With coronavirus sweeping the globe, countries are locking down, hoping that social isolation will stem the spread of the virus.

This crisis could not have come at a worse time for India as the largest protests in the country’s history are underway. At hundreds of sites across India, protestors are demanding that the Narendra Modi government roll back the introduction of a religious filter in India’s citizenship laws.

The protests were sparked off in December by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows undocumented migrants to gain Indian citizenship as long as they are not Muslim. Protestors fear that the CAA when used in conjunction with a proposed National Register of Indian Citizens will allow the government to force many Muslims to prove their citizenship.

While the protests have provided strong opposition to the BJP’s plans, they now present a significant barrier to attempts to place India under social isolation. Not only do these large crowds present the threat of infection to people attending the protest, they place the entire city in danger as infected participants travel through it.

Resistance to eviction

On Monday, the first move was made to get protests to wind up. The Delhi government announced a restriction on gatherings with more than 50 people. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal confirmed that this would apply to the capital’s Shaheen Bagh protest site.

But the protestors have so far refused to comply with this request. The Shaheen Bagh protestors sharply reminded the Delhi Government that it needed to also take care of the victims of the recent Delhi riots.

In fact, rather than call off protest, suggestions have poured in on how it could be adapted for the pandemic scare. Poet Hussain Haidry, who has been associated with movement, has urged protestors to regulate numbers so that social distancing can be maintained even as the Shaheen Bagh road as well as other protest sites remain occupied.

No practical option

Apart from the reluctance to call off protests, any decision to be taken faces a practical roadblock: since the protests are largely leaderless, there is no one person who could scrap the protests, even if the situation so demanded. In fact, as Scroll.in reported from Kanpur, when local leadership tried to call off protests in February under pressure from the state adminstration, these requests were completely ignored and people kept on protesting.

Direct force is not an option, either morally or practically. Though Uttar Pradesh has used brutal police force over the past three months, the demonstrators have been offered threats.

Building trust

Given the threat posed by coronavirus, the government, as a result, needs to do something it should have done right at the start: it needs to take protestors into confidence. It is clear that protests are driven by fear of an NRC and the threat of statelessness. The Modi government needs to work towards removing the fear. This would naturally eliminate the entire raison d’etre of the protests, assuring people that they can go home.

However, this will not be easy. Over the past year, by mobilising on NRC, the Modi government has lost trust in the eyes of many Indians. That protestors are willing to risk infection by Coronavirus but keep on protesting for their rights shows how deep the fear of statelessness is.

However, it is the duty of the government to do everything in its power to reassure protestors. As part of this, the Modi government could do three things:

  1. Withdraw the National Population Register: The door-to-door survey to collect personal details is, as per law, the first step to conducting an NRC. As India faces an epidemic, this is the last complication the country needs.
  2. Repeal 2003 Citizenship Rules: This provides the legal framework of the NRC. Removing it would immediately reassure protestors that the government truly has no plans to carry out an NRC.
  3. Make CAA secular: Right now, the CAA lists six religious communities with the pointed exclusion of Muslims. The text of the law does not mention the principal of persecution. Amit Shah has repeatedly used this fact to claim that the NRC will target only Muslims, since members of other faiths will be saved from statelessness by the CAA. The Modi government needs to definitively refute Shah by removing the religious filter and drafting an amended version that mentions the principle of persecution. This would assure protestors that a communal citizenship verification drive will not be carried out.
The scene outside the Government Medical College in Thrissur on January 30. Credit: AFP

‘We are at war’

If this seems fanciful, note that it has already happened – in France. On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that his government was retreating on the question of changing the pension system – a move that had led to the widest protests in decades in France. “We are at war, and all government and parliamentary forces must be focused on fighting the epidemic,” he said. “Day and night, nothing shall disturb us. That’s why reforms will be suspended, to begin with the pension reform.”

The NRC was a bad idea at the best of times. But to carry on with measures such as the NPR at a time like this is reckless. The Modi government needs to take a leaf out of Macron’s book and understand that India is at war against this pandemic. And for this war, every resource and each citizen needs to be focussing on combatting coronavirus – not fearing an NRC.