Decoding India's engagement with CAA, NRC: What impels or deters a citizen from partaking in the dialogue
Civic Studios carried out a survey exploring ways in which people are engaging with the CAA and NRC, the factors that drive people to take a stand on the issue or participate in pro or anti CAA and/or NRC protests, obstacles keeping them from partaking in the dialogue, and further information/action citizens seek from the state, police or movement organisers.
Citizens are actively engaging with CAA and/or NRC through a variety of mediums. While the entire sample population responded yes to having participated in conversations, the maximum with friends, a special emphasis was laid on starting conversations with relatives and those who are unaware of the act.
For citizens who chose to attend the anti-CAA and/or NRC protests, a unanimous reason for attending was their belief that these are unconstitutional and discriminatory towards certain minority groups, and it is a citizen’s duty to speak up against such policies.
The responses around reasons for not attending protests ranged from logistical challenges to concern for personal well-being.
Since December 2019, India has been in the midst of a fervent debate around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC will be a nationwide registry maintained by the Government of India for the purpose of mapping and identifying Indian citizens through the provision of certain key documents. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, provides a means of obtaining Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities, who fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014.
The debate around the issue has manifested through various forms of expression — from online debates to large-scale on-ground protests. In an effort to understand this citizen action better, Civic Studios carried out a survey exploring ways in which people are engaging with the issue, the factors that drive people to participate in pro or anti CAA-NRC protests, obstacles keeping them from partaking in protests, in case of those who do not, and further information/action citizens seek from the state, police or movement organisers.
Over 1,500 respondents (while the number of respondents was larger than 1,500, data only up to this mark has been considered for the analysis) from 26 states, two union territories, and 15 countries responded to the survey, which was distributed via various social media channels in Hindi and English. The sample respondents reflect a vast age group, ranging from the youngest being 13 years old, to the oldest being 70. Maximum respondents (60.3 per cent) were women, followed by 36.9 per cent men, with 2.8 per cent preferring not to share their gender. 1,004, or a majority of respondents, belonged to the 20 to 29-year-old age group.
Ways in which citizens are engaging with the issue of CAA-NRC
Citizens are actively engaging with CAA and/or NRC through a variety of mediums. While the entire sample population responded in the affirmative to having participated in conversations, — the maximum with friends — a special emphasis was laid on starting a dialogue with relatives and those who are unaware of the act. A 30-year-old male participant in the study stated that the "fight to change mentality begins with those around", thereby summarising the emotions of many others.
Consuming newspaper articles, news on television channels, and leveraging social media to consume, repost news around the issue emerged as the next most common means of engagement. Interestingly, in addition to consuming secondary sources of information, respondents reported engaging with the issue by reading the CAA (along with the NRC and the CAB) and the Indian Constitution, as well as fact-checking and collating credible information to curb misinformation. Thus, gaining a complete understanding of the issue emerged as a crucial step in the engagement process.
The use of arts as a medium of expression and engagement emerged strongly, with various citizens noting their participation in open mics, street plays, creating street art and writing protest poetry. Signing petitions and attending protests were two more ways in which citizen action is taking place around CAA and/or NRC.
Reasons for attending anti-CAA and/or NRC protests
For citizens who chose to attend the anti-CAA and/or NRC protests, a unanimous reason for attending was their belief that the policies are unconstitutional and discriminatory towards certain minority groups, and it is a citizen’s duty to speak up against such “open injustice”. People expressed that the discriminatory nature of the acts is what motivated them to stand up against “unconstitutional infringement of their rights”, in order to “reclaim the Constitution, reclaim democracy, and re-establish collective humanity”.
A 42-year-old male respondent explained this further, saying that “citizens are the last line of defence when the state is taking an iron rod to the Constitution's spine.”
While one part of the population feels protests are useful to establish one’s presence, to be heard, to show solidarity and establish strength in numbers, another part of the population feels it’s the helplessness of not knowing how else to engage in meaningful action that has driven them to participate in protests. What binds both these motivations to attend a protest is the bigger sentiment, which says that “staying neutral at the time of oppression is standing with the oppressor.”
A part of the sample expressed disagreement with the ruling government’s economic policies, and believed CAA and/or NRC are distractions from the real and more pressing issues, such as economy, unemployment and climate change. In contrast, a bigger portion of the sample disagreed with the government’s political ideology, claiming it is the “divisive politics of the ruling party to divide along religious lines” that has driven them to attend protests. Basis the survey, the feelings of disagreement with the ruling government’s economic policies and political ideology seem to be on the rise, pushing citizens to believe that the CAA has “merely galvanised a public dissent which has been building up.”
Another strong reason behind attending protests that emerged was the state’s use of violence to suppress dissent and shut down citizen action, including for those who had not previously joined the protests. Respondents believed the actions of the government, their dismissive attitude towards protesting citizens and the violence and police brutality used against students was not acceptable. A 27-year-old female respondent from Kolkata noted: “In times of dire hopelessness about the state of affairs, protests serve as a motivational factor — meeting like-minded people who're willing to fight for a good cause keeps your spirit alive.”
Reasons for staying away from the protests
The responses around reasons for not attending protests ranged from logistical challenges to concern for personal well-being. A majority of the non-attendees in our sample explained that there was no protest being organised in their geographical locations. This was largely the opinion for non-residential Indians (NRIs) and citizens living in remote towns in India. Further, there emerged a section of people who wished to attend but could not due to lack of support from family – especially in case of minors and women, conflicting work hours, travel, and other commitments. It was also observed that the presence of fear around attending such protests due to their unpredictable nature and tendency to turn violent, along with the lack of a fellow companion, served as deterrents to participating in them altogether.
In comparison to the above sentiments, there was a segment of the sample who believed protests are not useful, but instead “are inconvenient, turn violent and disrupt the daily life of citizens”. Citizens expressed hesitation to attend protests, as they believe protests are largely politicised and “take the larger tone of history and religion, which takes away from the main focus". They believe if protests are focused around environmental issues and the economy, then they would be more likely to attend.
A small segment of the non-attendees expressed that instead of protests, they prefer to take action through signing petitions, collaborating with professionals working on the act, and engaging in compassionate and patient dialogue with others. Lastly, protest fatigue and lack of clarity around their stance emerged as two additional reasons behind citizens being hesitant to engage (even continually) with protests. The latter is explained further by a 30-year-old female respondent from Udaipur: “I have certain views and stances, but I would not be sure enough about them to protest on either side (pro or anti). I am finding it hard to discern truth from fake news in the current climate to stay well informed.”
Questions citizens want to ask the government, police, and protest organisers
As a part of the survey, respondents were requested to write any additional questions they have for the state, the police, or the organisers of pro and anti protests, besides any other stakeholder. The maximum number of questions came in for the government, followed by questions for the police.
For the police, respondents expressed sentiments similar to those voiced by a 22-year-old male participant from Chandigarh, who asks: “How are we expected to propagate the ‘police exists to protect us’ narrative after what happened at the protests?”
For the government, on the other hand, while one respondent questioned why the ruling party does not host open debates and engage in dialogue with citizens, another inquired if "the government intends to use our, that is, the tax-payers' money to remove citizens from their own country?"
— Namrata Sharma leads the qualitative and quantitative research on civic, social and developmental issues at Civic Studios. She is focused on using design thinking principles and research to develop effective social interventions, and measure their impact.
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