Anybody who has bothered to read up on the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA would come around to the view that it is a pretty harmless change in the law of 1955. It does not affect any Indian citizen. It is not applicable to all minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but only to a very small sub-set that has been in India before 2014. Even that sub-set does not get automatic citizenship, but they can now apply immediately instead of waiting for 11 years.
The other minority sets, who came to India after 2014, or who are planning to come prospectively, have to go through the normal pre-existing process. In the new scheme, nobody is worse-off but at least one group is better-off — a Pareto improvement.
So, why would any citizen of India, the media and the political parties oppose the CAA? Oppose is a mild word here. Why would they hit the streets, disrupt, block, destroy, riot, vandalise, injure, even kill?
First, let’s get the cause right and then we’ll get to the motives. It would be naïve to suggest that the CAA is the cause. Rather it is the proverbial last straw after the ban on triple talaq, revocation of Article 370 and the Ayodhya verdict. For two communities so used to decades of status quo and uneasy co-existence, this sudden whirlwind of decisive action has been too much to handle. So many historic steps in quick succession and within six months of Modi 2.0 have convinced every community that their best hopes or worst fears are coming true. What is seen on the streets is this pent up pressure bursting forth.
One suspects those behind all the disruption — those who are actually rioting and the ones who are instigating the riots by fear-mongering and painting doomsday scenarios — have a clear objective in mind. They are demonstrating that they are no pushovers and that they are very much capable of hitting back. The violence is not aimed at forcing the government to backtrack on the CAA but rather at pre-empting its possible future steps that they are having nightmares about. Their loud and clear signal is that of intimidation to stop the NRC, a bill for a uniform civil code or a population control bill. Some of them may even believe there would be legislation to officially declare India as a Hindu rashtra! What is going on is an unapologetic display of brute strength, of street-level muscle power.
By causing so much visible destruction and disruption to day-to-day life, they want to force the government and the supporting public to rethink whether all this Hindutva machismo is worth it. They are aiming at shaking up the confidence and the will of the government and creating enough fatigue among the regular public so as to weaken popular support for future potentially Hindu-friendly measures.
And it seems to be having some effect. One can hear all but the most die-hard supporters beginning to invert the logic and say, “If this CAA is going to help such a small number of ‘foreigners’ only, why has the government caused so much trouble to its citizens?” Those refugees were anyway gladly willing to wait for 11 years; what great thing did the government achieve by reducing the waiting period? Why is this so high on the government’s priority list when they should be working on getting the economy moving?
The aftermath of the CAA has lessons for everyone. There is no doubt that protestors have crossed a red line. All said and done, this is a democratically elected government that is going about its business by following constitutional processes. It is not suppressing peaceful protests either. But violence of any sort would obviously need to be responded to appropriately by the authorities and no forbearance can be expected or even suggested on that front. Nobody should be deluded that damaging public property will have costs for the lumpen elements.
Students should realise that participating in a few token protests is alright as a routine must-do college activity to be fondly remembered later in life, but their intellect is still developing and cannot yet grasp the complexities of real-life in any sphere — be it political, professional or socio-cultural. They would do best by focussing on their studies and leaving the task of formulating national policies to grown-ups.
Mainstream media has been guilty of encouraging the mayhem by glorifying the rioters and vilifying the police. The front pages of newspapers gleefully reported the violence when those columns could have been constructively used for educating people about the law and removing their unfounded fears, thereby becoming an effective counter to all the misinformation and fear-mongering by vested interests. Social media, on the other hand, was full of articles and videos that provided due clarifications. Mainstream media has a lot of introspection to do about its role and its fast-eroding credibility and relevance in this new order.
The opposition has once again demonstrated that they are bent on making up for their lack of numbers in the parliament and lack of ideas by generating smoke and noise — if needed with the help of nefarious elements. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly observed, not one opposition party has appealed to protestors to maintain peace, nor has any party distanced itself from the violence. On the other hand, there have been strident calls to come out and assemble in large numbers and whip up a frenzy by shouting out the words “secular vs communal,” which are heavily worn-out but sadly still dangerously effective in India.
And finally, there is no doubt the government should do a massive rethink about the way in which is announces and executes its next steps. We don’t know what all items are left in its checklist to be ticked off, but their impact and the probable backlash would have to be thought through in greater depth. Yes, the bill was duly passed by both Houses, but the imagery was that of bulldozing through. Before announcing the next major action, perhaps it can spend more time in creating a consensus with a few opposition parties. A rapid-fire of socio-religious steps may need to be moderated, giving people reasonable time to digest every change.
Effective public communication and public relations management have been a constant bugbear for this government. The recurring theme in its actions seems to be of good honest intentions, but poorly thought-through and hasty execution. Serious efforts must be made on these two fronts.
In all probability, a nationwide NRC seems to be next on its agenda now. There are heavy communal misgivings already about it. A few pertinent non-communal questions that are gaining ground are:
- Why is a new document needed for citizenship? The government already has databases of Aadhar, PAN, Passports, Voters’ list. It can very well link them and identify genuine citizens and weed out the fake ones.
- Why does this government want to spend massive resources on another multi-year Aadhar-like exercise, where citizens will stand in queues to get their names on yet another duplicate database?
- Will the NRC end up like demonetisation — where ordinary citizens will go through a lot of inconvenience for nothing because the real crooks will get away by manipulating the system and producing fake documents?
One hopes the government has satisfactory answers to these questions. More importantly, it puts those answers out in the public before initiating any such exercise.