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The Big Story: Western intervention
Begin with West Bengal. If you have been reading about India’s Citizenship Act amendments and the huge protests they have sparked around the country over the last two weeks, and you haven’t heard about West Bengal, you’re missing a crucial political piece of the puzzle.
West Bengal is a state with a complicated history: The “West” in its name, despite its geographical location in the east of the country, comes from having once been in the same political unit as Bangladesh. It is also a major electoral prize. With 42 Lok Sabha seats, the state has the third-largest number of constituencies in the lower house of Parliament.
And the Bharatiya Janata Party has never won it.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive election victory in 2014, the largest Lok Sabha majority in 30 years, BJP President Amit Shah drew up a game plan for the party to expand beyond its traditional base in North India. West Bengal was at the very top of the list.
Unlike in South India, there was a lot less antagonism to the BJP, especially after the 34-year rule of Communists in the state came to an end, replaced by the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee. But Banerjee, known as Didi, had a pretty strong hold on the state’s politics.
So the BJP set about breaking this down. It sought to antagonise Banerjee at every turn, and label her as an appeaser of Muslims, a group she relies on for electoral victories. Then it focused on demography.
There have long been inflows of people from one side of Bengal, i.e. Bangladesh, to the other. During Partition in 1947, a huge number of refugees came over from the territory that had suddenly been designated East Pakistan. After the liberation war of 1971, when East Pakistan fought for independence, there was another huge influx.
Since then too, people have continued to flow over, although the numbers have reduced. Many of these are Hindus, whom the BJP believes are only returning to their natural homeland. Muslims migrants, though, have been portrayed as “illegals”, a group bent on taking Indian jobs and building slums in Indian cities. Amit Shah has even called them termites.
Here is where the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens comes in.
What if, in one fell swoop, the BJP was able to a) demonise Muslims, a core tenet of its electoral strategy b) disenfranchise Muslims and c) create a massive, loyal Hindu vote bank? That might allow it to actually win in West Bengal, not just in one election, but in many more to come.
How would the Citizenship Act and NRC do this? As this explainer spells out fully, the Citizenship Act first grants citizenship to every non-Muslim “refugee” – and, according to Amit Shah, Hindus in the state don’t even need documents to prove that they were refugees.
The NRC that follows would then force only Muslims to prove their Indian ancestry. If, simply because they are unable to do so considering it is a complicated, bureaucratic process, they will effectively be declared stateless.
This is what happened in Assam, where an NRC has already been carried out. The final list of citizens left out 19 lakh people – that’s 1.9 million people suddenly stateless. That number made the BJP unhappy because it included many more Hindus than expected and fewer Muslims.
The BJP has in fact promised that a pan-India NRC would be repeated in Assam, junking the painfully and expensively produced list from this year (read stories from the Final Count, our series on the process).
But its literal get-out-of-jail card was the Citizenship Act, a way of ensuring that the chaos and bureaucratic nightmare that the NRC will cause would only affect Muslims.
The NRC then becomes a convenient way of constantly bringing up the bogey of illegal immigration, while Amit Shah – nearly always speaking at rallies in West Bengal – constantly assured Hindus that they would be safe thanks to the Citizenship Act link.
So, in order to win West Bengal, the BJP set about including religious criteria in Indian citizenship laws for the very first time through the Citizenship Act amendment passed earlier this month, and then promised a pan-India NRC, particularly in West Bengal.
Although the Citizenship Act first only provoked outrage in the North East, where there were fears that it would change the region’s demography, once the link with NRC became clear, it became much obvious what the BJP was trying – which is why hundreds of thousands of Indians have taken to the streets over the last two weeks.
Have the protests had an effect? We’ll come to this after the links.
It would be impossible to link you to every development or protest that has taken place over the last week, so I’ll just take you through things via Scroll.in links. You’ll find many more stories here.
Before going forward I want to remind you again: it isn’t easy for a small team of reporters to cover stories like this involving nothing less than the fate of the Indian republic.Subscribing to Scroll+ helps our journalists dig deeper and go further, so please contribute! If you’d like to do more, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First read last week’s Political Fix to see where things were poised seven days ago, as protests had just begun to gather steam around the country – and face violent police action.
Even though the government claims an NRC is not yet on the books it has already begun. Shoaib Daniyal’s investigation finds that the National Population Register, which many believe has something to do with the Census, is actually the first step to an NRC.
To get a scale of the protests that began to happen after, just note that Section 144, the Indian law that prohibits political gatherings, was imposed across the entire states of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka among many others, and internet was taken down in many places, including in Delhi, the national capital.
That didn’t stop people from taking to the streets across India, in big cities and small towns. Here are some of the best protest posters we saw last week, starting with one that says, “I’ll show you my documents if you show me your degree.” It is a reference to the controversy about the scepticism about the degree certificate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claimed in his Election Commission affidavit to hold an MA in “Entire Political Science”.
The police has taken on protesters, often with extreme violence in Muslim neighbourhoods. In Uttar Pradesh’s Nehtaur town, Supriya Sharma reported on how Muslim residents claimed that the police had fired on them without provocation. Sruthisagar Yamunan went to Aligarh to talk to students who say they were tortured. Harsh Mander found the authorities ready to use stun grenades there. In Mangaluru, videos emerged of tear gas inside a hospital. And Vijayta Lalwani spoke to the women in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia who protected a protester from police lathis. Citizen videos also show police violence in Old Delhi.
Visuals have also shown protesters getting violent, though with limited information we know little of how this is happening. For example, this video from Muzaffarnagar shows a mob attacking a Muslim neighbourhood, with one resident saying the police were also complicit. In Delhi’s Seelampur, where protesters were seen pelting stones at police, one person told Vijayta Lalwani that the police attacked first. In Assam, Arunabh Saikia found that protesters had burnt the shops of “outsiders” and burnt an Adivasi man to death in the process.
While protests were the story of last week, the focus this week might turn to police brutality. This may happen particularly in Uttar Pradesh where news is slowly emerging of authorities putting hundreds of Muslims behind bars, destroying neighbourhoods and even seizing property. We’ll have more reporting from the state, but watch this video, shot by Supriya Sharma, of a young woman in UP who said police raided her home, broke her belongings and threatened to set everything on fire.
Muslims have always been told that if they are too vocal, it will lead to a backlash. But things are changing. Aarefa Johari reported on why young Muslims have jumped at the chance to join the protests.
Voices who support the Citizenship Act also seem to think the violence by police is justified. That’s what they told Vijayta Lalwani outside Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Delhi on Sunday.
Over the week the government has insisted that the Citizenship Amendment Act applies purely for persecuted minorities who migrated to India and has nothing to do with Indian citizens. That’s true, that is, until you link it to the NRC.
Of course, the BJP then insisted there is no link with the NRC. Except that Home Minister Amit Shah has explicitly linked the two over and over again.
The government also claimed that no all-India NRC was announced. But this too is false, especially since, with the National Population Register, the NRC has already begun.
On Sunday, following what might almost be called a gaslighting playbook, Narendra Modi took the stage at a rally in Delhi and, after saying that everyone who criticises him is a liar, told the audience that since he has come to power, the word NRC has not even been discussed.
This is after Amit Shah addressed rally after rally promising an NRC, telling Parliament it would be carried out and his party carrying the promise in its manifesto. In my piece after the rally speech, I asked, could this be a sign that – despite his combative arguments – Modi is actually pulling back from a policy that Shah had become the face of?
Or is it just a rhetorical gambit, with the government hoping protests will die down? They show no sign of doing so for now, with BJP’s own allies speaking up against the Act, 10 states insisting they will not permit an NRC and two (Kerala and West Bengal) even putting NPR exercises on hold.
Usually in this section we link you to pieces from around the web, but since we still have more Scroll.in coverage to get to, I’ll instead send you to the Weekend Fix, which has 10 pieces on the Citizenship Amendment Act that you should read, including articles by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Natasha Badhwar, Suraj Yengde and more.
Can popular protests bring political change? Ipsita Chakravarty takes us through India’s history of protest movements and what they mean.
Will Assam’s new land law assuage concerns in the state? Arunabh Saikia thinks it will have little effect.
The whole point of the CAA-NRC was so that BJP could win in West Bengal. The protests however have endangered this, writes Shoaib Daniyal.
The protests over the week have made one thing evident, I write: “Indians will take to the streets to defend pluralism, tolerance, dissent maybe even secularism – tenets that the BJP sees as foreign constructs. The protests have 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.””
Can’t make this up
This tidbit from the Mumbai Mirror’s report of a pro-Citizenship Act protest in Mumbai is priceless.
Phew, that’s a lot of ground to cover. We’ll have more reporting and coverage of the Citizenship Act this week, but if you’ve made it all the way here, I have three requests:
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That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.