A week ago, it seemed as if a fundamental change to the very nature of the Indian republic would occur without even a whimper of resistance. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to add religious criteria to Indian citizenship laws, through amendments that purport to help persecuted undocumented immigrants, made its way through Parliament with little difficulty. The Opposition didn’t seem to have a narrative to help explain the fundamental danger the Citizenship Act posed to India’s values.
But then, the people took to the streets.
First in Assam, where the effects of the Act could undermine a careful peace that has been negotiated over decades with the Indian state. Then it spread to other parts of the North East. And even as the internet was shut in some of those states, students at campuses around the country began voicing their opposition to the Act. In Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh Muslim University, these protests turned violent as a result of police actions.
That, in turn prompted many more students around the country to jump on board, followed soon enough by the political parties. On Thursday, lakhs of Indians made their way to squares, parks, junctions and, in one case, the entrance to a medieval fort to make it clear: the BJP cannot easily turn India into a religious state overnight. India will push back.
The authorities attempted to prevent people from gathering – by imposing Section 144, which prohibits gatherings of four people or more, across entire states and by shutting down the internet even in the national capital. But the people defied the bans and the obstacles put in their way. They turned up, in huge numbers and with clever signs, with at least one clear message: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah cannot remake India in their image.
Indians will take to the streets to defend pluralism, tolerance, dissent maybe even secularism – tenets that the BJP sees as foreign constructs, even though many others believe they are essential to the Indian fabric, the reason this country full of contradictions somehow moves forward.
They may have failed to turn up in numbers to defend the civil liberties of Kashmiris and the unjust resolution of the Babri Masjid demolition case may have been accepted with resignation. But, these protests make clear, India is not what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wants it to be.
Will it be enough to take on the Act? To prevent the government from bringing in an all-India National Register of Citizens, which many believe will be used as a tool to harass Muslims? To address the demonisation of Kashmiris, Muslims and anyone who dissents against the government?
In some ways that is the wrong question, or at least not the only one. The massive electoral victories that the BJP racked up in two successive Lok Sabha elections and the party’s ability particularly in this term to easily pass contentious legislation, may have given the impression that Modi and Shah can do as they wish – even though results of state elections have proven otherwise.
Thursday’s protests add another counter. They remind us that democracy doesn’t only take place at the ballot box. Modi and Shah may have won a huge mandate again in 2019, but that is not a carte blanche.
In Modi’s first term, he had to retreat from and eventually ditch his first big policy move – amendments to the Land Acquisition Act that were perceived to be anti-farmer and anti-poor. The understanding then was that Modi had misread his electoral mandate, forcing the government to re-calibrate towards welfare.
The anti-Citizenship Act demonstrations – the largest protests India has seen in years, including possibly the largest student protests in generations, just months after the Lok Sabha victory – make the same point. Democracy will still be negotiated, the people still have a voice and calling everyone who disagrees ‘anti-national’ does not amount to winning the debate.
Even if the movement doesn’t notch up immediate victories, does not prevent the BJP from bulldozing or delegitimising, does not quickly throw up new leadership that can challenge the powers that be, it has made a beginning and reminded us that speaking up for an India that is pluralistic and tolerant and empathetic need not be a lonely battle.