The most recent instance of protests against discriminatory and oppressive policies of the government in India was the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Though the CAA was an abstract idea for common Indians initially, it was to touch the lives of millions; and soon it did move them to action. I shall present an overview of what it was all about and what was the nature of the discrimination implied in the CAA. Since I was one of the national conveners of ‘We the People’ which mobilised most of the protest, I would also like to state, with utmost humility, what the scope of the protest was.
The Citizenship Amendment Act has a history that goes back to the fag-end of the colonial days. It was the Central Legislative Assembly of British in India, which first enacted the Foreigners Act in 1946, giving the central government the powers to deal with foreigners in India. At that time, the situation was really confusing because the impending partition of India was the context. The enigmatic definition of the term ‘foreigner’ in the 1946 Act was “one who is not Indian.” In December 1955, the Parliament of India enacted the Citizenship Act, within the framework of article 11 of the Constitution. It is related to the acquisition and termination of citizenship. The 1955-Act provided substantive and procedural norms for the determination of Indian citizenship. Five decades later, in 2003, the central government promulgated the citizenship rules in order to provide greater clarity to provisions related to the acquisition of citizenship.
In 2015, building upon these provisions and rules, the Ministry of Home Affairs made an amendment in the ‘Passport Rules-1950’ and ‘Foreigners Order-1948,’ and allowed persons belonging to minority communities of Bangladesh and Pakistan entry into India. The entry was restricted to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, but not extended to Muslims and tribal communities seeking shelter in India. The foreigners allowed entry into India were required to have faced religious persecution. Besides, they were required to have entered India without valid documents on or before 31st of December 2014. In July 2016, the Minister proposed an amendment to the Citizenship Act. In 2019 the citizenship amendment bill had been passed in the Lok Sabha, but not yet having been cleared to the register before the Upper House of the Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, it had lapsed.
The newly elected Indian government placed it once again before the Lok Sabha in December 2019, ironically enough, just a day before the International Human Rights Day (on the 10th of December). It was passed in the Lok Sabha with an overwhelming majority that the BJP had at its command, supported by 311 members out of 541 MPs. The bill also passed through the Rajya Sabha with 125 votes for and 105 votes against it. The next day, the President assented to the Citizenship Act Amendment Bill. Thus was born the citizenship Amendment Act- 2019. The amendments specifically pertain to section two of the previously existing rules. The Act provides that persons belonging to minority communities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan were being exempted from the application of the provisions of the Foreigner Act 1946. The CAA provided for a cut-off date of 31st December 2014, for granting citizenship to such.
The backdrop of the CAA was the process of compiling the Assam Citizenship Register as part of the National Register of citizens, as well as the process initiated by the Census of India for creating a National Population Register. Within weeks of the Modi government coming to power, the office of the Registrar of Census had issued notification under Rule-3 of Citizenship Rules-2003 for creation and updating the Population Register between the first and the 30th September 2020. In the following month, the government of Assam, along with the Union of India, updated the National Register of Citizens, the NRC, for the residents of the state of Assam. This was done in compliance with a series of Supreme Court orders. In the Assam exercise, there were applications of nearly 320 million individuals for inclusion in the Citizenship Register. The finalists reportedly included only 311 million individuals, but excluded 9 million individuals. It is yet unclear as to what was the exact number of persons belonging to various religions, excluded or included in the National Register of citizens in the state of Assam.
On 20th November, the Home Minister of India announced plans for a pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC). The announcement sent chills down the spine of individuals who care for a composite and secular society in India. The home minister tried to assure that compilation of the NRC was to be carried out in order to update the citizens list but nothing would be done to harm any particular religion. In less than three weeks, the CA Bill was introduced in the Parliament and was passed making it the CA Act (CAA). ‘The chronology’, and ‘mark the timing’, phrases from the Home Minister’s speech in the Parliament, came across like a barely concealed threat to the Muslim community in India which had already been feeling challenged by the lack of formal documents in support of their citizenship.
The response to the Act from media, jurists, citizen groups, and activists included the grounds for objecting to it put forward by the opposition parties during the debate in the Parliament, and also included some more points. A bald summary of the issues and arguments raised in opposition to the CA would be as follows:
- One, the amendment had violated the principles and basic values of the Constitution since it proposed to club together religion and citizenship.
- Two, the criteria on which it had proposed to offer citizenships were not based on any reasonable classification.
- Three, it has no reason for including Afghanistan in the list of countries covered by the Act, and no reason for leaving out other neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
- Four, it is not a proper comprehensive Act as it does not talk of other minorities, such as the tribal communities who face discrimination in Bangladesh, and several minorities within Islamic sub groups.
It was also argued that the CAA neither made any reference to other minorities and ethnic groups such as Khasis, Garos, Brus, Chakmas, etc, who are all listed as minorities in the census of Bangladesh, nor took into consideration illegal migrants from Sri Lanka. The cut-off date stipulated by the Act had no logical basis. And if religious persecution is to be the reason for the granting of citizenship, there is no reason to believe that the persecution has come to an end after the cut-off date. The religion of any person is not enough ground to conclude that persecution is necessarily religious; there are other nuances to it. Besides, in the case of those who migrated to India decades ago, it would be just impossible to provide any proof of such persecution.
The People whose citizenship was to be determined by the CAA have been staying in Assam, West Bengal and elsewhere now for good three or four decades.
It was also argued that the CAA would lead to a serious deterioration of India’s relation with Bangladesh, and may result in placing the lives of the non Muslim communities covered by the act at risk in the neighbouring countries.
Finally, it was felt that the objective of CAA was discriminatory and unlawful. The classification created under the Act had no rational relationship with the stated objective of the Act. Besides, it left out persecution arising out of world-views, culture, thought expression and political turmoil in the neighbouring countries in the subcontinent.
Criticism also emerged with reference to the vast range of India’s undocumented people, such as the adivasis, the digitally marginalised nomadic communities, migratory labourers, the homeless, and orphans and the zero literacy section of the population. In India, we have a large migratory population which we caught a glimpse of when the first lockdown was announced in 2020. All of them, it was argued, would be left out of the scope of CAA. More importantly, the CAA brings into the definition of citizenship, the question of religion, specifically excludes Muslims, and Jews, and thereby creates space for legalising an anti-Muslim bias in the proposed Citizen’s Register and Population Register.
Those who were more vocal, passionately argued that the series of legal actions of the BJP government related to downgrading the former Jammu and Kashmir state, the supreme court verdict on the long vexed public Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, clearly displayed a show of rapid unfolding of the Hindu project of the RSS. A similar criticism referring to the protracted clamp down on Kashmir and recently passed Information Technology Act pointed to increased domination of the state on the personal domain of citizens. They hinted at the decline of the Parliamentary system and a move towards a more pronounced autocratic presidential system. The Information Act states that one who publishes or transmits or causes to be published in the electronic form any material, which is repugnant to government policies shall be punished, on the first conviction, with imprisonment for a term which may extend up to six months, or be fined up to two lakh rupees. And in the event of second or subsequent conviction, with imprisonment for a term up to two years, and also a fine up to five lakh rupees.
That the opposition to the CAA came from political parties or a section of media and organised civil society groups and juries was not so surprising. What surprised everyone within the establishment and outside was that students on many university campuses came out to protest, and citizens who otherwise stay away from all political debates started assembling in various cities and towns to express their concerns on the citizenship Amendment Act and the two registers (NRC and NPR) proposed by the government. During the months when the CA Bill was on the anvil, the Muslim community in India was constantly on tenterhooks, greatly worried and in a panic. Documents required for proving citizenship were not easy to collect. Many fake document ‘factories’ also sprung up at that time. In those months, the Muslim community was generally reluctant to come out in the open and discuss the CA bill or question its necessity. During those months, people of other faiths showed little interest in the question. Of course, one major exception to this was Assam and the north-eastern states that had witnessed the Citizens Register process unfold over the previous three to four years. It was natural therefore that the very first non-party non-organised reaction to the passage of the CA should come from Assam. In the first bout of protest in Guwahati, nearly seven hundred thousand people took to the streets. However, that was not well reported by the media. But what was unexpected was that protests would erupt from several other states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Several State Legislative Assemblies joined and passed resolutions or quasi resolutions rejecting the CAA, amounting to non-cooperation to the Register of Citizens and the Population Register. One did not expect faithful coverage of the protest from the national electronic media, which have got into the compulsion of presenting the establishment’s point of view. Ditto with the national print media. Yet, the media gave a fair space for reporting the protest. Regional and local media provided a much more realistic picture of the reaction. The social and digital media brought even fuller reporting. Going by all of these media reports, it was clear that the protest took place in more than 300 towns and cities across the country.
For months together, the protests showed no signs of receding, the protesters no signs of fatigue, as is the case with the farmers’ protest, which has stood its ground for several months now. Considering that there was no single leader to lead the anti-CAA protests, there was no systematic coordination between one protesting group and another. It was quite mystifying as to how the movement that began on the 12th of December had sustained itself over all these months. What was equally perplexing was how young Indians who contributed significantly to BJP’s electoral success in the Lok Sabha elections had stepped forward to counter this attempt to bury secularism as a basic principle of the Constitution. They took to the protest as their mission, kept the formal political forces such as parties and unions out of the movement and led the moment from the front. The forms of protest these young people invented this time were in many ways quite unique. Shaheen Bagh, for instance. Equally remarkable was the use of social media by the classes who were previously not familiar with the use of social media for articulating their political views so openly. Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi, where women had been sitting in protest for weeks together with utmost moral courage, was also quite historic in many ways. In dozens of other cities and towns the Shaheen Bagh-like demonstrations had sprung up. Groups of citizens had congregated on pavements, in parks, on open plots, or wherever they could assemble. Young leaders and women protesters were a new phenomenon in New Delhi, India’s political capital. They brought a new political idiom into circulation.
On the other hand, the government persisted in its denial mode, and was quite clueless about the extent of the discontent. The government kept harping on its resolve to go ahead with the two Registers. Yet, till today, the government has not formulated the rules related to CAA that are necessary for the act to be implemented. The anti-CAA movement has managed to prevent its implementation. Some time back, in late 2020, the Home Minister stated that the government would start the process of compiling the Citizenship Register, and that the Citizenship Amendment Act would be brought in. When, we do not know. It is difficult to analyse if the BJP government was deliberately fanning the debate, as a cover for its dismal economic performance.
It is another matter whether the judiciary would regain its courage to displease the regime and protect the spirit of the Constitution. There were nearly 130 Public Interest Litigations challenging the CAA pending in the Supreme Court since December 2019. On the day the entire batch of petitions were admitted, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central Government seeking a response. Although the response has come, the Supreme Court has not yet proceeded the matter further.
Whether the new emphasis on federalism will eventually amount to a political alignment of small and big political parties, uniting to counter BJP and its alienated allies is a matter that will interest TV anchors more than it appeals to the protesting groups. What remains of utmost significance is, as India enters the third decade of the 21st century, the emergence of youth leadership at the forefront of an important national debate. It is equally significant that these young leaders are upholding humanism and Constitutional values as they are articulating with an unprecedented precision a non-sectarian and non-divisive politics. Such a fundamental political change had occurred once before during the freedom struggle inspired by Mahatma Gandhi in the third decade of the 20th century. Probably, a century later, this epistemic shift is showing signs of a much needed overhaul. Indian political space has long been waiting for a complete change of political discourse. For the last four decades in particular, it has remained dominated by the political idea of ‘divide and rule’. The nonviolent and spontaneous CAA protests that worked cohesively without allowing any overt coordination is a major phenomenon indicative of an epistemic change in the political idiom of India. That is the impact of the protest. The unique protest denotes that we are beginning to enter a new political era, not the one proposed by the forces of Hindutva, but the one that is heading towards greater humanism and empathy. Protests against discriminatory opposition are not a new phenomenon in India. But, at this juncture it is acquiring new use defining the needs, urges, and aspirations of a new generation of Indians.
What's Your Reaction?
Ganesh Devy is a literary scholar and cultural activist. In 1996 he left his academic position at the M.S. University of Baroda to take up the conservation of threatened languages in India. In 2014 he was awarded Padmashree by the Government of India. At present he is the Chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a nation-wide study of over 780 languages, being published by Orient Blackswan in a series of 50 volumes.