All of a sudden India is in the throes of a second independence movement. Across the country, streets are aflame with rebellion, campuses are reverberating with protests, people are defying the law and thousands are getting arrested. Just as it was when the nation fought British imperialism. A new Swadeshi imperialism has risen and the people are fighting it as bravely and as determinedly as they fought the foreign version.
From Assam to Kerala, from Delhi to Tamil Nadu, from towns and villages, young people are on the march. A rattled government is unsure what to do. It shuts mobile services, Metro stations, schools and colleges, and declares Section 144, a British invention to suppress the freedom of movement. It was ineffective then and it is proving to be ineffective now. The defiant popular mood was evident in the proclamation of a protesting crowd, “If you act like the British, we will act like Bhagat Singh”.
In the early stages of the uprising, when passions were just beginning to intensify, I went out to see one of the protest meetings in Bangalore. This was in front of the Town Hall, a busy junction where several traffic-heavy roads intersect. It was one of the biggest gatherings ever to assemble on the Town Hall’s steps and the little open space in front of them. It was peaceful, but screamingly loud, reflecting the anger of those who had come to protest.
One of the slogans, we won’t let you divide India, summed up the mood of that cosmopolitan crowd. There was a large contingent of northeasterns, and a sizable number of women in Muslim veils. There were even some placards in Malayalam (with slogans not exactly complimentary to Shahji, meaning you know who).
Bharat Mata Ki Jai could be heard every few minutes. Speakers repeatedly said, in different ways, “I am not Assamese, or Kannadiga, or Bengali. I am Indian”. Loud applause greeted every such statement. Several public intellectuals of Bangalore spoke at the meeting. That personal exposure to the street crowd — it did not become personal participation because I cannot shout slogans the way I used in my younger days — proved to me that crowds opposing the new citizenship laws are as responsible as they are patriotic. They are there because they care for their country.
The citizenship laws seek to give Hindus pre-eminence. But do the intended beneficiaries want preferential treatment? Take a closer look at the protestors and the answer will become evident. Aligarh and Jamia Millia, seen as Muslim centres of learning, were by no means the only campuses rising in revolt, although, the police seemed to single them out; the attack on Jamia was despicably overdone. More strident were the agitations in Benares Hindu University, the IITs in Chennai and elsewhere and Bangalore’s Jain University. Even in Gujarat, the homeland bearing Narendra Modi’s imprint, there were bandhs and agitations and arrests.
The narrow minds that rule the country today are attracting adverse comments everywhere. Even the UN voiced concern when the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “concerned” that the Citizenship Amendment Act was “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. Dismissing all criticism with his customary pomposity, Shreeman Amit Shah said, protest as much as you want, the CAA will be implemented. This must be what the New York Times meant when it wrote, “Modi makes his bigotry even clearer”.
Sinistrality is at work. When the government put out a “final list” of residents in Assam, it quietly omitted 1.9 million people, thereby, stripping them off their citizenship. Is it for them that detention centres are being built? Ten centres are under construction, each one the size of seven football fields with boundary walls 10 feet high. The suddenly discovered un-Indians and lakhs of Scheduled Caste people struck off the NRC in Assam may be housed in these prisons. And how many of the 200 million Muslims of India? Prashant Kishor was right when he said that the National Register of Citizens was equivalent to the demonetisation of citizenship.
Our prime minister has said the violence over citizenship issues is “deeply disturbing”. But he hastened to add that the decision has been 1,000 per cent correct. This is the problem. The BJP getting a second continuous term has given it the feeling that it has 1,000 per cent authority to do what it pleases. The size and spread of the protests show how wrong this reading has become. But don’t expect any course correction. Not when arrogance rules.