Reclaiming ‘citizenship’ in 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest strike (nothing surgical about it, by the way) against India is the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). The government’s attempts to justify filtering ‘persecuted’ minorities based on religious identity need to be resisted as it signals a fundamental shift in the way we conceptualise citizenship in India. Union Home Minister, Amit Shah has tried to spin the CAA as an instrument to bring succour to persecuted non-Muslims in India’s neighbourhood, but obviously, the Act has redefined citizenship in India for all of us. India is not a Hindu nation – and we should never allow the basic character of our country to be altered to make it one.

The link between the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and CAA is self-evident. The push for the CAA gathered momentum only once the NRC process in Assam resulted in a sizeable number of Hindus being left out of the final list. BJP leaders have spared no efforts to convey to their constituents that once the CAA is applied to the NRC list, Hindus would be granted citizenship. Now, Modi claims that no community – including Hindus – would gain an advantage from the CAA. We know by now that this government is capable of deceit, and this episode captures that comprehensively. For now, it appears that the government has been – at least publicly – forced to backtrack on a ‘National NRC’. The communication has been muddled, as it happens when there is panic, as prominent voices within the government are alternating between denying and defending the NRC process. Members of this government are also now arguing earnestly that the National Population Register (NPR) is just a supplement to the regular census surveys. It is now plausible that their insidious plan of using the CAA-NRC combine to grant citizenship selectively to Hindus who fail the NRC test may not fructify – but make no mistake, that was the government’s primary motive all along.

In parallel, runs the BJP’s playbook of constant communal polarisation that has brought India to this state. The clamour for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ are louder than ever. Commentators partial to the cultural right-wing forces have spun populist narratives in their single-minded dedication to see the Nehru-Gandhi family on its knees, and to satisfy their lust for a mass-hero such as Narendra Modi. Yet some others have tried to spin this as the rise of politically-aware Hindus, but promoting hatred through carefully-crafted propaganda is quite the opposite of any kind of progressive politics. And it is precisely the kind of politics that sacrifices citizens’ rights and liberties at the altar of a constructed notion of nationalism.

Amidst this din, the Indian economy has lurched from bad to worse, as it is bound to when every government policy is intended to promote divisions amongst citizens. We are staring at a sub-5% GDP growth rate in 2019-20. Private investment is at an all-time low; average household consumption has actually fallen compared to 2011-12. From their communication strategy so far, it is also clear that this government will wilfully avoid clarifying the details and limits of the CAA-NRC process because it wants to keep stirring the communal pot. Think about it – this government has a comfortable parliamentary majority, a friendly media, a subdued Opposition, controlled states with major economic growth – any of this could have been used to focus constructively on economic development. But instead, all we have seen is infinite amounts of hubris, constant communal polarisation, an active distaste for our institutions, and complete paralysis when it comes to fixing the economy.

It is important to understand that this fight to assert our citizenship is not between groups of citizens. Groups of citizens, driven by disparate interests, will continue to be at loggerheads with each other. The greatest tragedy of our times is educated Indians arguing over medieval historical figures and egging on those in power to exact revenge for grievances – real and imagined. Be that as it may, the fight we need to fight is with a government that needs to be forced to listen. The multitude of protests against the CAA-NRC has exposed the insecurities of the government to such an extent that even the Army Chief, Bipin Rawat was drawn into commenting on matters entirely outside of his mandate. In the government’s effort to delegitimise the outpouring of student and citizen protests, they have had to fall back on tired old tropes – calling the protestors traitors, tudke tukde gang, shutting down the internet, Section 144, and so on – but this time, to little avail. In BJP-ruled states such as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, the state police have effectively turned into an oppressing force, leading many to wryly note that the rest of the country was now experiencing what is by now routine for Kashmiris.

In this atmosphere, where the Executive and the Legislature have failed us, and where the Judiciary has demonstrated an inexplicable lethargy in safeguarding the rights of the vulnerable, the citizens’ protests against the CAA-NRC combine offered perhaps, the only ray of hope as 2019 draws to a close. Even as this government continues to damage the fundamentals of our country on every front, we have seen how masses can organise together and mobilise support to expose the wrongs committed by this government. Several state governments – even those part of the National Democratic Alliance – have now said that they would not be part of a nationwide NRC process. This is not an insignificant win. The government has been combative, led by the Modi and Shah, but that was evidently widespread panic within the ranks as they realised that their duplicity had been exposed.

Democracies are not meant to hibernate in the intervals between two successive elections. In the last six years, the people of India have demanded less accountability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi than we have from Virat Kohli. The results of that are showing, as Modi and Shah have lurched from one divisive issue to another, cheered on by an unthinking herd of Hindutva-subscribing supporters – even as the domestic economy and average living standards continue on an interminable slide. In these times, as the students out on the roads have shown us, we can be an active democracy only if we at least continually attempt to keep the government in check. It is this spirit of democratic accountability that appeared to have been snuffed out in the last few years, and it is exactly this that we need to rekindle and bolster.


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