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CAB protests a battle for India – either we are a secular state or we aren’t India at all

With the Citizenship Bill we cross the Rubicon, from a secular state to a ‘secular’ state. Everyone who believed in the idea of India must stand up.

A protest against Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, Tuesday | PTI
A protest against Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, Tuesday | PTI

Now that the passage of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB in Parliament is a near-certainty, it is time to look beyond its critique. It is time to rethink the secular response to such an assault. It is time to shift the principal arena from courts and legislatures to public opinion, move from reactive opposition to proactive resistance, and descend from an abstract to a more grounded understanding and communication.

Let there be no doubt about this. The soon-to-be Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is discriminatory and divisive by design. It is not just about protecting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bengali Hindu vote bank in Assam. It is not limited to creating a communal rift before the West Bengal assembly elections due in 2021. Its stated objective of sheltering ‘persecuted religious minorities’ is a fig-leaf to cover the real purpose: send a formal signal that Muslims are second-rate citizens in the Republic of India.

As such, this legislation is an assault on our Constitution and the idea of India that guided our freedom struggle. When combined with the proposal to extend the National Register of Citizens to the entire country, it can thus disfigure the nature of the Indian republic. With this amendment, we cross the Rubicon, from a secular state to a ‘secular’ state. This is the moment for everyone who believed in the idea of India to stand up.

Also read: Congress wore 1971 war trophy, but left an unfinished business. CAB came out of that

BJP loses on facts

What exactly must we do? The opponents of the CAB have asked five searching questions that have blown the official cover-up. One, if India wants to give shelter to the persecuted citizens from our neighbourhood, why pick only Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan? After all, we share our borders with Myanmar, Nepal and China as well. Two, if the concern is persecution, why focus only on religious persecution and not on regional (Balochistan in Pakistan) and ethnic (Terai in Nepal, Tamils in Sri Lanka) persecution that India has been talking about? Three, if the idea is to limit ourselves to religious persecution, why exclude Ahmadiyyas and Shias from Pakistan, Tibetans from China, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Hindus and Muslims from Sri Lanka? Four, if the persecution is ongoing, why stop the benefits in 2014? And, five, on what relevant ground has the government exempted some parts of the country from the operation of this law? The government and its defenders have no half-satisfactory response to any of these questions.

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime has, instead, peddled cheap lies. For instance, it spreads the falsehood that India and Pakistan were partitioned on the basis of religion (Pakistan was, but not India). Or the misinformation that only these three neighbours have state religions (Sri Lanka’s constitution also mandates the promotion of Buddha sasana). Or the canard that fundamental rights under our Constitutions do not apply to a non-citizen (no, it applies to every ‘person’). Or, the official ‘myth-busting’ that the amendment won’t grant just citizenship to Bengali Hindus (just when Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed it that very day). While the BJP has the numbers to win the parliamentary debate, it has lost the public debate on facts. Even the otherwise pro-government media was constrained to bring out these blatant lies of the regime.

But big battles are not won by an ideational debate. And that is where the secular movement in India faces a challenge. If the current regime has gone ahead with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill disregarding all facts and opposition on the ground, it does so with the confidence that such a measure would enjoy popular acceptance. This is where the real battle to save the soul of India must be joined.

Also read: Citizenship Bill has only one aim: protect non-Muslims, harass Muslims

Proactive opposition not reactive

There is, of course, the judicial test. Naturally, the attention will now shift to the Supreme Court where CAB would be challenged. More than a test of the unconstitutional law, it would be a test of the judiciary. In normal times, this should have been an open and shut case, where the courts can read and follow the simple text of the Constitution. But we live in extraordinary times. The judiciary, including the highest court, has demonstrated willingness to read the law in curious ways in matters where the regime is known to be keen on favourable verdict. So, it should be a pleasant surprise if the Supreme Court strikes this down. No matter what the judicial pronouncement, it is not a substitute for the political battle, the contestation for public opinion and mobilisation, for that is where this battle will be finally decided.

The seed for a new movement is already there. The passage of the CAB in the Lok Sabha has led to spontaneous protests all over India. There are three different streams here. First, there are various Muslim groups who feel unjustly targeted and stigmatised. They oscillate between mobilising the community to opposing the CAB and preparing it for any official registration exercise following the amendment. The second opposition has come from Assam and other states in the northeast that had erupted against the CAB when it was first introduced in January and we are seeing it again now. It should be noted that the impulse of these two protests is very different. Protests in the northeast reject the CAB for its surreptitious inclusion of Bengali Hindus, while the Muslims groups contest their discriminatory exclusion. And then there is the third group of conscientious objectors from all regions and communities, including civil rights groups and peoples’ movements of all hues.

The real challenge is to weave these various strands into a coherent and powerful movement for undivided citizenship. In earlier columns, I have repeatedly drawn attention to the failures and frailties of Indian secularism, both in theory and practice and suggested a new approach to some of the recent challenges. It is time to attend to some of these weaknesses. To begin with, the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would need to listen to the legitimate anxieties of the anti-immigrant protestors in the northeast. Their apprehension of being rendered a minority in their homeland is as well-founded as the fear of the migrant. Both of them want a principled and non-discriminatory policy on migration and asylum. The movement for secular India must go beyond knee-jerk reactions to the politics and policies of the current regime. It must move from reactive to a proactive mode. Above all, we must renew the ideal of secularism for every new generation and anchor it in our languages and our cultural heritage.

Also read: Tripura isn’t anti-Hindu. But we must stop Citizenship Bill, we can’t take in more people

A secular India

This is the moment to remember leaders of our freedom struggle who read various languages including English but wrote principally in their own bhashas. This is the moment to recall not just Gandhi but also spiritual leaders like Vivekananda whose famous pronouncement in Chicago on offering shelter to everyone offers an ideal worth emulating.

It is heartening to see that most of the CAB protestors have come together for a nation-wide action on 19 December, the martyrdom day of Ramprasad Bismil and Ashfakullah Khan. They must remember that at stake here is not just an amendment, nor just the principle of citizenship, nor even secularism. This is a battle for the soul and body of India. We either have a secular India or we risk not having India at all.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.