Mahatma Gandhi has taught us that “politics of the classes” makes a nation’s life a stagnant pool of water, whereas “politics of the masses” makes it a flowing body of water, cleanses it of dirt, and revitalises it with new ideas, new energy and new leaders. He had demonstrated it during the freedom movement.
Before his arrival from South Africa in 1915, the common people of India — peasants, workers, women, etc — were largely inactive in the freedom struggle. For the first time, Gandhiji galvanised the masses into it, and the rest is history.
Something similar is happening now with the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the two communally polarising initiatives of Narendra Modi’s government.
As soon as protests started hitting the streets, in city after city and town after town, each bigger than the other, with students and youth making the bulk of the people shouting “No to CAA, No to NRC”, the entire nation and also the rest of the world began to see that something altogether new and unprecedented was happening in India.
So intense was the gathering storm that Prime Minister Modi himself, not known for going back on his decisions, had to beat a partial retreat. In the process, he also told the people of India two white lies — addressing a rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on December 22, he said his government had never discussed NRC since 2014 and also claimed there were no detention camps anywhere in the country.
In the history of the Republic of India, which is now entering the seventh decade, the protests against CAA and NRC have created a new record on four counts.
One: Never since Independence have students and youth plunged into a mass movement in such large numbers and all over India. What we are now witnessing is bigger than the student mobilisation in the movement in the mid-1970s led by Jayaprakash Narayan, which was mostly confined to Bihar and Gujarat.
Two: The anger of students and youth is not directed only at CAA and NRC. Because of the brutal police action at Jamia Milia University and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), followed by the violent attack on students and teachers at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by ABVP-linked goons (with the tacit approval of the police and university authorities), lakhs of students all over the country came on to the streets to denounce the government’s repression and uphold the citizens’ democratic right to protest peacefully. Again, for the first time in India’s history, Indian (and also non-Indian) students in scores of foreign universities also held protest demonstrations.
Three: Never since Independence have Indian Muslims, including Muslim women, participated in a protest movement in such huge numbers, and again in almost every part of the country, as they are doing now.
And unlike Muslim agitations in the past, they are doing so to assert their Indianness in ways not seen before — proudly waving the Tricolour and singing the national anthem. They are conveying to the rulers in no uncertain numbers: “We are as Indian as every other Indian. We will not allow you to treat us as second-class citizens. We will resist discrimination.”
Poet Rahat Indori’s defiant lines against majoritarian supremacy are now being recited in almost every protest event —
“Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti mein,
Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai...”
(The blood of every Indian has sanctified the soil of India. India does not belong to any single community.)
This patriotic Muslim assertiveness has immense significance for the future of the Indian Republic. It can revitalise Indian society by bridging the communal divide; enrich the nation’s plural culture by bringing the wealth of Muslim culture into the public domain (where it is largely absent now); broadbase India’s economic growth with the knowledge, talent and entrepreneurship of Muslims (who find grossly inadequate opportunities today); and democratise India’s politics and governance.
The fourth equally important feature of the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests is that they are not an exclusive Muslim affair. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others are participating in them in huge numbers. Nothing has illustrated this more inspiringly than the peaceful month-long sit-in at Shaheen Bagh in the national capital.
A common feature of all the protests — and this too is happening for the
first time since India declared itself a Republic in 1950 — is how the people of all creeds and castes are demonstrating their commitment to the core ideas and ideals of the Constitution.
Was there any time in the past when we saw students, lawyers, artists, women, senior citizens and other common citizens making collective reading of the Preamble of the Constitution an important part of the protest programme?
By doing so, they are proclaiming that the Constitution of India is not a lifeless document to be kept as a decorative item in the personal libraries of the rich and the powerful, but a living testimony to the dreams, aspirations and commitments that energised the nation when it cast away the yoke of foreign rule.
But, the first problem, and it is a very serious problem, is to recognise that the BJP government, under the leadership of Modi and Shah, is taking well-planned steps to transform India from a secular nation to a ‘Hindu Nation’ (Hindu Rashtra). This is the long-term agenda behind introduction of CAA and NRC, even though the short-term goal is to consolidate the BJP’s considerably large Hindu votebank and thereby ensure the party’s victory in 2024 and beyond.
Here we should understand a key factor behind the BJP’s phenomenal success in 2014 and again in 2019. The ideological narrative of the BJP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar combined Hindutva with Indian nationalism, and was able to successfully project this combination before a fairly large section of the Hindu community.
The people of India are by nature very nationalistic. Therefore, when something is presented to them with the wrapping of nationalism, they become susceptible to its influence even though what lies beneath the packaging is hurtful to the nation’s interests.
To counter this, every effort must be made to educate Hindus and Muslims alike on the virtues of secular nationalism. Extremism and fanaticism of both the Hindu and Muslim type must be countered uncompromisingly. In doing so, care should be taken to ensure that secularism is not projected in anti-religious terms, but rather as a pillar-principle of the age-old Indian civilisation that found its robust expression during the freedom movement and, subsequently, in the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution.
The second problem that defenders of India’s republican values must confront is the extreme fragmentation and disunity in their own ranks, which stands in stark contrast to the unity of the Sangh Parivar.
Indeed, the spontaneous nationwide protests against CAA and NRC are massive but leaderless, whereas the leaders of established opposition parties are seen as being “led” by the common people. This situation must change.
There is a third challenge. People belonging to multiple ideological streams have joined the protests against CAA and NRC. This is of course welcome. But, going forward, there is a need to recognise that people guided by diverse ideological beliefs must learn to work together for a common long-term agenda. The goal of revitalising the republic demands nothing less.
Without unity in action, it is impossible to find answers to the gigantic problems facing India: The burden of poverty and deprivation; Widening wealth inequality; Slow and jobless economic growth; Failure to provide good education and good healthcare to the entire population; Environmental degradation; A reform-resistant criminal justice system; Insensitive and corrupt bureaucracy that lords over the common people; An electoral system that maximises confrontation among political parties and minimises the scope for consensus and cooperation; The lack of national consensus on how to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue and how to normalise relations with Pakistan; How to end the boundary dispute with our largest neighbour China; and many more such problems.
Yes, the Republic of India has a long way to go before we can adequately realise the preambular ideals of our Constitution. Nevertheless, new hope has been created by lakhs of intrepid young Indians who are now fighting to defend the Constitution.
May their number, power and unity grow.
(The author was an aide to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is founder of ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. Views expressed are his own)