In 2019, the ugly majoritarianism that had spread in Indian politics got written into law. For some years now, Hindutva has become the mainstay of political mobilisations by some organisations. Public speeches targeting minorities have become routine. But there was a Constitution and there were laws which protected all groups, which recognised every individual as equal. These may no longer be taken for granted.
We saw it first with the government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir, when it unilaterally stripped the state of special status under Article 370 and carved it up into two Union Territories. With that, it demolished the guarantees made to India’s only Muslim-majority state around the time of Independence, violating the terms of its accession to the Indian Union. It did so by putting the state under lockdown, without consulting those it affected the most – the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Then the government tried to reinvent the Indian citizen. It pushed through the Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan eligible for citizenship. It also fast tracks citizenship for people from these communities.
The law premises citizenship on the basis of faith and imperils the idea of a secular state. It has little to do with giving refuge to the communities it claims concern for. From the start, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has made a distinction between non-Muslim “refugees” and Muslim “infiltrators”. It has made repeated references to Partition, suggesting that this law is the logical conclusion of the two-nation theory that drove the upheaval of 1947, wilfully ignoring the fact that secular India rejected that logic.
By welcoming only non-Muslim migrants, the government signals to India’s own minority who the state wants and who it does not. For months, it assured voters that the citizenship act, which naturalised non-Muslim refugees, would be followed up by the National Register of Citizens, which would screen the “infiltrators” from genuine citizens. A similar exercise in Assam excluded over 19 lakh people who must now prove their citizenship before arbitrary quasi-judicial bodies. The new citizenship law and the proposed nationwide NRC have raised the spectre of statelessness for Indian Muslims.
As the government pushed through its majoritarian agenda, other institutional checks and balances stopped working. Most importantly, the judiciary, which appears to have aligned itself with the government in recent months. Several petitioners sought redress from the Supreme Court after the government’s move on Article 370. While the actual legislation may have involved debating complex Constitutional questions, the court did not even uphold basic civil rights and liberties of a people under lockdown. In the Ayodhya judgment, a judicial sleight of hand pushed through a blatantly majoritarian decision. The court recognised that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal but paved the way for a Ram temple on that very site – the demand of the vandals of 1992.
Legal arguments have been made for and against the Citizenship Amendment Act. It violates Article 14, which guarantees equality before law. But there are those who point to the “reasonable classification” clause under Article 14. “Reasonable” restrictions have been used to curtail individual rights and freedoms before. While a slew of petitions against the Citizenship Amendment Act await hearing at the Supreme Court, one cannot depend on the courts to uphold Constitutional morality.
That is what this month’s public protests reflect. Despite the government’s best efforts to paint them as communal or motivated by the Opposition, they cut across religious and social divides. Students, professionals and activists across communities have made common cause with Muslims protesting against the law. This present moment is about a minority fighting for their right to exist as equal citizens but also about how every Indian citizen is defined.
In his last “Mann ki Baat” radio address of the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said tha India’s young people do not like anarchy. But he misunderstands the spirit of anarchy that animates the protests sweeping the country today. It is not a love of chaos for the sake of it. It is a refusal to accept authority when it does not act in the public good. It demands better from the government.