The BJP must be happy about how the symbols of the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act look: Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Nadwa, Seelampur-Jafrabad and so on. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided naming the Muslim community, he was clear in suggesting that those who are inciting violence against the new citizenship law can be identified by their clothes.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) discriminates against Muslims on the basis of their religion. It grants citizenship to refugees from India’s three neighbouring countries while being explicit in its exclusion of Muslims.
Together with the Modi government’s resolve to carry out a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise, which seeks to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ like those in Assam, the CAA has raised apprehensions of being a tool through which many Muslims may lose their citizenship rights, something PM Modi has denied. So, it appears only natural that India’s Muslim community will pour onto the streets to protest.
Not sharing each other’s burden
But this assault on the Constitution affects us all equally, even if this law specifically targets Muslims. And yet, the protests have not resembled that. The nationwide agitations over the amended Citizenship Act once again show what Indians have repeatedly made clear – our protests mirror the larger social segregations and divisions that exist in society.
Dalits come out to protest issues that affect them – be it against the Modi government’s ordinance on reservation roster for universities, the dilution of the SC/ST Act, or over the demolition of the Ravidas temple. Muslims come out to protest the criminalisation of triple talaq, and Kashmiris against the dilution of Article 370.
India’s protest site is not a shared space. It also works in silos. This poses a critical challenge to the goal of transformational social change. Unless ‘upper’ castes join Dalits in their protests in equal measure, there won’t be any threat to India’s oppressive and discriminatory caste system and hierarchical structure. Unless equal number of men join the women’s movement, patriarchy will not be dismantled.
If protests remain piecemeal and fragmented, the outcome is also likely to be incremental.
Not a nation, still
India is a country of communities separated by region, religion, caste and language. And it remains a country of many communities even during protests. There is nothing universal that comes to our rescue. We lack the prerequisite to call ourselves a ‘nation’. This is why B.R. Ambedkar, in his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly, had called India a “nation in the making”. In a nation, the citizens must have a shared joy, a shared sorrow and a shared dream. Of the three, French philosopher and scholar Ernest Renan had held ‘shared sorrow’ as the most important in his famous 1882 speech, “What is a Nation?”.
Do Indians have a sense of shared sorrow? Perhaps not. This explains why the citizenship protests are happening mostly in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods and institutions. This absence of a shared sorrow is why the identity of victims – be it in cases of rape (of Khairlanji’s Dalit family where the “entire village was involved”) or mob lynching of Muslim men – becomes a point of note that restricts other communities from coming out in support. The onus of fighting the 30-year-old legal battle for justice in the Hashimpura massacre of more than 40 Muslim men fell on the Muslim activists.
Signs of life
But there have been examples of shared agitations and they have been successful too.
For instance, the movement against the imposition of Emergency in 1974. Another incident that enraged all communities in India in the same way was the brutal gang-rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi. But these are rare moments when India’s conscience in the post-Independence era was united over a common cause – a shared sorrow.
We must ask ourselves if we are a nation of warring groups with conflicting interests and ideas. Why a communal law that seeks to discriminate against Muslims and poses a threat to their rights and comfortable existence in the country doesn’t bother Hindus the same way as it does their Muslim compatriots? Why aren’t they leading the protests against the CAA?
Opposition’s failure, BJP’s success
In the CAA’s case, the political class is to be equally blamed for allowing the agitation to take on a ‘Muslim’ character. The opposition parties that voted against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament should have led the protests against the law on the streets too. But they came out only after the Muslim community hit the streets and the police’s violent response became a national issue.
Even though the protests were led by students belonging to all communities, the dominant image that emerged was Muslim. This was falling into the narrative trap that suits Modi-Shah’s BJP the most. Muslims protesting against the BJP is advantage Amit Shah and Narendra Modi.
Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Tejaswi Yadav were the only opposition leaders from north India who led the protest against the CAA. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party remained a mute spectator and the Congress seemed to believe there are more supporters to be gained by limiting its protest to Twitter and the India Gate, or perhaps the party doesn’t have the wherewithal to lead any agitation in Delhi.
So, on the citizenship law, the opposition has failed Muslims and thereby lost the plot. But it has also reinforced the truth of fragmented politics.
The author is an adjunct professor, Dept of Mass Communications at Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication (MCNUJC), Bhopal. He is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.