Even a relatively harsh winter could not stop the Indian spring from coming in!
Braving against rather brutal police in many parts of the country, the protests are mainly led by students and the young, mostly young women, cutting across language, cultural, and religious barriers. Students from nearly 100 educational institutions have registered their peaceful protests already. Innumerable towns and cities, big and small, have been on the streets on December 19, the national day of protests. Some of them continue to do it nearly every day, while new ones are joining the chorus.
The government responded to these protests by imposing curfew in several cities, including the capital city New Delhi. Metros were closed down on the day of protests, the internet was shut down, thousands were detained and arrested, and peaceful protesters, including children, were mercilessly beaten. At least 20 people have been killed so far in the protests, which started a week back in ‘democratic’ India, while only were two killed in the six-month-long Hong Kong protests in the ‘authoritarian’ China. These killings have been mostly in states where the same party is in power as at the Centre, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).
While the government is justifying this violent clampdown in the pretext of protests turning violent, such provocations have been sparse – there is evidence that, in many cases, it was engineered and instigated by the police.
The latest trigger for these protests has been the passing of the Citizen’s (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 on December 11 by the Parliament. The Act offers Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities fleeing persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims. The CAA, together with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), poses a serious threat to Muslims.
NRC for Assam, a north-eastern state which had an influx of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the partition of India in 1947, took ten years, costing the state INR12-billion (US$170-million), resulting in excluding nearly 2 million people from citizenship in August 2019. With the CAA, only the people of six religions mentioned in the Act have an option for any legal recourse, and not the Muslims, who will be now illegal immigrants if their names are found missing from the NRC. The government wants to carry out NRC in the whole of India, for its 1.3-billion people.
The government’s assurance that with CAA-NRC Indian Muslims have nothing to fear is compared by many to nazi Germany’s assurance then that with Nuremberg Laws the Jews do not have to fear.
The list of documents required to prove citizenship, including land and tenancy records, permanent residential certificate, bank or post office accounts, birth certificate, education certificate or passport etc, will not be available to a large number of poor and dispossessed communities, making such people vulnerable to further marginalisation.
There are already detention centres being built in Assam for such ‘illegal immigrants.’
That CAA-NRC is contradicting the basic principles of the Indian Constitution, of non-refoulment and fundamental right against discrimination based on religion, does not cut any ice with this government.
But CAA-NRC was not a one-off and isolated move by this government. In early August 2019, in the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, it abrogated the Constitutionally mandated special status India had pledged when it decided to accede to India at the time of partition. In doing so, it violated all legal processes. The state is divided into three Union Territories, something that never happened in the history of India.
To curb any dissent, the government has imprisoned political leaders of the state, shut down the internet, imposed a curfew, and with hundreds of thousands of military in the state in the highly militarised zone in the world, it ensured the continuation of total suppression of human rights in Kashmir. The state will go down in history as one with the longest internet shutdown. Five months since the abrogation, things remain the same, with imprisonment of elected political leaders, curfew and internet shutdown continuing.
The government has many more legislations on its agenda, all of which have a direct connection with Muslims. They include anti-conversion laws, uniform civil code, and population control.
The protests inadvertently help the government to divert the attention from its worst performance on many fronts. Unemployment is at a 45-year-high, food items inflation is on a record high, fuel prices are an all-time high, strong signs of economic recession are all around, banking sector is reeling under large stressed assets, agrarian crisis is at its worst with 36,341 farmers committing suicides between 2014-16 (the last available data) due to mounting debts and crop failure, and unorganised sector, which consists of 93% of India’s workforce, is yet to recover after demonetisation by this government, where 85% of cash was overnight made invalid in 2016.
That the government gets away violating the Constitution and the law of the land so blatantly is because the democratic institutions, which otherwise should play the role of a watchdog, are failing in their duty. The Election Commission is yet to look into allegations of a manufactured verdict of this government in the last general elections (May 2019), with a discrepancy in results in over 370 seats out of a total 542. National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Women, and the anti-corruption body, the Central Vigilance Commission, have been made toothless since this government came to power in 2014.
A judiciary, which shows no urgency in intervening when human rights are violated, or when serious allegations of corruption are raised, only emboldens the government. A weak and fractured opposition poses no threat to Modi’s dominance either. The media, to borrow an expression from a senior BJP leader in another context, when asked to bend, it is crawling, except with few exceptions.
Amidst all these gloom, the protests are giving glimpses of hope. India has not witnessed protests of this nature and spread for the past many decades. It is unique for the absence of one single leadership, has no particular ‘political ambition’ and is diverse for its colour, expressions, creativity and determination.
India finally seemed to be living up to what Pablo Neruda said: ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming’. DM
Joe Athialy is a social activist based in New Delhi.
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.