With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Parliament, we know how the regime is going to handle the anti-CAA protests: it is going to be a mix of official equivocation, state repression and politics of polarisation. But the real question is: how are the protesters going to respond?
Let no one be fooled by the polite officialese on this issue. This is deliberate doublespeak. President Ram Nath Kovind’s address mentions the plans to extend the National Register of Citizens (NRC) beyond Assam, but the PM denies there has been any discussion on this. Home Minister Amit Shah explains the chronology of how the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, will be followed by an NRC and be completed by 2024, but his junior, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai, tells Parliament that “as yet” there are no plans to roll out NRC.
Meanwhile, the National Population Register (NPR), officially the first step towards NRC, has been rolled out. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar informs us that the newly-inserted questions on ancestry are optional, while PM Modi insists that these questions are necessary for the implementation of welfare schemes. None of these clarifications are, of course, put down in any official notification.
Regime likely to respond with repression
While hundreds of interpretations bloom on the NRC, the NPR, and the CAA, the Modi regime is out to exploit this opportunity for naked communal mobilisation. What we witnessed in the Delhi election campaign is only a glimpse of things to come. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) knows that its only hope of winning West Bengal next year and Uttar Pradesh in 2022 rests on creating an open Hindu-Muslim rift. In some parts of Hindi heartland, it could also be used to wean a section of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) away from the opposition parties. The BJP is determined to pursue this path.
As for the anti-CAA agitation, one of the biggest peoples’ movements since Independence, PM Modi’s statement makes it clear that his government does not view it as a legitimate protest – coming from a section of citizens that needs to be spoken to.
Notwithstanding the protesters’ adherence to the national flag and the Constitution, PM Modi follows his colleagues in dubbing the protest anti-national and an anarchist movement, inspired by the opposition. Incidentally, this is exactly how Indira Gandhi had described the JP movement in 1974, just before declaring the Emergency.
PM Modi’s language hints at a round of state repression, soon after the Delhi election. We could see a crackdown on all Shaheen Baghs and rounding-up of various leaders of the ongoing movement. The repression would be muted, but not absent, in the opposition-ruled states. So far, most opposition governments have been rather indifferent, if not hostile, to the anti-CAA protests. The movement has to devise its own means, without depending much on the major political parties.
Anti-CAA protest needs a new strategy
This situation calls for a new strategy on part of the protesters. As I argued earlier, the anti-CAA protests have now entered the second phase of a nation-wide movement for equal citizenship. On 4 February, Hum Bharat Ke Log, an umbrella of more than 100 organisations involved in the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement, has called for boycotting the NPR. They have also planned a month-long programme of action from 22 February, the death anniversary of Maulana Azad till 23 March, Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom day.
This is what the protesters should do. First of all, the obfuscation by the Modi government must be responded with clear communication on the part of the protesters. A clear call to boycott the NPR is the first step. More than street protests, communication and dialogue must be the priority for the next two months. While divisive and discriminatory nature of the CAA needs to be highlighted, the focus of attention and critique should now be the NPR and the NRC that are easier for an ordinary citizen to understand and relate to. The focus of communication should shift from those who are affected and those who already know, understand and agree with the dangers of CAA-NRC-NPR to those who are still dimly aware of how it might affect them. These include poor from all communities, Adivasis, and nomads who often lead an undocumented existence.
Second, attempts at polarisation must be challenged by taking on the perception of this being merely a ‘Muslim’ protest. This can be done in two ways. One would be to have greater connect with the protests in Assam, and with the northeast in general, where most of the protesters are non-Muslims. The other way would be to enter into a dialogue with those who do not quite agree with the protesters, those who may not feel directly threatened by the new citizenship regime. After all, a struggle to save the Constitution cannot be limited to a few communities.
Third, the movement must find its own positive agenda, beyond opposing the NPR-NRC and CAA. Recent surveys have shown that even those who may agree with the CAA feel that it is being brought in to distract people’s attention from issues like unemployment and the widely felt economic distress. I have suggested that a way to connect the two would be to demand a National Register of the Unemployed.
Fourth, the location and form of protest also need to shift. The focus of action should now shift from cities and large towns to smaller towns and villages, from city-wide rallies to mohalla meetings. Door-to-door campaigns and face-to-face dialogue must now be the priority. In choosing the form of protest, a large show of strength is not needed in most parts of India, except in Uttar Pradesh. Now, a premium should be placed on Shaheen Bagh-type protests that evoke empathy among the rest of the population and encourage a conversation. Community feasts and inter-faith family dialogues should also be promoted to underline the spirit of national unity.
Fifth, the movement could do with more coordination. While the spontaneous nature of the movement must be maintained, there is a need to focus more on the overlap in demands, cohesion in action, and coordination among various organisations. The movement needs some mechanism to take on the massive propaganda machine unleashed by the Modi regime.
Finally, the state repression has to be met with disciplined non-violence. So far, the protesters have shown exceptional maturity and restraint. But it may not suffice in the face of the next round of repression. This would require better training and discipline of the volunteers, many of whom are joining a public protest for the first time.
The two-month-old movement for equal citizenship is an unusual moment in the history of the Indian republic. The movement can realise its potential by turning into a movement for a renewal of the idea of India, a true Bharat Jodo Andolan.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.