If the record of December 2019 is anything to go by 2020 promises to be one of great hope for all Indians interested in preserving their country’s traditions of secularism, democracy and tolerance of diversity. The New Year may well be a turning point in the dismal record of hate and hubris that has prevailed over the last several years in the country.
For it was this month, that saw much of India turn decisively against the politics of division promoted by the ruling BJP, with millions out on the streets to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act (or CAA), a 21st century version of the infamous Nuremberg Laws – which robbed Jews, blacks and gypsies of citizenship- in Nazi Germany.
The new law adopted in early December, openly discriminates against Muslims, changes the criteria for Indian citizenship from secular to theocratic principles and attempts to manipulate the entire demography of eastern India for cynical electoral reasons.
The passage of the CAA first sparked off militant protests all over the Indian northeast, followed by student protests in Delhi, Aligarh and other cities, which then spread like wildfire all over India. People across religions, political and class backgrounds, particularly youth, have joined what are easily the largest nationwide protests in many decades.
Impressive as they have been, the show of dissidence has not been just about size and numbers. The qualitative aspects of the protests, the highly creative, peaceful methods used and particularly the political and social ideas embedded in them are a powerful rebuttal of everything that the BJP and the RSS, its shadowy mother organization, stand for.
The entire politics of the RSS, founded in 1925 and modeled on the fascist Italian youth league of Mussolini, revolves around demonizing religious minorities – mainly Muslims – trashing constitutional principles, building a homogenous ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and suppressing the rights of women, Adivasis and Dalits.
What the protesters out on the streets of every major Indian city and town in the last several weeks defiantly showed though was a completely different vision of India –of inclusiveness, solidarity and compassion. Here is a list (non-exhaustive) of the best political and social trends emerging from the anti-CAA protests and why – even in these very depressing times – they are great cause for optimism:
Defence of the Indian Constitution
The Indian Constitution, drafted under the chairmanship of Dr B.R.Ambedkar, the great philosopher and social revolutionary, enshrines the principles and rights emerging from democratic struggles around the entire globe. For nearly 70 years it has served the Republic of India well, providing guarantees of basic individual rights as also a federal framework providing space for very diverse ethic, linguistic and regional groups together under one national umbrella.
However, the RSS, BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar have never accepted the supremacy of the Indian Constitution, considering it too ‘western’ a document, particularly its promotion of concepts such as secularism and equality of all citizens. What the Hindu fundamentalists would prefer is the ancient Manusmriti, a text which venerates Brahmins as rule makers (the RSS is run by them) and openly advocates subjugation of Dalits, ‘shudras’ and women as part of the social order.
During the anti-CAA demonstrations the defence of the Indian Constitution has been a key focus for the protesters. Millions of Indians very clearly and publicly asserted, that minus the Constitution there could be no modern India at all and any attempt to tamper with it will not be tolerated.
Another striking feature of the protests, almost everywhere in the country, was the participation of members of all religious faiths – which flies in the face of the BJP’s attempts to polarize Indians along religious lines. While Muslims were present in large numbers, there were almost an equal number of Hindus too – many of them there to affirm Hindu-Muslim unity.
In Assam, where opposition to CAA is for different reasons – because it is expected to affect the state’s demography by giving citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh – the protesters are predominantly Hindu. However, they have been joined everywhere by members of different faiths, including indigenous groups that practice their own religions. One of the youth killed in police firing during protests in Gauhati, 17 year-old Sam Stafford, was born to a Christian father and a Muslim mother.
Very significantly Dalit groups in many parts of the country, have also stood against the CAA, in solidarity with Muslims. The most spectacular example of this was on 20 December when Bhim Army chief Chandrashekar Azad, while still being hunted by the police, protested against the new law from the steps of Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid, with a copy of the Constitution in his hand.
There has also been opposition to the targeting of Muslims from other religious minority groups like the Sikhs and Christians. Sikh volunteers, who have also played a stellar role protecting and helping Kashmiri students studying in different parts of northern India, were present in many of the student demonstrations helping with various logistical tasks.
In Kerala the Church, which normally does not get involved in any political dissent so easily has openly supported the anti-CAA movement. A group of youngsters even wore Islamic dress in solidarity with the protesters during Christmas carol service in St Thomas Mar Thoma Church, Kozhenchery, Kerala. While female singers wore hijabs, the men sported skullcaps while singing Christian hymns.
Participation of women
Thousands of women – students, housewives and even celebrities – have been at the forefront of the anti-CAA protests. Again, the role of women has been not just about quantity but quality too, with some of the most articulate critiques being presented by young female student activists – a phenomenon that must have really got the RSS knickers all in a twist.
While the Hindu extremist outfit claims to promote equality for women and criticizes other religions – particularly Islam- for suppressing women’s rights, the truth is that it has a very retrograde viewpoint of its own. On many occasions the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has said[i]women should be just housewives and husbands breadwinners –and this in a country where women work in almost all sectors of the economy and in the highest positions too.
Women have also been at the frontlines physically challenging police brutality against protesters. During the protests at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, a video clip of five girl students protecting a male student from being beaten up by a mob of policemen, has become one of the most memorable images of the entire anti-CAA movement.
Assertion of Regional Identity
The real long-term significance of the protests in Assam is that regional identity and culture are proving to be far more powerful motivators for Hindus there, than the idea of a monolith ‘Hindu Rashtra’ being pushed by the RSS and BJP.
For, despite the spin that the CAA is meant to help persecuted refugees from neighboring countries, it is really instead tied to the BJP’s political machinations in Assam and West Bengal, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
A recent Supreme Court of India ordered National Register of Citizens (NRC) living in Assam to identify illegal migrants, found 1.9 million people without documents to show they were bona fide Indian citizens. While the BJP supported the entire exercise initially, contrary to its expectations, a bulk of those found illegal turned out to be Hindus from Bangladesh and not Muslims.
The CAA was cooked up by the BJP to give migrant Hindus from Bangladesh Indian citizenship, upsetting Assam’s population, which is against all new migration into the state, irrespective of religion. The anger in Assam today against the BJP for its ‘betrayal’ of the state’s interests runs so deep that many BJP and RSS leaders in the state are unable to return home due to the hostility of local people.
In many other parts of the country too – notably southern India – sub-nationalism continues to be a powerful brake on the idea of a homogenous Hindu nationalism.
Perhaps the most politically important fallout of the entire anti-CAA, anti-NRC movement has been the way many state governments have come out strongly against these policies. While part of this has been for ideological reasons, it has also been about protecting the federal principles of the Indian polity and resisting a ‘big brother’ central government.
State governments, mostly run by non-BJP parties have refused to cooperate with implementation of CAA as well as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise associated with it. Without their participation no NRC can actually happen on the ground.
Significantly, several allies of the ruling BJP around the country– while supportive of CAA – have publicly opposed the idea of an NRC. Though a nationwide NRC exercise was mooted repeatedly throughout 2019 by Home Minister Amit Shah,in a bid to defuse the protests, PM Modi has now publicly denied any such plans.
Sense of Humour
Finally, it has to be pointed out that if anything makes the anti-CAA, anti-NRC protests really stand out in terms of quality it is the phenomenal sense of humour displayed,through witty placards, art, graffiti and statements. Needless to say, for the RSS, like all authoritarian and quasi-fascist groups anywhere in the world, there is nothing more frightening than having people laughing at them.
While there are dozens to choose from one of the best placards of this protest season said ‘Jab Hindu-Muslim Razi, Kya Karega Nazi[ii]!’. Another, playing upon the deadly air quality plaguing the national capital New Delhi said ‘PM 2.0 is worse than PM 2.5’. Yet another proclaimed, ‘I will show you my documents, if you show me your degree’ -referring to the missing educational certificates of PM Modi – suspected of fudging his qualifications.
And as I write all this, news comes in that the Chennai police has arrested five young people for embedding anti-CAA, anti-NRC messages in the traditional designs of ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’ outside people’s homes. The joke here is the police itself, which scored a self-goal by arresting them for drawing designs on the ground and ensuring thousands more get inspired to join this very creative act of protest!
All of which gives a good clue about what we should all try and do in the New Year – keep laughing at the Nazis till they change, apologize, disappear or manage to do all three at the same time.
Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be reached at [email protected]
[ii]‘When Hindu-Muslims Agree, There’s No Role for a Nazi!’