The people of India have spoken up – they will not allow the constitution to be subverted.
For weeks now, Indians have come out on the streets in unprecedented numbers. Not a single protestor is opposed to the grant of citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Parsi refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Instead they have declared in unison that religion cannot be a criterion for the grant of citizenship. Whatever the government says, that is precisely what the Citizenship (Amendment) Act does.
The prime minister has claimed that the National Register of Citizens – which will divide Indians into ‘citizens’ and ‘doubtful citizens’ – is not even at the discussion stage in official circles. His assurance is completely contradicted by home minister Amit Shah’s statements inside Parliament and outside that the exercise will be rolled out all over the country by 2024. Meanwhile, a renewed push is being made for the National Population Register (NPR), which has no raison d’etre except to serve as a data bank for the NRC.
The issue, however, is not that the two top-most government figures are saying opposing things. Nor should Modi’s word on this be considered final. It is a government’s responsibility to show the country a clear, consistent and consultative legal framework for any policy on this order of significance. Instead it continuously shifts, contradicts, denies its own claims – broad and detailed – and has only confirmed popular fears of its bad faith. As a result, only the formal withdrawal of the all-India NRC as a concept can assure the country that this horrendous exercise will not be taken up in the future.
Civil society and the public and large have understood this. That is why the protests have not slowed, and even the violence by the police in different parts of the country – mainly in BJP-ruled states – has not deterred citizens from coming out on the streets. Their principal demand is that the CAA be redrafted to offer citizenship to any bona fide refugee facing persecution in India’s neighbourhood. This simple redrafting will adequately cover refugees from the six communities the government says it is concerned about, without gratuitously listing them (and excluding others) in the text of the law. The fact that Modi and Shah are tone deaf to this elementary logic is proof that their aim is to polarise the country on religious lines and drag India further towards a ‘Hindu rashtra’.
The illegal manner in which people have been denied the right to peacefully oppose the government’s move – the misuse of Section 144, detentions and beatings, internet shutdowns – has widened the ambit of the protests, which are no longer just about the CAA and NRC. In fact, the hundreds of thousands of citizens out on the streets, braving lathis and bullets, chanting slogans and singing songs and vociferously raising their voice against the government, are now fighting for the constitution, for India’s foundational principles, for their democratic rights.
From Assam to Kerala, from Mumbai to Kolkata and in Delhi, Lucknow and Mangalore, Kasargode, Vijayawada and Aurangabad, Indians, young and old, cutting across religion and caste, have come out to let the government know that they will not stay silent in the face of a brazen attempt to ride roughshod over India’s democracy.
For the past six years or so, the country has seen lynchings, rising intolerance and systematic attempts at silencing critics. Institutions of higher learning are under siege. Minority rights are under attack. The completely cynical way in which a long-standing arrangement with Kashmir has been subverted and an entire people suppressed has shocked the conscience of the world. Barring some voices of protest, however, many in India have remained quiet, mostly because they were too scared to speak out.
The CAA-NPR-NRC threat has changed all that. While the BJP privately tells its supporters that this ‘trishul’ is aimed at Muslims alone, the fact is that millions of Indian citizens are likely to have their lives upended by the party’s insistence that they prove their citizenship. As of today, the government has still not decided what the metric will be, but given bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption and sheer cussedness, ‘mistakes’ are bound to happen on a large scale. The list of ‘doubtful citizens’ that this enumerative excess eventually produces will almost entirely comprise the poor. Minorities will be the worst affected, because of the intent behind the exercise, but other marginalised sections will not be far behind.
The Modi government must read the public mood and step back. People do not want vague assurances any more. Nothing short of the complete scrapping of the NPR and NRC and the redrafting of the CAA to bring it in conformity with India’s constitutional principles and international law obligations will do.