SOON after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Rajya Sabha on December 11, a friend driving back from Parliament found groups of people on the roadside near Delhi’s Muslim-dominated Nizamuddin area. He stopped the car to find out what was happening. The one question they wanted to ask was: “Humein ab yahan se bhaga denge kya?”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have stated that the CAA will not affect the rights of Indian Muslims. Yet, it has done little to reassure the community. There are reasons for this, and they reinforce the deep sense of insecurity that the Muslims feel today.
The Act has come soon after the NRC in Assam, where, of the 19 lakh found as infiltrators, 14.5 lakh were Bengali Hindus, who had come from Bangladesh before 1971, and 4.5 lakh Muslims. Under the CAA, the Hindus will now qualify for citizenship, but not the Muslims left out of the Assam NRC. The government argues that the six non-Muslim communities were singled out for preferential treatment because they suffered religious persecution in the three countries — Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan — covered by the Act, whereas religious persecution of the Muslims in these ‘theocratic’ states was simply not possible.
The court will decide the many fundamental questions the Act has thrown up. Can religion become the basis of citizenship? Does the CAA constitute a violation of the principle of equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution?
The Home Minister has repeatedly hyphenated CAB and the national NRC, that he proposes to legislate, further fuelling fears amongst the Muslims. Just as the Hindus in Assam, not able to provide documents, will now be conferred citizenship through the CAA, but not the Muslims, this might get repeated on a national scale with the National Register of Citizens that seems to be on the anvil. Many Muslims — and poor folk may not be able to get together the relevant documents — are now wondering whether they are going to become second-class citizens in their own country. The RSS’ reiteration of its commitment to a ‘Hindu rashtra’ reinforces their fears.
The CAB, now CAA, was undoubtedly part of the BJP’s manifesto. Its timing may have been dictated by a variety of factors. Some believe it provided an emotive issue to deflect attention from the economic hardships people are facing with the downturn in the economy. Growing joblessness, price rise of essentials and rural distress are impinging on their daily lives, and are bound to influence electoral choices in the months to come.
Others see it as a way to reassuring the Bengali Hindus. They have supported the BJP in Assam, and the BJP wants to ensure citizenship to those Bengali Hindus who were left out of the Assam NRC, and through them to signal support to the community in West Bengal. It is a community the party has been eyeing for the mega battle that lies ahead in 2021 against Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, very important in the Amit Shah scheme of things. Mamata, not unaware of the challenges that face her, has sharpened the battlelines, with her massive march in Kolkata against the CAA-NRC, and her war cry that the law will be implemented over ‘my dead body’.
The BJP had obviously not contended with the massive protests that have broken out against the CAA all over the North-East, despite the changes that the government brought in the Bill since January, when an earlier version did not go through Parliament.
This lack of connect with the ground is surprising, given that the BJP had electorally conquered the northeastern states in the last five years, and even in 2019, the NDA won 17 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the region. But the CAA has deepened the existing faultlines in the region, not so much along Hindu-Muslim lines, but as an outside-insider, Bengali-Assamese, Bengali-tribal conflict.
The government may have exempted inner line permit states — Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — promising to insulate Manipur similarly, as also the tribal areas of Assam and Tripura, yet it has not managed to reassure people worried about their ethnic identity and fear of being overrun by ‘outsiders’ in their own homeland.
The Assamese question is that if the government can change the cut-off date for accepting infiltrators from 1971, which was part of the 1985 Assam accord, to 2014, stipulated in the CAA, what is to prevent it from changing it yet again at a future date? It took all of 34 years to have the NRC to identify the illegal immigrants and, that too, after a humungous exercise. And now, it is not acceptable and there is talk of repeating the exercise! At this stage, the BJP is concerned more about winning West Bengal than losing support in Assam.
The heavy hand with which the government appears to have dealt with the protests in Delhi’s Jamia Millia University — with the police taking the extraordinary step of going into the library and beating up students — shows that it had not reckoned on the response the CAA could trigger on campuses, not limited to Jamia Millia or Aligarh Muslim University. There is a need now for an impartial, possibly court-monitored inquiry into what happened and who is responsible for the escalating violence.
It is not just young Muslims but also many young Hindus who are reacting to the disappearance of a liberal ethos. The 18-to-21-year-old ‘millennials’ have been a crucial vote bank that Narendra Modi managed to get on his side, and its importance cannot be overemphasised, given that 50 per cent of India is under 25.
It remains to be seen whether the BJP can polarise the Jamia battle along Hindu-Muslim lines to its advantage in the Delhi elections in the new year, a battle the BJP had seemed all set to lose.
Governments often tend to become complacent — and high-handed — when re-elected. Six months into Modi-II, the BJP is showing signs of an assumptive arrogance in its decision-making, which could become problematic.
It ‘over-reached’ when the ED notice was sent to Sharad Pawar in the midst of the Maharashtra election, provoking him to fight back as never before, with unexpected results. It ‘over-reached’ when the Central leadership took all of 18 days to intervene in the Maharashtra tangle, thinking that the Shiv Sena would have no option but to come back to it, contrite and chastened. In the process, it allowed the country’s second largest state to slip out of its hands.
And now again, with the CAA, it is ‘over-reaching’, with its failure to comprehend the underlying sentiment behind protests in the north-eastern states and on university campuses, and coming down with a heavy hand against the protesters, blaming vested interests and the Congress party. Had the Congress had such an organisational muscle, it would not have been in a sorry state today!
It is early days to conclude that the reaction to the CAA shows ground-level shifts. But there are signs of the worm turning.
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