In an interview to the Indian Express, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharam sought to defend the criminal cases slapped by Delhi Police on those who had protested against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.
“Students [are being] chargesheeted based on ideology,” the Express asked. “This is perhaps the first riots case where debates, protests are being linked to violence; when civil society, academics are being questioned. There is fear on campus that being anti-Bharatiya Janata Party could get you named in a chargesheet linked to violence.”
Sitharam simply denied this, arguing that “there’s no question that young people should have freedom”.
More troubling, however, she went on to delegitimise the act of protesting. Protests that happen now acquire a certain “halo” and attract a “a lot of international voices quickly” said Sitharaman. Rather than address why the anti-CAA protests are being criminalised, the minister indulged in whataboutery, bringing in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been denied a visa as a result of allegations of his role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots.
The Modi government has long used the bogey of international support to attack political activity it does not like. This when there is very little doubt that the mass protests that took place across the country in December last year were obviously an organic expression of dissent.
This is not the only time this line of attack has been used. On Tuesday, human rights organisation Amnesty said it was stopping its India operations given its funds had been frozen by the Modi government. Here too, the excuse trotted out was foreign support in the form of funding.
To add to this is the contention that the political orientation of the protests – which were obviously ranged against the BJP given its government had passed the new citizenship bill – served to automatically delegitimise them. “They are not just being academics or theoreticians or ideologues, they are wearing their politics on their sleeve,” said Sitharaman.
Anti-BJP = Anti-India
While all governments have disliked protests in India, the current BJP-led regime has taken this to the extreme. Opposition to the BJP becomes in itself a form of illegitimacy and can even be equated with – as is happening currently in the Delhi Police’s investigation – terror.
To add to this, Sitharaman mischaracterises the BJP’s own words on what the CAA is. “CAA is a classic example. You built a narrative outside, and said, this is going to mean that minorities in this country will be stripped of their citizenship,” she argued.
This argument simply ignores the public statements of none other than the most powerful man in the cabinet after Modi himself: the Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Shah repeatedly linked the CAA with a proposed National Register of Citizens, arguing that Muslims will be India’s only major community who would have to undergo a citizenship test.
The finance minister simply airbrushed her colleague’s multiple public statements aimed at clarifying the Modi government’s intentions towards adding a communal element to India’s citizenship law.
In her attempt to discredit protests, Sitharaman argues that the Congress is associating with the “fringe” and should instead “give that advantage to the Parliamentary system”.
First, public protests are in no way a part of “fringe” activity in a democracy. They are, in fact, the lifeblood of any true democracy. Secondly, this is an ironic statement to make at a time when the BJP has used its control of the government to shut out Parliament. On September 20, the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman used the dubious device of a voice vote to pass two critical bills bringing in large-scale changes to Indian agriculture. Opposition demands to allow for a vote in the Rajya Sabha were dismissed by the chair.
Ironically, even as Sitharaman emphasised the importance of parliamentary opposition, she dismissed the contention that the critical farm bills should have been studied by a parliamentary committee since “there is no end to the debate because the debate is not on the merit of the matter”.
If senior union ministers are ready to dismiss opposition concerns as made in bad faith even in something as formal as parliamentary committees, it is clear that complaining about the form of the criticism – whehter it is a protest or in Parliament – is a distraction: the real issue the BJP is unwilling to accept is simply that there is any opposition.