It looks as though the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act had done to India what Hanuman did to Lanka, in Ramayana. It has set India on fire, so to speak. Mass protests have engulfed many parts of that country and already left 20 dead. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been arrested. The Modi government is determined to go ahead with the implementation of the new law come what may.
Amidst protests, the Indian Cabinet has recently approved financial allocations for a nationwide census and a population survey scheduled to be held in 2020 to prepare the National Population Register (NPR). This move is sure to fuel protests further.
Mass protests have prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell the opponents of the new law to target him and not India. He has sought to score political points, but to no avail, if the intensity of protests is anything to go by.
Genesis of trouble
It all began with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, early this month. The BJP-led alliance with 99 seats is in minority in the Rajya Sabha, whose majority mark is 124. But somehow the Bill was passed with a majority of 20 votes (125 to 105). It has amended the 64-year old Indian citizenship law, which prevented illegal immigrants from becoming Indian citizens.
The new citizenship law is expected to benefit six religious communities, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, et al., whose members have been living in India illegally due to persecution in the neighbouring Muslim majority countries, to wit, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The ruling BJP stands accused of having left out Muslims deliberately in the new law and thereby discriminated against them.
But the Modi government is not without defenders, who claim that the three countries named in the Act at issue are Islamic nations either according to their Constitutions or due to the Islamic militancy, and those who face persecution there are non-Muslim minorities. They argue that therefore it is no surprise that the beneficiaries of the new law are non-Muslim immigrants.
National Register of Citizens
The opponents of the new Act are of the view that religion should not be a condition for citizenship and its exclusionary nature violates the secular principles underpinning the Indian Constitution. The Indian Supreme Court has refused to make an intervention to halt the implementation of the new law.
The Citizenship Amendment Act is linked to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is a document containing the names of those who fled to India before 24 March 1971 during the Bangladesh war for Independence. There are many illegal immigrants who have fled to India since the end of that war. The new law is believed to benefit the non-Muslim immigrants who would otherwise have had to face deportation or internment.
The full implementation of the new law will, according to its critics, result in a situation where the illegal immigrants will be placed in two categories—Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims will not benefit from the new law, as was said previously. Hence the Act is considered discriminatory and part of the BJP’s agenda to marginalise the Indian Muslims, who number more than 200 million.
Timing of the passage of new law
It is only natural that many have looked askance at the new law, which was preceded by the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, which the Muslims and rights activists have taken umbrage at.
Some critics of the BJP’s ethno-religious agenda maintain that the ongoing protests are tantamount to a condemnation of PM Modi’s Hindutva programme. One of them is internationally acclaimed writer, Arundathi Roy. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera she minced no words when she welcomed the protest. “I am hopeful because this movement intellectually understands and emotionally and passionately understands the horror of this Hindutva programme that Modi, BJP, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu supremacist organisation) have been selling for so many years and of course in power since 2014.”
The new law has taken its toll on India’s international image. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan have cancelled their New Delhi visits in view of the situation in India. Momen has stated that the citizenship law is an internal affair of India. While describing Bangladesh as India’s closest friend, he has expressed grave concern about the fallout of the law. He has said, “So, if there is uncertainty in India, it is likely to affect its neighbours. When there was an economic downturn in the US, it affected many countries because we live in a global world. So our fear is that if there is some uncertainty in India, it might affect its neighbours.” His fear is not unfounded.
Political uncertainty is bound to aggravate the economic downturn in India following what has come to be dubbed a jobless growth. Economic management is the strongpoint of the Modi government and if the economy does not perform well, the BJP’s electoral fortunes will dwindle.
The BJP is lucky that the Congress is in disarray following a string of crushing electoral defeats during the last several years, but the possibility of it using the current situation to make a comeback cannot be ruled out. Sonia Gandhi has described the citizenship law as ‘not only an affront to the principles of equality and religious non-discrimination that have been enshrined in our Constitution, but represents a rejection of an India that would be a free nation for all her people, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, language or ethnicity’. The position of the Congress has struck a responsive chord with the critics of the new law.
PM Modi has lashed out at the Opposition for stoking emotions and instigating protests to gain some political traction, having suffered heavy electoral setbacks. But his critics argue that the BJP has got its priorities mixed up and what it should be doing at the present juncture is to adopt measures to arrest the economic slowdown instead of peddling its ethno-religious agenda.
Fear is being expressed in some quarters that the protests are likely to spiral out of control. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and the Modi government has had to adopt some desperate measures such as Internet shutdowns in the trouble-torn parts of India and such action will affect its popularity among the youth dependent on connectivity.
The 2018 book, Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World, informs us that 600 million Indians are under 25 years old and they account for more than one half of the Indian population. The author, S. Poonam says, ‘They make up the world’s largest ever cohort of like-minded young people and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules.” These people can be easily mobilised via social networking platforms as we have seen in this country, where young artists have come together to paint murals on wayside walls. The Indian government, therefore, may have sought to prevent the Intent being used to stoke the protests, but its action will cost it the backing of quite a few young voters who have a fetish for the Internet.
The Modi government is confident that it will be able to bulldoze its way through, as it has done on several occasions, following its impressive performance at elections. Its opponents are determined to scuttle the new citizenship law or at least to use it to inflict the maximum possible damage on the Modi administration politically. Whether the situation will improve or take a turn for the worse will be seen when the Indian Supreme Court decision on the issue is made known. It is scheduled to consider the pleas challenging the constitutionality of the new law, on Jan. 22. The signs are that protests will continue at the current pace until such time. What will happen thereafter is anybody’s guess.