Just four days before the 70th anniversary of the Republic of India, the Supreme Court has served a grim reminder. The battle to reclaim the republic will have to be fought by the public.
The much-awaited hearing of petitions opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, turned out to be a routine affair with little consequence, just as many legal experts had feared. Attorney General K.K. Venugopal pleaded for more time to respond to 143 petitions. The court gave the Narendra Modi government another four weeks. The petitioners asked for a stay on the operation of the CAA and the National Population Register (NPR), or at least their postponement by a few months. The Supreme Court showed its unwillingness to currently engage with this issue.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the Supreme Court order per se. The court limited itself to procedural issues and passed an order that did not pre-judge the matter. This issue does deserve a constitutional bench, to which the court has indicated it may refer the anti-CAA hearings. The Modi government did need time to respond to more than 140 petitions. The plea for a stay on the CAA and the NPR was not turned down, just postponed to the next hearing. And it was only logical to ask the high courts not to hear the petitions while the Supreme Court was seized of the matter.
Ignoring citizens’ fears
But this is no ordinary matter. The legal battle over the CAA is about protecting the letter, the spirit and the very soul of the Indian Constitution. I am no lawyer. But as a student of political science who studied the Indian Constitution, I would have imagined that the CAA is an open-and-shut case of brazen violation of everything that the Indian Constitution stands for. If so, I would have expected the Supreme Court to take a different approach.
I would not expect or even wish the judiciary to respond to the massive anti-CAA movement all over India. But, is it unfair to expect the judges to find a way to address the fear that the CAA has generated in the minds of crores of Indians at the country’s social and geographic margins? The hearing-as-usual approach is unlikely to inspire confidence at a time when people are desperately looking for assurance from the constitutional order.
We must, of course, wait for the future proceedings before coming to a definite conclusion. But one lesson is becoming clear. Today’s Supreme Court is not the bulwark to defend the Constitution that it was designed to be. It may still occasionally offer small relief. But it does not have what it would take to defend the Constitution in the face of this aggressive Modi regime. The present Supreme Court appears to be a reluctant warrior in the battle to defend the Constitution, going by recent pronouncements. Sometimes it is hard to say which side the honourable judges are in this battle, legal observers have said.
It’s down to the public
So, the principal site in the ongoing battle to reclaim the republic will not be the courts or Parliament or any of the designated institutional spaces. The struggle will have to be taken to the streets following a democratic and non-violent path. The public must reclaim the republic. We, the People of India, who gave to ourselves this Constitution, must come to its defence.
This is what the ongoing movement for equal citizenship is all about. Now that the court hearing is behind us, and a long legal battle lies ahead, it is a moment to sit back and reflect on the future course of this nation-wide movement. In a sense, this moment marks the completion of the first phase of the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement. For most parts of India, this phase concludes with a country-wide human chain, planned by various organisations and coalitions on 30 January. Uttar Pradesh may be an exception, because anti-CAA protests there have just resumed after a month of police clampdown on any form of protest. It is time now to think about the second phase of the movement.
The first phase of the movement has already accomplished what could not be imagined a month ago. First of all, it has broken the spiral of silence, especially for the Muslim community, which has spent the last six years in a state of deep anxiety. The community has found its voice and self-confidence. Second, the anti-CAA movement has achieved a vast footprint, rarely matched by any other movement. Third, it has tapped into the spontaneity of the people, with political leaders and organisations trying to catch up with them. The participation of women and youth is a noteworthy achievement of lasting value. Fourth, a new set of leaders have emerged everywhere, often sidelining the established clergy and political leadership. Fifth, the movement has led to an extraordinary spurt in creativity, both in communication and in ground action.
Merge, align, spread out, fight
Yet, it is too early to celebrate. If the Modi regime has dug its heels on the CAA, it is because the government still hopes to recover from the loss of legitimacy that it has suffered. While its attempt to paint the entire movement as the handiwork of unruly Muslim mobs has not succeeded, the fact remains that an overwhelming proportion of protesters outside the northeast are Muslims. While there have been very powerful rallies and demonstrations, these shows of strength are likely to evoke fear rather than empathy. While spontaneity has been the strength of the movement and there are no signs of tiredness, the various protests can and do work at cross purposes. The three strands of the movement – protests in Assam, by the Muslim community, and of the youth – are not quite aligned with one another.
After 30 January, following the nation-wide human chain, the anti-CAA movement will enter the second phase. The focus of action must shift from big mobilisation in cities and large towns to smaller towns and villages. The focus of communication must shift from those who are already converts and those who are directly affected to the rest of the population, mainly Hindus who do not feel directly threatened by the new citizenship law. Special attention must be given to Dalits, Adivasis and the nomadic communities that stand to lose most from the new regulations. In choosing the form of protest, premium should be placed on Shaheen Bagh-types of protests, which can evoke empathy among the rest of India’s population. The movement must find its own positive agenda, beyond opposing the NPR-NRC and the CAA. It must connect with the widely felt economic distress. The movement for equal citizenship must also become a movement for a renewal of the idea of India.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.