Huge nationwide protests, involving people of various religions, professions, castes and classes, such as haven’t been seen since the freedom struggle, took place in India last week. To understand this outpouring of rage and euphoria connected specifically to the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and more broadly to what it means to be an Indian, we must look to the re-election of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in May with an overwhelming majority.
Absolute power became for the BJP a licence to initiate one draconian change after another, all of them in some way to do with the status of Muslims in India, and, umbilically connected to this, with the status of democracy. Among these was the implementation of a national register of citizens (NRC) in the state of Assam, ostensibly to uncover illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The real motive seemed to be to identify Muslim migrants. The government made a promise: once this was complete, it would happen in the rest of India.
The exercise resulted in almost 2 million people in Assam being deemed illegal migrants, despite many of them being genuine citizens: poorer people mostly lack the required papers. However, it went wrong for supporters of a “Hindu rashtra” (Hindu nation): 60% of those who failed to make the register were Hindus. Many were sent to detention camps that the government had built, and is still busy building. On 2 October, a seemingly emollient comment made by Amit Shah, the home minister, was reported in the Times of India: people who’d been displaced by the NRC needn’t worry, he said. Every refugee – Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Parsi – would be granted citizenship under a new bill, called the citizenship amendment bill.
Those who read this would have done a double take without quite knowing why. Litanies of religions and names have been common in testimonials to India’s diversity: the national anthem is an example. What felt wrong about this glowing reassurance and the accompanying list? It was the absence of a word: “Muslim”. If the bill became law, refugees would be granted citizenship on the basis of religion for the first time in India’s history. One faith, followed by 200 million Indians (the third-largest Muslim population in any nation), was to be rendered invalid by studied amnesia.
After the shock of absorbing what felt like an unadorned expression of a fascistic vision, citizens’ groups, the press and opposition parties began to raise fundamental objections and point out the bill’s absurd inconsistencies. For one, it pretended the sentence in the constitution’s preamble that said “India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic” didn’t exist. Also, why was the government saying citizenship would be offered to “persecuted refugees” from three nearby Muslim-majority countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) but not, say, to Rohingyas from Myanmar?
Once the bill had been passed in the lower and upper houses of parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi insisted that no Muslim citizen would be affected by what had now become the CAA. It’s worrying when a governing party makes as many reassuring noises as the BJP does. Reassurances are the domain of those who diagnose terminal illnesses. What’s being put to death here with the omission of a single word is what it means to be Indian: part of a fraught but great experiment that has no parallel anywhere in the world. Every Indian has contributed to creating India, and we – not just Muslim refugees – are suddenly being denied access to what we’ve created.
The act was challenged in the supreme court by several litigants for its unconstitutionality and legal arbitrariness. But the Modi government’s second term has seen an exceptional departure from predictability in the judiciary. So the beginnings of the mass protests last week in Assam and Tripura were looked upon by those who opposed the CAA with conflicted absorption. Assamese protesters weren’t opposing the CAA for secular reasons; they felt they were going to become minorities in their own state once Bengali Hindu migrants were granted citizenship. The protests reminded the nation of the extreme complexity (beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary) of India’s ethnic grievances. They were evidence, despite the violence and the by-now characteristic punitive response (such as the suspension of the internet), of the chaos and untameable nature of Indian democracy. Then swiftly, as if emboldened by the Assamese rioters, came student protests at two universities – Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, which has a Muslim provenance but where there’s a substantial mix of Hindu and Muslim students; and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.
While it has been appalling to look upon footage of police brutality during these protests, it has been deeply moving to see Indians regain their voice. As has been pointed out, there are undeniable correspondences between the phases leading to the creation of Nazi Germany and what’s been happening in India – but there are major differences. Given how hugely constitutive Muslims are of India’s present and history, or how intricate the facets of Indian identity are, the fantasy of a “Hindu rashtra” is an unfeasible one. We must love one another or die.
In the past week, Indian politics has seen the return of a federalism that the BJP is even more bitterly hostile to than Indira Gandhi was. Six states – West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha – have refused to participate in Delhi’s plan for a nationwide NRC. Many individuals have begun to go into the civil disobedience mode that Indians adopted under the British, saying they would either not furnish papers for the NRC or that they would declare themselves Muslim. Mass protests on 19 December happened despite restrictions under colonial-era section 144 (proscribing a gathering of more than four persons) being declared wherever the BJP has control of law and order. TV channels showed a student stopping the policeman who was kicking her friend with ferocious finger-wagging admonishment alone; on 19 December, the historian Ramachandra Guha was dragged away by police mid-sentence in a peaceful protest. It is a time for shame and sadness; a time of pride and joy. The “climate of fear” that hung over India, which I wrote about in these pages two months ago, is lifting. When will the BJP stop being afraid – of disagreement, criticism, political opposition, coexistence?
• Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and professor at the University of East Anglia
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