Despite the almost freezing temperatures, Delhi is simmering. Over more than a week now, braving the chill, thousands of ordinary people have come out of the cosy comfort of their homes to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), which is being seen as a draconian piece of legislation going against the principles of equality and prevention of discrimination against any community enshrined in the Constitution of India. People are also vehemently protesting against the prospect of a nationwide NRC (National Register of Citizens) as espoused time and again by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah. If the NRC is implemented, 72 years after India attained independence, over 125 crore Indians will have to stand in line in order to be verified whether they are legitimate citizens of the country or not. As an exercise in sheer absurdity, even demonetisation would pale in comparison to the proposed NRC.
Not just in New Delhi and the national capital region, since the passage of the bill in both Houses of Parliament and President Ram Nath Kovind giving his assent to the controversial legislation making it an act, the entire country has erupted into spontaneous protests, steered not by any political party, but led primarily by the youth, supported by students, activists and ordinary citizens. Every part of the country saw mega rallies attended by thousands of people as well as endless number of smaller protests, agitations by students across the nation, participants mobilised through messages and posts on the social media.
The Central government in Delhi and governments in BJP-ruled states are coming down heavily on the protesters. Despite the wide imposition of Section 144 CrPC, banning any gathering of five or more persons, as well as the suspension of the Internet and mobile services temporarily in many areas, and for many days in Assam, shutting down colleges, halting metro lines in big cities and finally coming down on protesters using brute force, the undeterred agitators are refusing to budge and continuing with their protests. As the time of writing, there are reports of 25 deaths of protesters due to police action, including 18 in Uttar Pradesh, five in Assam and two in Karnataka — all BJP-ruled states. Several activists and eyewitnesses have alleged that this is due to the fact that the police action was extremely brutal in BJP-ruled states, especially in UP. The Yogi Adityanath government in UP is being blamed for 18 deaths, 705 arrests and over 5,000 people being taken in custody over a span of just five days, including the death of a eight-year-old child in Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But did we hear any message of condolence from Mr Modi for the death of an eight-year-old child? No. On the contrary, in a most bizarre show of utter lack of sympathy and in a violation of the basic principle political neutrality, Meghalaya’s governor Tathagata Roy, who was a senior BJP leader before becoming a governor, in a tweet blamed the father of the child for his death!
To counter the anti-CAA protests, the ruling party is organising its own demonstrations in support of the CAA. In Delhi, AAP-turned-BJP politician Kapil Mishra took out a support march, participants in which indulged in open hate mongering and incitement to violence by shouting provocative slogans like “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko (Shoot the ‘traitors’ who are opposing the law)”. The refusal of the Delhi police to take action against these frenzied, sloganeering people spewing venom stand out in sharp contrast to their attitude towards the protesting students of Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi who were beaten up mercilessly, and police personnel entered Jamia’s library and teargassed students there, dragging students from toilets before unleashing violence on them to such an extent that a student lost both his eyes and another his hand.
Two points are clearly emerging from the ongoing protests. Despite the BJP openly implicating the Congress and other Opposition political parties for fuelling these protests, this is clearly a people’s movement. Political parties are doing their own protests. Mamata Banerjee has taken out a series of huge rallies in Kolkata. The Congress held a “Satyagraha for Unity” at Rajghat. But the popular character of the protests are evident by their spontaneity and the composition of participants — students and activists, housewives, senior citizens, artists, people from the corporate world defying orders from their bosses prohibiting participation in such rallies — in short, people from all walks of life.
Second, the Modi government and the ruling party’s supporters, with the help of certain media houses, are trying their best to create a narrative of polarisation. Mr Modi’s talk about identifying violent protesters by their clothes is clearly an attempt to portray these protests as Muslims versus the government. It’s certainly not true as protesters belonging to every community are participants in these agitations. Not just political parties, but people in the streets are sending a loud and clear message to the government that it is not so. All attempts to polarise the narrative have failed so far.
We are living in turbulent times. India stands at the crossroads. The direction it will take will decisively determine the future of democracy in this country. Nearly nine decades ago in a country in Europe, similar forces came into operation that unleashed a period of unthinkable violence, terror and misery upon people, especially upon a specific community. Those evil forces too came into power through democratic means, but ultimately and deliberately caused the death of democracy. Those elements of demagoguery, fanatic beliefs, mass hysteria about hyper nationalism, authoritarianism and a complete distrust, almost hatred, of opponents, and lack of a strong Opposition, are all present in contemporary India. However, let us hope that India’s democracy is resilient enough to overcome these forces, and that the nation’s core civilisation values of tolerance and respect for diversity are strong enough to allow us to tide over this period of crisis that sets out to destroy the very essence of India. Else, democracy will be dead!