dog-whistling that those who oppose them can be recognised through their clothes — suggesting its Muslims –the youth leadership from JNU and Jamia and the brave women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and Park Circus in Kolkata, among others, have taken charge. JNU students’ union ex-president Kanhaiya Kumar’s battle cry of ‘azaadi can be heard in university campuses and massive public rallies in the country and abroad. Even children seem to have learnt all his slogans by heart – from Kerala to Mumbai to Malerkotla to Khureji in East Delhi. Kanhaiya and his other colleagues are addressing rallies of lakhs all over the country.
Millions without being cajoled by money or a free trip to a big city are converging at a thousand points in the huge Indian map, from moffusils to small and big towns, to a sea of relentless resistance in the metros. Non-metro cities like Mangalore, Bhiwandi, Aurangabad, Sholapur, Thrissur, Kota, Surat, Ranchi, Gaya, Malerkotla, Bhiwandi, among others, have also seen lakhs of people step out
Young and articulate JNU President Aishe Ghosh, who was brutally beaten up by masked marauders in her campus on January 5, she has become a national star and youth icon of resistance. Her courage is being celebrated all over the country. International media outfits are profiling her with adulation.
Congress and other opposition parties are staring at irrelevance if they do not creatively and passionately step up their participation. The coming of age of young leaders such as Kanhiya Kumar, Chandrashekhar Azad, Aishe Ghosh, Umar Khalid and Asaduddin Owaisi not just challenges the BJP, but also all the traditional political parties.