Police personnel baton charge on the students of Jamila Millia Islamia University as they started pelting stones
Representational image | Police personnel baton charge protesters in an anti-CAA agitation | ANI
Text Size:

India has been in the middle of a protest cycle. The scale and geographic spread of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens have surprised the Bharatiya Janata Party government as well as India watchers. The BJP leadership, nationally and in the states, has tried to crush the protests and dismissed concerns of those against the CAA-NRC. But an electorally secure Narendra Modi government could have avoided an over-the-top response, which may have robbed it of its legitimacy.

The puzzle of overreaction

Consider the BJP government’s reaction to the anti-CAA-NRC protests in the light of the following three facts.

First, the reality of any protest, including the current round, is that far fewer people are required to organise an effective protest, even shut down a large city, than are needed to win a legislative assembly seat, let alone a parliamentary seat. The threshold for protest mobilisation and electoral mobilisation is vastly different in magnitude. A generous estimate would put the total number of anti-CAA protesters across India at a few hundred thousand and most certainly under a million (10 lakh). By contrast, the BJP had 229 million voters (22.9 crore) turn up in its support during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Second, anti-government protests in democracies, no matter how compelling their grievance, are easier to sustain around political opportunities that enable mobilisation of mass support. Impending elections or fragile coalition governments represent such opportunities, during which throwing one’s weight behind a protest can be politically consequential. We clearly are not in such a moment of opportunity. The BJP government enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority – 303 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. The election that can potentially remove Narendra Modi’s government is four-and-a-half years away.

Third, most protests in India are peaceful. According to the Bureau of Police Research and Development, 99.1 per cent protests between 2004 and 2016 and 93 per cent protests between 2016 and 2019, as per the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, were peaceful. The protests in the current cycle are no different. Among the dozens of protests against the CAA from across India, very few have turned violent.

So why is Narendra Modi’s BJP government, which had millions of voters come out in support of it, fretting about protests against the CAA? Why are his government ministers and his party’s chief ministers demonising protesters who are carrying the Indian flag and agitating in the name of India’s Constitution as terrorists, ‘Urban Naxals’, and anti-national? Why is the Modi government using draconian measures against the protesters? Three clear reasons are driving this response.


Also read: India to Africa: Protest has helped define the first two decades of the 21st century

We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.

Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Zero tolerance for dissent

Dissent is routine in democracy. “Andolan toh jantantra ka gehna hai.” Protest is the ornament of democracy; an agitating Dalit leader had told us during a protest in Nagpur a few years ago. An electorally secure government should not feel threatened by protests and accept them as irritants that it is required to engage with as a part of the political system. After all, the BJP’s own political history is based on protest movements, even violent ones.

The Narendra Modi government was democratically elected, but it lacks the democratic temperament. As Gujarat’s chief minister between 2001 and 2014, Modi did not tolerate dissent within the BJP and outside; and since 2014, he and party chief Amit Shah have brought the same temperament to national politics. All told, by 2024, the Modi-Shah political partnership would have been in power at the state and national levels for 23 years. During this period, they would have only run majority governments. This long duration of unchallenged power has curtailed their ability to tolerate dissent, build bridges across the political divide, and accommodate different opinions – skills that are necessary to govern the world’s largest and arguably most diverse democracy.

This is not an ideology-related behavioural flaw, but a personality driven one. And institutional conditions may have only deepened it. Indira Gandhi, for example, had similar instincts when she headed the Congress party governments, while Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not when he headed BJP-led governments.


Also read: ‘No rectal bleeding, but police thrashed us and said drink urine’: UP madrasa students


The fear of nonviolence

Even in moments of electoral security, peaceful protests carry the possibility of reshaping the political narrative. They can be disruptive, they provide a spectacle for media, and they produce compelling images, songs, and leaders who denounce the government. Non-violent protest movements, which draw from a broader range of participants, are likely to gather greater sympathy, and challenge the legitimacy of a violent response by state agencies. This is why the BJP government has gone to great lengths to emphasise the few violent incidents and suggested connections of protesters with insurgent groups to discredit them.

Ironically, the BJP government’s behaviour has added to the salience of the anti-CAA protests. The political climate today is beginning to appear like Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian stint between 1975 and 1977. State’s investigative agencies are being used to intimidate the political opposition. The BJP government appears to have tamed the courts and most of the media, the usual providers of checks and balances in a democratic system. In this extraordinary moment, the street has been empowered as a legitimate political space. The government realises this, and is therefore wary of the protests.


Also read: Modi govt now snubbing critics in other countries too. And US, UK won’t hold back for long


Marginalising Muslims

The BJP has been speedily fulfilling its controversial, ideologically-driven promises since its election victory in 2019. Most of the legislation pointedly targets Muslims, including the laws, which link citizenship to religion. Not surprisingly, then, members of the Muslim community have been at the forefront of the CAA-NRC protests. But other communities who are agitating in defence of India’s secular ethos have joined them. In Assam and Tripura, protesters are agitated for different reasons. They are angry about the CAA’s neglect of their ethnolinguistic concerns for the sake of the larger Hindu identity. Still, the BJP government has portrayed the protests as a Muslim-only uprising.

The intolerance to dissent notwithstanding, Narendra Modi’s BJP government has faced other major protests; however, there is a clear difference in how these were managed. Consider two recent large-scale protests. In 2018, when Dalits protested against the Supreme Court ruling that they said weakened the SC/ST Act designed to protect them from atrocities, the Modi government promised legislation to address their concerns. In 2016, when Jats went on a rampage in regions adjoining Delhi to demand a higher share in state jobs, the BJP government did not exercise the same level of brutality to crush the protests. Why?

The BJP relies on the electoral support of Dalits as well as Jats, and actively woos the two groups. Muslims, by contrast, are ‘untouchables’ for the party. In many states, the BJP relies on mobilising Hindu votes against Muslims. Faced with Muslim protesters, then, the BJP government’s response has been disproportionately harsh. It has focused on isolating and punishing them.

Protests are a routine and legitimate form of demand articulation in a democracy. The BJP government is using its power to crush protests, but exercising of coercive power against a legitimate political actor extracts a price. It slowly eats away at the authority required to use the power.

Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California – Santa Barbara and the author of Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements. Rajkamal Singh is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it

You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.

You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.

We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.

At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.

This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.

If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.

Support Our Journalism

23 Comments Share Your Views

23 COMMENTS

  1. Authors observation is laughable if not outrightly juvenile and is more of an account secured from the writings of usual anti BJP/Modi apparatus straining hard for survival in their enterprise of news trade.
    The CAA isn’t about religion at all but sidelining a specific religion’s population of recognised foreign nations has become a catalyst for all the naysayers who weren’t able to get to Modi after long overdue reforms like demonisation and GST. The doyens of the most corrupt industry in India, the real estate sector that has come to a standstill since 2014 ain’t supposed to embrace Modi in any case and have been waiting to discredit him ever since. Its not a surprise that the biggest beneficiaries of reforms have been those who had piled up illegitimately accumulated wealth at tax havens and flooded that money in real estate and securities market since 1992 taking the sectors to disproportionate stratospheric levels.

    Abrogation of 370 and 35A, passing of anti triple talaq bill are both result of sustained mandate the people of India have offered this government. SC ruling in support of the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya is the ruling of India top court, all these were stalled purposefully for decades and their have been political parties and media enterprises, NGO’s and legal tribe that have survived through their entire career because of these causes. Illegal immigrants have been used as dedicated vote banks across India, even village farmers have been converted from landlords to farm workers to migrant workers in Urban areas by land sharks over decades – all for securing assured voters out of insecurities of poor helpless. All these are documented facts that can be shared on request.

    So yes, few million are extremely unhappy with Modi and whatever other excuses float in the ambiance but fact is that entitlements have been withdrawn and drastic policy decisions have been executed that will have short term consequences and far reaching benefits. Consensus is a compromise on the peoples mandate and its advocates greatest threats to functioning of a democratically elected legislature. A democratically elected government cannot be tested every week on some issue or the other in a nation that has multiple elections in a year in any case. The rights and wrongs for a country that has been bearing the hostile foreign ideologies of expansionists cannot be decisively cluttered as per views of disguised liberals but essentially entitelists , and it mustn’t be confused with the writings of insomniacs who’ve no idea of how a common Indian thinks.

  2. CAA protests were not about dissent. The movement was hijacked by Islamist radicals. Ever heard policemen being shot by the protestors. The so-called protestors came well prepared to kill, maim and destroy. Do you want to welcome them with bouquets?

  3. Au contraire. AS the CAA protestors were, at best a tiny fringe element of the National electorate? why was there such a strong crack down? Because Law and Order is important. Not just because of personality disorder. India is sick of Ocholocracy. Islamic mobs have run rampage across India frequently. Most recently during the violent All India Moslem riots of 2012 where temples, Budhist idols and so on were vandalized and a Lady Polic Officer was brutally battered to death in full view of media cameras and her helpless colleagues in Bombay . This in many ways contributed votes to to the BJP as did the enormous corruption of the Parivar that loots together to stay together. So, Law and Order is a basic plank of the BJP alternative to the Chaos unleashed by the Congress in 1947. Most Indians want strong Government. It is a different matter that they also yearn for intelligent Government but this is rendered impossible by India’s anti meritocratic, social re-engineering, colonial-totalitarian hybrid etsablished for it by the PANGOLIN* Constitution, ideology and intense “Four legs good, two legs bad” and “Alla animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” propganda since inception.
    *Note on PANGOLIN from my archives
    This was a systematic, vicious and brilliant plan that the British (Indian Political Service) devised in the Viceregal period following the supercession of the East India Company by the Crown (1858). Delayed by the opposition of Lord Roberts and Curzon, The unrest under Chelmsford added to the reprisal unleashed by Lord Reading.
    After the 1857 mutiny, having had every Brahmin man, woman and child that they could lay hands in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency, Central Provinces, and United Provinces massacred by way of reprisal by their Madrassi, Pathan and Sikh soldiers, the British put together their plan to subjugate India and began the implementation from 1921; Confiscation of Savarna Commonwealth (Temples, treasure etc) in 1923 and expulsion of the Brahmanas from the courts and de recognizing their judicial authority. Distribution of agricultural lands on which guru kulas and temples were dependent to the ryots, Commencement of Daalit Movement (Phule, Ambedkar etc) in the West. Commencement of Draavid movement (EVR Naiker etc) in the South. Subversion of the Sikhs through Kartar and Karag (Sialkot) to commence the Akali movement in the North. Self emasculating pacifism and worship of alien religions and ideologies such as communism (Alan Octavian Hume, Indian National Congress, Gandhi, Nehru) etc etc. This and the pampering of the Deen e Kitabi (Christians and Moslems) as well as Daalits was enshrined in the Indian Constitution condemning India to a perpetual low intensity civil war. They solidified this by confiscating the commonwealth, including temples, educational institutions, gymnasiums, lands, water bodies, religious freedoms and dispossessing their hereditary law and education giving priesthood so that they would become rootless.

    The PANGOLIN*s extended the same policies to residual India including the unfortunate, formerly well governed, Princely States (Vijayanagar Viceregalities or Palegars and Maratha Governorates) such as Mysore, Travancore, Puri, Kohlapur, etc.
    The Government of India Act (1935) which was modified by Sir Maurice Gwyer for Nehru and Ambedkar to plagiarize into the Indian Constitution, and into which they embroidered ideas that they borrowed from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, such as “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and “Four legs good, two legs bad”

    A nation locked in the iron maiden of the British Judiciary, Bureaucracy, Police, garnished with self serving politicians, and raised on the gibbet of the Reservations-Extortion Constitution and laws to fall to 135 out of 172 countries (and below Sub-Saharan Africa) in the Global Human and Social Development Index (UNDP – 2016) and 143 rd out of 172 countries in internal Peace and Stability (UNDP – 2016) , home to 30% of the World’s poor (World Bank 2016) and with the highest number of Bomb Blast in the World 2016) pushing Iraq to a lowly second place with just half as many; in just 67 years. India ranks 107 out of 124 countries in corruption free law enforcement and personal security. And in 2018 achieved the distinction of ranking 81 on the list of corrupt countries, ranked from Least Corrupt downwards, and 182 in terms of Freedom of Speech !
    *Note: PANGOLIN: An enemy of India who believes in inequality under law, exceptions to the rule of law and persecution of some for the benefit of others. At present, the sole purpose of the Indian Republic, Constitutional or otherwise, is to pamper and provide for certain constitutionally preferred sections of society who the British found useful to hold and exploit India at the cost of those who the British hated and persecuted. The Pangolin is a creature that is unique to India and feeds on ants that are known in nature to be industrious and hard working if not quite as fruitful as bees who flee to better climes. (PANGOLIN is an acronym for the Periyar-Ambedkar-Nehru-Gandhi-Other (alien) Religions-Communist Consensus that usurped the British Mantle and has worn it with elan to loot, plunder, and rape India since 1921 and re write History and laws to their exclusive benefit since 1947)

  4. The more violent the efforts to silence the protestors, the more scared you are that the majority against “YOU” will prevail and this will be another demonetization fiasco.

  5. The protests have been violent – there is no denying of that, it has to be dealt with force. I think the article attempts to too simply demystify a complex issue!

  6. 22.9 crore voters come out in BJP’s support during 2019 Lok Sabha election doesn’t mean they supported everything that the BJP did, or believed in. Many of those 10 lakh supporters may also have turned against it by now. Also, the protesters were more vocal, and received lot of attention and media light than the SILENT 22.9 crore BJP supporters. THE ONLY STORY IS THAT THERE ARE PROTESTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY! You can see local as well as the foreign media. No wonder than Modi and Amit Shah are shaken! You can see how shaken they are from their behavior.

    • Who said they are shaken?

      These protests by Muslims and Leftists are the stuff of dreams for BJP.

      Remember 2016? When post Rohith Vemula suicide episode there were pan-India protest by left leaning student bodies, who were cheered by liberal celebrities and of course Modi’s political rivals and when we saw birth of the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid. What happened after that? BJP became more popular and saw an upswing in their political fortunes.

      This time obviously there are more people because you have an open participation by Muslim bodies, which again works for Modi not against him.

      Get out of your home and talk to the people in the real world, Hindu vote-bank is seeing a further consolidation. Liberal media has unnecessarily made it a Hindu majority vs Muslim (backed by liberals) issue

    • they are so shaken that Shah is advertising a lonely-heart number to call! people are horrified!!! who wants to date Shah? soon not even modi!!

    • Modiji ana Amit Shah are not scared of all these protest by JNU because these students have nothing to loose and not a single one of the ever read CAA?
      Amit and Rajkamal are so far away that they are sitting on cushy jobs and commenting from a far.

  7. The crack-down exposes the weakness of this bunch. Modi and Shah successfully engineered their winning streak in Gujrat – eliminating all opposition by more or less brutal means, negotiated tremendous resistance within the party to make Modi the face of BJP, got him to be PM and made sure that the media bent over backwards to praise Modi. Then in 2016 they made their first mistake. A low key student protest against the UGC snow-balled into Rohit Vemula case and increased student solidarity. Then when Modi-brigade made the Kanhaiya tamasha, in one stroke, the name of Kanhaiya became intertwined with that of Umar Kalid and dalit students came out in hoards to support them. Rahul Gandhi stood with them and Kejriwaal has since been giving crucial tacit support. The formula for uniting the opposition was born. Now similar brutal high-handed tactic is solidifying opposition to university-bashing and CAA/NRC. Those in the frontline today are leftist students and poor Muslims. But that is fast changing: NSUI was targeted yesterday … Using violence has worked for Modi and Shah for too long – they have forgotten how to yield subtler weapons. And therein lies their greatest weakness.

    • “The formula for uniting the opposition was born…”

      You do know that Modi has won a massive mandate, just 6 months ago, right?

      As far as your heroes of 2016 are concerned, Kanahiya Kumar lost to Giriraj Singh, Rahul Gandhi lost to Smriti Irani and Kejriwal again couldn’t win a single seat in Delhi.

      Unity of opposition means nothing if people don’t like it. Simple.

  8. Being a liberal is neither a symbol of god’s good children nor a status symbol.

    Communist breeding ground JNU has always been creator of anarchy, Indira Gandhi knw it so do we. They are tarnishing the left image.

    Weak leadership of congress is the main reason for the rise of Communist ideology.

    India need Indira Gandhi

  9. Perhaps there is a fear that the protests could grow, build up a strong nationwide message of disenchantment. The series of disappointing state election verdicts, to which Delhi will soon be added, show a swift decline in popularity. Losses of upto twenty percentage points in vote share in states like Haryana. Whatever the calculations, excessive use of force will prove to be politically counterproductive. If the Indian media was being as uniformly objective and spirited as some of the world’s leading outlets are, it would show up in a mirror how ill advised the behaviour of some of the police forces, led by Uttar Pradesh, has been.

  10. Liberals : Muslims should be assertive about their religion identity, let’s show it to the “fascists”.

    Same Liberals : Why are these protests being called “Muslim protests”, they are secular protests, shame on “Godi Media”.

    And that’s why secularism is losing its appeal among the Hindu masses, irrespective of their caste background. Liberals want the world to behave in a very irrational manner, which is not making sense anymore.

  11. BJP is falling woefully short on proper communication management on various issues, be it economic or political. BJP should appoint say 50 persons from different backgrounds who can communicate effectively in various regional languages and have varied background (not just professional TV studio walas who talk nonsense and do politcal tu tu mein mein). CAA should have been clarified as benefiting non-Muslims but not at all against Muslims or has nothing to do with Muslims interests. Illegal migrants (whether Muslims or otherwise and whether economic or otherwise and whether for humanitarian cause or otherwise ) must be identified and NRC is the final outcome of that process. How it will be conducted is not yet decided but it will happen and with due understanding of various issues that an ordinary man can face. Any such move of course will be viewed politically as being anti-Muslim but it must be explained that it is required in National Interest and is not directed against Muslims but against illegal migrants. BJP should have invited people to come forward to give suggestions on how to identify illegal migrants and how to deal with them. This would not have stopped left liberal sickular from their usual ruble rousing antics but at least, most of the fence sitters would have better understood the issues. Modi in his address did try to appear conciliatory in his Delhi address but no other BJP leader picked up from there and developed a consultative atmosphere. While what Modi is doing is absolutely in national interest, it needs a better presentation and packaging. This powerful left liberal sickular media in the country has assumed dangerous anti national dimensions and it needs to decimated in a decent manner.

  12. I think writer is fool enough not to differentiate between protest and arson , biased reporting what can be expected of dump shekhar guptas print as well except of propganda only.

    • It is you who are a fool who can’t differentiate between protest and arson! The author ia talking about peaceful protesters, ans not those who may have indulged in arson! Has he said anywhere in his column that he is talking about the arsonists?

  13. Dissent is a right, discretion is not.

    Yes, the right wing creating chaos so does communal forces inside left (Communist, deobandi). By merging all, left became a bunch of hypocrites.
    Some journalist support left rest right, everyone is fuels the fire.
    Noone is at centre. Shame on you all

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here