Who would have thought that six months into his second term with a 303-MP majority, the Narendra Modi government would be facing large-scale protests on the streets of India? And that they would be led by the youth of India, who have been the Prime Minister’s core constituency and one that the PM has assiduously cultivated over the last six years. It was, after all, the 18,000 students at Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce whose standing ovation to Narendra Modi in February 2013 that gave him the flying start for a prime-ministerial stint that followed.
It is not every day that young people pour out on the streets in the way they have done all of last month. Barring the 2011 Anna Hazare movement for a Lok Pal Bill to contain high-level corruption, this is the first time since the liberalisation of the economy got going in 1991, that the youth are protesting for values that go beyond their own material wellbeing.
Many had lamented the absence of an alternative to the BJP’s Hindutva from the Opposition. Young India is today articulating a narrative — of going back to the values enshrined in the Constitution of India. Their holding aloft the Tricolour, singing the National Anthem and reading aloud the Preamble by way of a vow, has the potential of hijacking the BJP’s plank of nationalism.
There are three factors compounding the BJP’s problems today. The first is the neeti versus neeyat conundrum. Many suspect the BJP’s intention today. Many suspect that when the BJP brass thought of offering citizenship to ‘non-Muslim’ minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — and not from Nepal or Sri Lanka — it might have calculated that the Left and liberal elements in the country would rise to the bait. And the more they would speak out in support of the Muslims, the greater would be the consolidation of Hindus against it, benefiting the BJP electorally. The CAA-NRC could emerge as ‘Ayodhya-II’ for a countrywide mobilisation — and polarisation — for the elections in Bihar (2020), West Bengal (2021), UP (2022), and finally, for the throne in Delhi in 2024.
The timing of the CAA may have been designed to confer citizenship on the 14.5 lakh Hindus who could not produce the relevant papers in the Assam NRC — as opposed to 4.5 lakh Muslims — and were mostly Bengali Hindus and supporters of the BJP in the eastern state.
What the BJP brass had not factored in was the reaction of the university students — and the youth — to the CAA and NRC.
The BJP may be technically right when it says that the CAA is about conferring citizenship and not taking it away. But to the youth — and others who are now gathering courage to speak up — citizenship based on religion is not acceptable. Equality before the law and equality of opportunity are the cardinal principles they have grown up to accept and value.
It is surprising that the Prime Minister has not called youth groups or, for that matter, Muslim organisations for talks to reassure them. Or a meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC) to allay the fears of agitated chief ministers, who have threatened not to implement the CAA. This has lent credence to the polarisation theory.
Narendra Modi did try and dehyphenate the CAA and NRC, by saying that neither the Cabinet nor any government fora had discussed the NRC. But he did not rule it out. Nor has the Home Minister. The ‘not for the moment’ line has again gone to reinforce doubts about the BJP’s neeyat in the long run.
The second factor which has led to an escalation of the protests is the way governments — Centre and UP — have handled them.
It was the police brutality against students in Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and JNU which brought out their counterparts elsewhere in support. Had that not happened, the agitation against the CAA-NRC might not have gained so much traction.
When regimes try and put down legitimate and peaceful protests with a heavy hand, repression is inevitable. Often, the issue which provoked the protests in the first place, then becomes secondary to the ‘excesses’ that follow. The picture of a bleeding Aishe Ghosh in JNU, or the young women encircling their Muslim colleague to protect him from lathis near Jamia Millia became turning points in the movement.
In 1974, the picture of Jayaprakash Narayan who led the Bihar movement for total revolution, falling down under lathi blows by policemen, became a seminal moment. It gave an impetus to the agitation and threw up leaders like Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav, Sushil Modi and many more. Narendra Modi himself was part of the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat which was a precursor to the Bihar movement.
It was forced sterilisations (Nasbandi) which intensified the anger against the Emergency in 1975, leading to the defeat of Indira Gandhi all over north India. Till then, the fight against press censorship, judicial independence and imprisonment of opposition leaders was limited to certain sections only.
There is a deep sense of insecurity among the young people in India today about their future and their ability to get jobs, and that is the third, though not so overt, reason behind the protests. In fact, before taking up the CAA, the JNU students had been protesting against a fee hike, which they feared would change the very character of the institution.
It was the low fee structure in JNU which has enabled the poor students from far corners of the country to get education in a premier institution, exposing them not only to the classroom, but also to Indian and global realities, and imparted a sense of confidence in them, which should be the ultimate goal of education. So, for the agitating students in JNU, the fight was also about the right of the poor to good education.
The jury is still out on who will derive political mileage out of the current unrest. It was Narendra Modi who had benefited from the upsurge around the Anna Hazare movement nationally and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.
The BJP believes that things are moving according to script and that it will be able to contain the damage through its ‘outreach’ programme. Twenty opposition parties — some of them revising their earlier stand in Parliament — have jumped in the fray to oppose the CAA-NRC.
Whoever be the ultimate beneficiary, a churning is under way about the values that are going to undergird the Indian Republic.
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