The surge of protests in every corner of the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens will be remembered as an iridescent, significant moment in the journey of the republic. This is because these are, at their core, popular moral assertions founded on fraternity of the kind we have not seen for a long time. People are spilling onto the streets offering hope, solidarity and reassurance to those threatened by the politics of hate and fear. The protests mark a collective rejection of the toxic politics and policies that have come to dominate our public life in recent years.
The ruling establishment has responded with its well-used playlist of attempting to communalise and discredit the protestors; to confuse people with falsehoods; and to deploy crushing state force. But this time, none of it is working. The police brutalised students in the two national universities identified with India’s Muslim heritage, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. But the same night that news filtered in of injured Jamia students rounded up in police stations in Delhi, spontaneously large crowds gathered in the cold night outside the police headquarters and various police stations, and they refused to move until the police was forced to release the students. Students and faculty from more than 50 universities around the country gave their support. Sleep-deprived lawyers keep vigil every night outside police stations where protesters are detained.
The prime minister taunted the protestors, saying he could identify them by the clothes they wear, an unmistakable reference to their Muslim identity. In response, people of every visible identity joined the protests, interspersed with people in skullcaps and hijabs proudly waving the national flag, confident and spurred by the solidarity of their countrywomen and men. Young people, with funny creative posters, slogans and songs, began waging a non-violent battle for a country founded on love and hope.
The import of this moment is that it is, in its spirit, the continuance of a battle which began 100 years ago. Mahatma Gandhi had returned from South Africa to lead India’s freedom struggle, illuminated by a humane and inclusive nationalism, and the idea of a country which would welcome as equal citizens people of every faith and identity. The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had a different imagination, of a Hindu nation in which religious minorities would be forced to live as second-class citizens. The Muslim League, too, was convinced that Muslim minorities could never achieve equality and security except in a separate Muslim-majority country. Those holding power today seem determined to prove that Gandhiji was wrong, and Savarkar and Jinnah were right. Young Indians, 70 years after Mahatma Gandhi was killed for this idea, and Babasaheb Ambedkar incorporated the idea of secularism and fraternity into our Constitution, have picked up the mantle of this same battle for a country which is equal, just and kind.
The protests have led to perceptible unease in the ruling establishment. The Uttar Pradesh administration declares war on its Muslim citizens. The PM tries to defend his government with bare-faced falsehoods. He claims that his government never spoke of a national NRC, whereas Home Minister Amit Shah had announced it repeatedly in Parliament and outside, linking it with the CAA, signalling unmistakably that Hindus would be protected, but not Muslims. He adds that India has no detention centres, whereas I have entered these hell-like centres in Assam; Shah announced that states have been asked to build detention centres; and the construction of such centres is underway in many states.
The protests have already won. They have succeeded in rendering a national NRC highly improbable. This is an enormous victory, because it was the combination of the CAA with the NRC which threatened to thrust India’s 200 million Muslims into the same vortex of dread and insecurity which has been the fate of Bengali-origin Assamese people for the past several years. Even allies who cynically voted with the ruling party in support of the CAA have now announced, influenced by the popular revulsion, that they would not implement the NRC. Several states, including Bengal, Bihar, Kerala, Odisha, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, have ruled out the NRC. Many more will surely join in the coming days.
If the Union government still stubbornly perseveres with the NRC, it will create a constitutional crisis, because the NRC can be operationalised only through the state machinery. The Union government may dismiss recalcitrant state governments, but how many will it dismiss, and how many times?
High civic vigilance is still imperative. Work on the National Population Register has already commenced, and this is the first step to the NRC. If states are serious about not implementing the NRC, they would have to also refuse to conduct the NPR. So far, only the Kerala government has announced that it will not allow even the NPR. A countrywide civil disobedience movement, with every citizen boycotting the NPR and the NRC by refusing to share any information or documents, will be the most robust defence.
Will the protests endure? It is still too early to know. But even if the protests end, they would have demonstrated that the agenda of the ruling formation to transform India into its majoritarian imagination is not invincible. That their project to isolate Indian Muslims to the political and social margins has failed. They would have placed the brakes on India’s frightening descent into a republic of hate and fear. They would have shown that there are enough Indians who still believe in a country of hope and love.