As India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), approaches its seventh year in power at the Centre, it is evident that it has reached its first real challenge. There may be no leader visible yet on the political horizon who can challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supremacy, and no single party that can challenge the BJP’s dominance. But, for two unbroken months now, thousands of ordinary people, university students, civil society activists, burqa-clad Muslim women, have been camping at protest sites across the country, questioning the validity of the policies of the Modi regime and the conduct of its police in a way that would have seemed impossible just six months ago.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of this movement is that it has helped people shed the fear that had held them back from freely expressing their views for five and a half years.
The immediate trigger for these countrywide demonstrations was the use in December 2019 of an unusually high degree of force by the police against students of the Muslim-dominated Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University, who were protesting against the government’s plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and an amendment to the Citizenship law. Days later, masked intruders, armed with iron rods and sticks, entered the campus of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) whose alumni include India’s current foreign minister and finance minister. The armed group was not only able to walk past the usually vigilant university security guards but also beat up students and faculty members even as the police looked on, unmoved. The intruders were later identified as members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students’ Council), a BJP affiliate.
The National Register of Citizens appeared to be targeted against Muslims — and the poor of all communities — as they would face the greatest difficulties providing documentation related to birth and ownership of land. The Citizenship Amendment Act, on the other hand, provides for persecuted minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan allowing them to be fast tracked to citizenship. But while listing Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists as eligible minorities, it excluded Muslims, making the sense of discrimination explicit. The government justified this omission, saying Muslims would not be persecuted in Islamic nations. Ahmediyas and Hazaras were dismissed as “Muslim sub-sects”, while Myanmar’s Rohingyas could head to other majority Muslim nations, especially Bangladesh, as they spoke Bengali.
To counter the protests, even while remaining firm on the amendment to the citizenship law, Modi himself said that a national register of citizens was still being discussed. The reason for this apparent softening soon became clear: as part of the decadal Census exercise, due to be completed in 2021, the National Population Register that will be drawn up could be used for the same purpose as the register of citizens -- at least that is how the protestors, and many opposition-led state governments see it.
The National Register of Citizens was originally intended only for the northeastern province of Assam to fulfill a long-standing demand by its people to identify and deport Bengalis who had come in illegally. The BJP happily took on the task believing that most illegal migrants would be Muslim; instead, a majority were Hindus. That did not suit the BJP politically, although it suited the Assamese people who were opposed to all Bengalis. Those identified have since been placed in detention camps, where they will remain until the citizenship law rescues the Hindus among them. The Muslims are destined to remain in the camps as “stateless” individuals or “doubtful” citizens as the Bangladesh government has made it clear that it will not accept any of those labelled as illegal migrants.
Clearly, the consequences of the BJP’s citizenship/illegal migrant project have not been thought through by the Modi government, which remains focussed on polarising society on religious lines to win elections.
Meanwhile, today, no one can doubt the success of the demonstrations, or the resolve of the protestors. The most written-about group at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, has spawned similar cohorts of burqa-clad women in Kolkata’s Park Circus, Chennai’s Washermenpet, and Mumbai’s Mumbra. Support has also come in from retired civil servants, lawyers, scientists and scholars, groups that are generally very circumspect about expressing their opinions in public. It would be hard to dismiss these people as “urban Naxals”, a pejorative term used by the current regime for their left-wing/liberal opponents.
The real opposition to the Modi government is, therefore, coming from the people, not from established political parties, wary of provoking a majoritarian backlash. Because, even as the protests show no signs of abating, the BJP is using its state machinery in provinces where it is in power to target the Muslim community physically to divide society — the most heinous instances have been reported from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
Yet it is an opportune moment for the opposition: if provincial elections between 2014 and 2017 saw the BJP go from ruling a handful of provinces to two-thirds of the country, since then, it has been rapidly losing provincial polls, despite its continued success in the general elections. It is now roughly ruling only one-third of the country.
If the slowdown in the economy and lack of employment opportunities is finally making an impact on the people, the wave of demonstrations has broken the wall of silence.
Young demonstrators at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar told me in December 2019 that the protests were a cumulative response to the effort to divide India. We didn't protest, they said, when the government banned currency notes, destroying the unorganised economy, and introduced a flawed GST, hitting small and medium traders. We didn't protest when it ended Article 370 without consulting the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and when the Supreme Court ruled that a Ram Temple would be built in Ayodhya. If we don't protest now, we will all be finished, was the leitmotif.
The voices you are hearing now are challenging a political project: indeed, there is a new slogan out on the streets that is a direct challenge to the present government: “You divide - we multiply.’’
For this collective discontent to be channelled fruitfully, however, the movement must acquire a leadership and an agenda of action, either creating a new opposition or forcing the current opposition parties to unite. Unfortunately, the principal opposition party, the Congress, which should have taken the lead is in a shambles and currently does not instil much confidence in other political parties.
India is at a political crossroads — perhaps, a new leadership will emerge from among the young leaders seen at protest venues; perhaps, by the next general elections, the opposition will unite. But what can be said with confidence is that the BJP’s spell has been broken.
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