On December 11, 2019, Parliament passed amendments to the Citizenship Act that sparked an unprecedented nationwide protest movement against the legislation and other government policies that discriminate against Muslims and violate Constitutional norms. One year later, after riots in Delhi and the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to public sit-ins, Scroll.in considers the impact of this remarkable moment in Indian history.

Last year, as the Centre passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, lakhs of Indians across the country took to the streets in protest. From big cities and campuses, the movement spread to small towns and villages. In most parts of the country, it was led by Muslims – but not restricted to members of the community.

The CAA put undocumented migrant non-Muslims from neighbouring countries on the fast track for Indian citizenship. For the first time, religion was overtly made a criteria for Indian citizenship. It was also feared that the act, paired with a proposed National Register of Citizens, would become a tool to discriminate against Indian Muslims. While Muslims protested in the face of disenfranchisement, citizens from all religions came out to defend the secular values of the Constitution.

A year later, Delhi and its surrounding areas are alive with protests again. This time, it is farmers unhappy with the three farm laws hastily passed by the government in the middle of the pandemic. The laws, it is feared, will leave farmers at the mercy of ruthless market forces, destroy small farmers who cannot compete and threaten food security.

For months, the protests simmered away in Punjab, out of sight of the capital. Now, farmers have marched on Delhi, demanding the Centre’s attention. While the most visible face of the protests are Sikh farmers from Punjab, they have been joined by farmers’ unions from various states.

In both cases, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre betrayed its unease with dissent, its impulse to discredit, silence and repress. But the responses to the anti-CAA and the farmers protests reveal whom the Centre considers citizens and whom it sees as mere subjects without the right to have rights, which matters are within the pale of democratic debate and which are not.

‘Traitors’ and ‘terrorists’

With both protests, the BJP reached for its old handbook – weaponise minority identities and cast them as threats to the nation-state. Last year, it was the Muslim women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, which became a synecdoche for the anti-CAA protests. This year, it is the turbaned and bearded farmer from Punjab.

When the anti-CAA protests flared up last year, the prime minister himself suggested protestors could be identified by their clothes. Burkhas, hijabs, skull caps and beards were suddenly deemed incriminating. Counter protests started, with chants of “desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko” – shoot the traitors. In the run up to the Delhi assembly elections in February, the chant was deployed by Union Minister Anurag Thakur. Social media was flooded with fake footage and pictures suggesting the protests were a sinister conspiracy to destabilise the state.

When farmers marched on Delhi this year, elements in the BJP were quick to brand them “Khalistani terrorists”. Farmers speaking English were held suspect. But if they were really to be considered anti-national, the farmers had to be linked to the citizenship protests. A popular conspiracy theory suggested an elderly lady in Punjab was really Bilkis Bano, who became the star of Shaheen Bagh and was now allegedly protesting for a fee. Some suggested that the Sikh farmers were really Muslims in disguise. The BJP’s IT cell chief Amit Malviya put up manipulated videos of the protests on Twitter.

Farmers marching into Delhi were greeted with water cannons and lathis. The Haryana police force, taking its cue from the Centre, dug trenches to prevent them from entering the capital. But a special kind of violence was reserved for the anti-CAA protestors last year. The Delhi police ransacked campuses and thrashed students. In BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Karnataka, protestors were met with bullets.

Bharatiya Kisan Union members gather at the Ghazipur border to enter Delhi on November 28. Picture credit: Atul Yadav/ PTI

Talks and crackdowns

After the initial backlash to the farmers’ protest, however, the government spoke a different language. For a while, it tried to insist they were misguided by vested political interests. But then it relented even further. While the rumour mills on social media are allowed to keep working, the Centre has invited farmers for talks and is open to negotiation on farm laws. Farmers, for their part, have called a nationwide strike and demanded a special session of Parliament to repeal the laws.

The citizenship protests played out very differently. Like farmers this year, most protestors took pains to speak a Constitutional language. Protest spaces like Shaheen Bagh sprang up across the country. The tricolour was held up and the preamble to the Constitution read out. It did not matter.

The government and security agencies responded with violence, mass arrests, interrogations and conspiracy charges. In Delhi, the protests mostly ended with the communal violence in February, where over 50 people were killed, a majority of them Muslim. Shaheen Bagh held out a bit longer but was forced to wind up with the pandemic lockdown in March.

Citizens and subjects

The difference is determined by both the substance of the protests and the protestors. Farm laws may be up for discussion but the CAA is not. It is part of a longer civilisational battle to redefine secular India as a Hindu nation.

So far, the CAA has largely been a symbolic gesture – a year after passing the law, the government is yet to notify the rules and it is not clear how many people will be able to prove both religious identity and religious persecution in neighbouring countries to gain citizenship. But it is a nod to the annals of Hindutva, where India is a natural home for Hindus, a Hindu society which must close its ranks against the Muslim other.

In doing so, the Centre signals that Muslims in India exist in a state of exception, where they may no longer take their rights as citizens for granted or make demands of their government. Even farmers gathering at the edge of the capital today recognise their “privilege” to protest. Sikh men carrying kirpans, or daggers, may be let into the arena of democratic protest, albeit with some reluctance. Muslim women braving the winter cold with their children may not.