The protests against the CAA-NRC legislation that India has witnessed ever since its implementation under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been unique in multiple aspects. For starters, these protests have been dubbed as the “second freedom struggle” of India. The mass protests that India has witnessed have also been unique in the fact that they are the largest opposition the ruling BJP has encountered ever since it came to power in 2014 riding on the back of a very comfortable and strong majority. But perhaps, the most salient feature of the CAA-NRC inspired protests is the fact that it has caught the political establishment off-guard.
While India is no stranger to the concept of mass public protests, the magnitude and intensity of the anti CAA-NRC protests has been massive. While the reasons might vary based on the region, the protests at their very core have been aimed at getting the highly contentious CAA-NRC legislation scrapped. While in the North-Eastern states like Assam people have been protesting to safeguard their cultural and demographic uniqueness, in the rest of the states the protesters have justified their stance by citing that the law is unconstitutional in employing religion to grant citizenship. While these protests may not be very well coordinated, they have revolved around a strong anti-government stand against the CAA-NRC legislation. These protests have yet again shown that while people might have voted the BJP to power, not all of them agree with their extremist Hindutva ideologies.
The government’s attempts to curb these protests by draconian measures like internet shutdowns, imposing section 144 to prevent people from banding together, and rounding up political activists has been met with fierce resistance by the protesters. Across the nation people have defied bans on public gatherings and fought back against the government’s efforts to prevent and dismantle the protests. The message has been clear. Try as much as they may, the government shall not be allowed to dismantle the secular fabric of the nation with their attempts at glorifying Hindu nationalism to promote the ultimate goal of a Hindu nation.
The CAA-NRC legislation has sparked a much stronger reaction as compared to other projects that the BJP government has aggressively pushed for under their extremist Hindutva policy. Hence, while the revocation of Article 370, criminalisation of triple talaq and the Supreme Court verdict on the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute may not have inspired a very strong reaction against the BJP, the CAA-NRC legislation has brought together scores of people from across the nation together against the quite evident attempt at dividing the Indian society on the basis of religion. This by far might be the most concerted attempt by the BJP to push their Hindu nationalist agenda forward and has inspired an equally strong resistance from the people.
That the BJP-led political establishment had not anticipated such widespread resistance to the CAA-NRC legislation is evident from the fact that they have been completely taken aback from the response of the people. This was evident from the fact that while the Home Minister Amit Shah echoed plans for a nationwide NRC, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, denied any concrete plans for a nationwide NRC in a rally!
The political leaders form the BJP have admitted that they did not expect such widespread protests against the CAA-NRC legislation. “I really did not see the protests coming,” Sanjeev Balyan, a ruling party legislator and junior federal minister, told Reuters. The protests have forced the otherwise dominant BJP government to fall back to its allies and opponents earlier side lined when the legislation was passed, in order to dissolve this apparent crisis.
While the BJP, on expected lines has tried to communalize the protests by terming them too Muslim, the common perception surrounding the protests has not been a movement by the Muslims but rather Indians. Granted that the Muslims might have been in the lead given the fact that they are the ones most threatened by the CAA-NRC legislation. However, the protests have been anything but majority Muslim.
While the BJP led government and its staunch supporters maintain that the protesters are confused regarding the CAA-NRC legislation and are trying to brainwash people into protesting against the government, it can be seen rather easily that this is not the case. People from diverse spheres of life have come together to protest against the legislation. These include students from esteemed universities in India and abroad, political activists, celebrities, and lawyers and advocates. It would be rather foolish and ignorant to believe that they are not aware of the issue against which they are protesting.
While the protests may have died out in the light of the coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed the nation severely, it remains to be seen as to how the Modi-led BJP government will respond to the protests that will most certainly come back as soon as the situation normalizes in the country. For now, however, one can only wait and watch as the nation grapples with the raging covid-19 pandemic and rising unemployment and economic decline.
Who has been protesting, so far?
It is crucial to remember that the protests ignited in the aftermath of the brutal, inhumane and shameful action by police forces in universities like the Jami Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The crackdown by security forces in these two universities, which resulted in students being injured severely, and hostel rooms, libraries and mosques being destroyed attracted international attention with many esteemed universities in India and abroad condemning the action of the forces.
The most important effect of this crackdown on JMI and AMU students was that it ignited a wave of protests across the country thus resulting in widespread resistance across the nation. Scores of people from diverse religions, educational backgrounds and political affiliations gathered together across major cities in the nation to protest against the government. However, they were not protesting only against the CAA-NRC legislation. What started as a protest against the highly controversial CAA-NRC legislation soon turned into a massive uncoordinated and yet powerful resistance movement against the rising unemployment, economic decline, rampant communal violence and the CAA-NRC legislation of course. The people were protesting to preserve the very soul of the nation- the secular fabric of India that has ensured that the nation as a sovereign state be a sanctuary to people from diverse religions, cultures and ethnicities, ever since it got its independence from colonial rule in 1947.
They were fighting to preserve everything that India has stood for all these years- the unity in diversity, peace, brotherhood and love. And in doing so, people and political activists from diverse spectrums got united in what has been termed as India’s second freedom struggle! In the aftermath of the violent crackdown by security forces in JMI and AMU, political parties such as the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) organized marches across the country. Many State governments have also started protesting against the CAA-NRC legislation and have passed resolutions in the state assembly. The Rajiv Gandhi University Students’ Union (RGUSU) organized a sit-in protest early in January 2020 in the campus against the CAA-NRC legislation. The Student Union president Dopum Sonam termed them ‘unwanted’ declared that the RGUSU stood in solidarity with the students at JNU. RGU Research Scholars’ Forum (RGURSF) General Secretary Prem Taba said “We are extremely anguished by the brutal violence at JNU. It is terrifying and a potential threat to the country’s students''.
The environment surrounding major Indian cities has been very dynamic ever since the CAA-NRC legislation was passed. Women and people took to the streets and had been protesting for weeks together before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived forcing them to vacate the protest sites that have sprung up across the nation in line with the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi that had attracted global attention. Dozens of ‘Shaheen Baghs’ propped up across major Indian cities like Lucknow, Bhopal, Raipur, Allahabad, Pune, and Kolkata. It was like the entire nation was on satyagraha against the ruling government.
At the Mansoor Ali Khan Park in Roshan Bagh, Allahabad, women and people get together to protest peacefully against the CAA-NRC legislation as well as the police brutality. “If women in Delhi can protest in freezing cold, why can’t we?” asks Sameena holding her five-year-old in arms as Rashida quips, “We will not budge this law is off our back.” In Pune, Zakia Khan, a college student has been missing her lectures just to be a part of the protests at the Konark Indrayu mall, organized by Qul Jamaat-e-Tanzeem. “We want to show that women can also come together and protest for their right. We are thankful to Dr BR Ambedkar for including the right to protest in the Constitution,” Zakia says.
The crackdown on students and protesters in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and other places suggests that the state has been somewhat intimidated by this uprising and is trying to curb it over fears of more Muslims, Dalits and people from all faiths and cultures uniting together to showcase the truly secular soul of India. These protests are a testament to the fact that Indians respect and uphold the secular status of the nation as guaranteed by the constitution which provides each and every citizen with fundamental rights.
Another unique aspect of these protests has been employing various forms of art to deliver silent yet powerful messages. People are expressing their resistance to the Narendra Modi led BJP government using creative banners, street art, slogans and graffities. From poetry to comedy and even memes, the plethora of creative art forms being employed to voice dissent is delivering a silent yet very powerful message. People from all generations and cultures are united in their stand against the Hindutva extremist policies that the BJP government has aggressively promoted in its entire tenure. The widespread protests against the CAA-NRC legislation have once again proven that the people of India do not believe in the extremist Hindutva ideology of the ruling BJP government. Quite evidently, these protests have come as a huge setback to the BJP government which has always enjoyed strong majority support.
The Assertion of Constitutional Rights by the Muslim Citizenry:
While it would be wrong to say that these protests have centred mostly around Muslims, the way they have protested across the nation has been remarkable. Most importantly Muslims have managed to create a new political identity by raising their voices against the Hindu Nationalist agenda that the BJP government employs aggressively to mobilize popular support of the majority.
Muslims in India have long struggled for political representation. The current Lok Sabha has only 25 Muslims out of 543 members. This roughly translates to a meagre 4.5% compared to the Indian Muslim population which stands at nearly 14.2% of the total population. In January 2018, BJP, the ruling party in India had only four Muslim MLAs out of a total of 1,418 MLAs. Bias against the Muslims has also been evident in the misconduct by police forces across various regions of the country and the rising cases of mob lynching and communal violence against Muslims ever since the BJP came to power in 2014.
However, despite the growing alienation of the minorities in general and the Muslims in particular under the Modi-led government, the latter has not resorted to radical means to fight back. Rather Muslims have increasingly adopted the power given to them by the Indian constitution as the biggest weapon in their fight against the aggressive Hindu nationalism that the BJP has invoked across the nation. In doing so they have aligned with a majority of the Indian population that does not believe in the Hindutva ideologies of the BJP. As per the findings of the CSDS-NES survey of 2019, a large majority of Indians do not believe in the idea. The survey indicates that 75% Hindus reject the Hindutva propaganda, not believing in the idea that India belongs to the Hindus or is a natural Hindu homeland.
It also points out that the majority of the Muslims in the country believe in the secular structure with only 6% falling out of favour with the same.
The Indian Constitution safeguards the interests of the minorities, including the religious minorities and allows people to gather together to reclaim their rights through peaceful protest and expression of dissent when the state adopts policies that violate their rights. This is what Gandhi did in the freedom struggle of India against the Britishers and this is exactly what Muslims throughout the country are doing- they are protesting to claim their right of being an Indian citizen.
So, when Salman Imtiaz, president of AMU Students’ Union opines in his column on The Hindu that Jamia and AMU are evolving into epicentres of national awareness, he invokes this newfound identity as the basis of student protests at these premier institutions that shook the entire nation apart and attracted international recognition. Thus, these protests against the CAA-NRC legislation have the potential to reinforce the declining Muslim identity into the larger scheme of things such as politics, judiciary and education.
Even Muslim scholars have not been immune to this newfound identity. They can be seen in Numerous YouTube videos asking people to continue protesting non-violently. A majority of them have been invoking the spirit of Hindu-Muslim solidarity and brotherhood. While this may not be the first instance of Muslim scholars asserting the secular fabric of India, it is quite certainly a radical departure from the traditional ideologies of the Muslim scholars in the country. While the idea of India as a secular republic and a sanctuary for people belonging to all faiths and cultures has been celebrated by Muslims for a long time, it is quite evident that the protests against the CAA-NRC legislation have only strengthened this belief in the Muslims of the country.
While the majority of the political parties and the judiciary of the country have remained silent on the issue of religious minorities for a very long time, the Muslims of India aren’t silent any more. They have rediscovered this new identity in the form of symbols like the tricolour, the preamble, portraits of Gandhi and BR Ambedkar that dominate their protests against CAA-NRC. The most encouraging factor however has been the fact that this passionate resistance by the Muslims has not been shaped by their ‘representatives’ as has been the case for a very long time. Rather, the Muslim community this time around is representing itself independently, led by its youth and women.
This refined idea of independent representation through the powers granted by the Constitution has been crucial to the entire CAA-NRC inspired resistance. Muslim protesters have been cautious not to make it a religious issue, but rather an ‘attack on the spirit of the Constitution’. Thus, scenes like Chandrashekhar Azad holding a copy of the Constitution with the photo of BR Ambedkar at Jama Masjid and Kanhaiya Kumar’s Azadi song at Shaheen Bagh are a few instances of how this new Muslim political representation is going to shape up in the years to come.
While no one can ascertain the fate of the movement against the CAA-NRC legislation in the wake of OVID-19 pandemic, this newly found identity of an Indian Muslim is here to stay and shall redefine the meaning of nationalism and secularism in the country in future.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to worsen every day in the nation however, it remains to be seen as to how the protests will shape up again once the situation in the country normalizes.