As protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) reach a state of suspended animation, it gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at and attempt to understand the nature and trigger of the relentless demonstrations, marches and the violence that shook India for two weeks and have resulted in 20 deaths so far.
It should be noted at the outset that at least some of the quite violent protests — marked by widespread rioting, arson, stone pelting and destruction of public property — were far from organic. These were organised attempts at creating an atmosphere of panic and unrest for narrow ends. The sheer scale of violence and destruction in states ranging from Uttar Pradesh — the epicentre of rioting and police action, to the National Capital Region to coastal Karnataka, bears testimony to this fact.
Democracy allows space for dissent, demonstration and protests, but it does not allow rioting, arson and looting in the name of "protests". In the twisted world of Indian politics, violent protests serve a cause and arsonists become a tool to score political points. In West Bengal, for instance, the Mamata Banerjee government turned a blind eye to widespread violence and destruction of public property — especially trains and assets owned by the Indian Railways — for three days before normalcy was restored. The chief minister not only failed to implement he rule of law, she even dismissed the widespread destruction that caused damage worth crores of rupees and inconvenienced lakhs of people as "small incidents".
Some of the vociferous demonstrations of anger against the legislation — to expedite citizenship to religiously-persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — that ripped through India for the past two weeks have been organic, vehement, passionate and even panicky even though the protesters have at times appeared ill-informed, misinformed or even clueless about their cause.
But a careful distinction is to be made between the protests against the new legislation in Assam and the North East, and those in the rest of India.
In Assam and the North East, the CAA is being perceived as a tool that gives citizenship to refugees — never mind whether they are Hindus, Christians or Muslims — and hence, it is perceived as a law that threatens further the ethno-cultural identity of indigenous people and tribes by allowing the already endangered demography to be altered even more. Whether in the North East or Assam — the first state to go up in arms against the CAA, the protests are religion-agnostic unlike in the rest of India where the new legislation is being perceived as 'anti-Muslim', 'discriminatory' and a 'sinister project' by the 'majoritarian' Narendra Modi government to make Muslims either 'second-class citizens' or as part of a CAA-NRC combination, to 'strip the Muslims of citizenship' and 'put them in detention centres'.
These unfounded fears had brought Muslims out on the streets against the law, but at some point the protests transcended the immediate cause and became a widespread expression of pent-up anger, insecurity and desperation of the community against its political marginalisation and loss of political veto power. At this point, the protests are less about the legislation, the provisions of CAA-NRC or whether it affects genuine citizens, but more a blanket release of the collective frustration of Muslims against their continued political irrelevance — a process that began with Modi's rise to power in 2014.
It explains why the government has so far failed in all its attempts of clearing confusion over the CAA despite going on a communication overdrive. It is inevitable when the goalposts have shifted. Muslims have bought into the narrative of fear around the Modi-led BJP government and the CAA-NRC issue has confirmed their bias — leading to a vociferous and at times violent pushback against the government and an outpouring of anger against the community's lack of stake in India’s political structure.
The 'liberals', leftists and Opposition have made it a common cause even though their motivations remain different — the first set cannot accept the BJP's rise to power and the Opposition is unable to mitigate Modi's political popularity.
And these divergent forces are riding piggyback on the dissent of Muslims whose relationship with the Modi government appears to have completely and fatally broken down. This isn't a new phenomenon, or one triggered solely by the passing of the CAA. What the citizenship issue has done is to intensify the sense of marginalisation already present. As Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta wrote in The Telegraph, paraphrasing the impression that writer Aatish Taseer had given him, "[T]he Muslim community feels that with the re-election of Narendra Modi, its irrelevance in the present political dispensation has become an established reality… the Muslims believe the worst of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and see their position being undermined steadily…"
But the community's sense of marginalisation that fuelled these protests and gave vent to the anger on the streets, cannot be laid solely at the BJP's door or the party's successful electoral strategy in creating a larger Hindu consolidation that tore apart the political veto power of Muslims. This crisis goes deeper and is a culmination of circumstances that encompasses the role of Muslims in larger Indian polity.
To understand the nature of political under-representation that plagues Muslims in India, we may look at the number of Muslims MPs in Parliament in 17th Lok Sabha after Modi's reelection.
At 27, the number is marginally high from the 23 Muslims MPs who were elected in 2014, but abysmal if we take into account the fact that Muslims, according to the 2011 Census, form 14 percent of the Indian population. The ideal number should have been 76, but we have to go as far back as 1980 when the highest number of Muslims was elected — 49. This tells us that even when the BJP wasn't a factor in Indian politics, the Muslims have never found adequate political representation.
There's another way of looking at it. As the BBC has pointed out, while the Muslim population has increased from 68 million in 1981 to 172 million in 2011, the number of Muslim MPs has crashed from 49 in 1980 to 22 in 2014 — widening the gap from two percent to 10 percent between their population and political representation.
However, what the Muslims lacked in numbers they made up for with tactical voting and community solidarity to have a veto on issues that directly affect the community. It has been pointed out that Muslims never vote en masse for any party, but they don;t need to. For decades since Independence, Muslims have shown dexterity in leveraging their political power and voting tactically to secure their core interests such as stalling reforms of Muslim personal law, or even forcing the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress to overturn the Shah Bano verdict.
To quote Dasgupta again, "The net outcome of tactical voting was that all the 'secular' parties vied with each other for the Muslim vote. This, in turn, fuelled the notion of vote-bank politics… Thus, the entire issue of Muslim personal law reforms was shelved owing to steadfast opposition from bodies such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Likewise, any possible resolution of the contentious mandir-masjid dispute in Ayodhya was jeopardised by the 'secular' nudge in favour of judicial procrastination."
This is where the BJP's political hegemony and ideological ascendancy has dealt the community a double blow. First, Modi showed in 2014 that it is possible to achieve an electoral victory without any meaningful support from Muslims. Since the BJP's rise was made possible through a larger Hindu consolidation (and reinforced further in 2019), the party has been able to smash the subtle consensus among "secular" parties that made the Muslim political veto possible, and create legislations such as the abolition of triple talaq that has irked a section of the community.
The revocation of Article 370 to remove the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, India's sole Muslim-majority state, heightened that sense of helplessness. The second and crueler blow to the community came from the Congress which, in search of a winning electoral formula, abandoned its so-called "secular" credentials and tried to beat the BJP at its own game by adopting what analysts have called 'soft Hindutva'.
The flaunting of Rahul Gandhi's janeu, his temple run, journey to Kailash were manicured attempts at shedding the party's 'pro-minority' image. While it did not give Congress political dividends, it intensified further the sense of Muslims' electoral irrelevance.
Veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad was caught ruing the changed circumstances within Congress in 2018 that led to his redundancy in the party during electoral campaigning. As he was quoted, as saying in a Caravan article, Azad suggested that "his own party leaders had stopped calling him for campaigns because they feared they might lose votes by having a Muslim face. 'Aaj darta hai aadmi bulane se… pata nahi iska voters pe asar kya hoga (people are scared of calling me… they are not sure what impact it will have on voters)'."
The Congress electoral strategy is built on a belief that it has been able to create such a fear factor among the Muslims over the BJP, that even if it fails to give Muslims political representation or work for their betterment while in power, the community would have no choice but to vote for it. This twisted paradigm has given rise to the frustration that we see playing out on the streets against the CAA and NRC. Rest assured, these protests won't be the last.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 10:15:34 IST