The Political Fix: After a month of Citizenship Act protests in India, what have we learned?
The protests have extracted concessions, but BJP is fighting back.
Welcome to the Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a weekly newsletter on Indian politics and policy. To get it in your inbox every Monday, sign up here.
Today’s newsletter is especially long, so scroll past the lead piece if you just want last week’s headlines and links. Would you prefer a shorter newsletter? Would you like the links to come in a separate email on Fridays? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
If you like what we do at Scroll.in consider supporting us, either by subscribing to Scroll+ or contributing to the Scroll.in Reporting Fund.
Illustration: Nithya Subramanian
The Big Story: A month later
A little over a month ago, Parliament amended India’s citizenship laws.
On paper, the changes were intended to speed up the process of providing citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from India’s neighbourhood.
But the specifics of the law – permitting only non-Muslims from three neighbouring Muslim countries to apply, ignoring other persecuted minorities in the region – as well as the rhetoric in Home Minister Amit Shah’s political rallies made it clear that the amendments had more to do with Indian politics.
Specifically, the Citizenship Act amendments along with a National Register of Citizens that Shah promised would follow was squarely aimed at helping the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election prospects in West Bengal, as we explained in a previous edition of the Political Fix.
Since it also added, for the first time, a religious criterion to India’s citizenship laws, the move was in line with other efforts the BJP had made ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term in 2019.
All of these have been focused on the BJP’s core Hindu nationalist ideological agenda, though the Citizenship Act amendments differed from the stripping of Kashmiri autonomy – the other major move in 2019 – in significant ways, as we also explored in a previous issue.
A month later Modi and Shah are still grappling with the fallout of the amendments. Protests against the changes first began in the North East and then spread throughout the country, bringing lakhs of people to the streets as well as the deaths of more than 20 in police violence.
But though these represent the first, sustained on-ground protests against Modi over the last six years, it is still unclear what all of it means.
Today we take stock.
The protests are organic but this means they are scattered
The anti-Citizenship Act protests have only gathered steam over the past month. First in the North East and then throughout the country, aided by police attempts at violently shutting them down on college campuses, more and more people have turned up on the streets. This includes 40 sit-ins around the country, often led by women like the best-known of them, at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi.
The protests have garnered support from celebrities, have received plenty of media attention and in some states, have even been anchored by political parties.One large grouping has even brought together many disparate organisations in the hopes of offering some guidance to the protests. Yet the movement is still largely organic, with no one person or group dominating them.
However, this also means that the tactics and demands may vary. Everyone is clear that the Citizenship Act amendments must be rolled back – a clear deliverable – but beyond that, many have debated whether to broaden the platform (bring in the economy? Labour issues? Casteism? Climate Change?) or keep it focused on just the Act.
Read: The idea of Shaheen Bagh – Muslim women across India are coming out to protest new citizenship law.
The protests have extracted a concession from the BJP but it is pushing back
For the first half of 2019, Amit Shah said over and over again that the BJP would conduct a National Register of Citizens to identify and throw out “illegal immigrants”, whom he even described as termites. Many expect the combination of Citizenship Act and NRC to target Indian Muslims mainly because Shah’s comments seemed to promise that they would. The protesters in the North East also fear that the amendments would cause demographic changes.
As part of the passage of the amendments, the government extended further concessions to states in the North East in the hopes of blunting the pushback there. Modi also insisted, falsely, in a speech that the word NRC had not come up during his tenure and it is not currently on the cards – itself a change in approach after months of Amit Shah promising one.
The BJP, realising that it was on the backfoot has done two things. In Assam, it is digging in its heels. Elsewhere, it has mobilised ministers, politicians, party workers and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to convince people of the need of the law. The hope is that it can overturn the protesters’ narrative, projecting those opposed to the amendments as violent and anti-national.
Read: Modi claims his government never brought up NRC – after a year of Amit Shah promising one.
The political Opposition has stepped up but it is also scattered
Two states, Kerala and West Bengal, have already expressed their opposition not just to the Citizenship Act amendments and the NRC, but also the National Population Register – which the government would like people to believe is an extension of the Census, but is actually the first step towards an NRC. (My explainer on CAA, NRC and NPR is here.)
The Congress, which holds power in four states plus the Union territory of Puducherry, has also said it will oppose NPR. If you add in Maharashtra, where the Congress is a coalition partner (though there is not yet an official declaration), that is a big chunk of the country’s population that may not be brought into an NRC because the states aren’t cooperating. Kerala has also taken the Centre to court over the amendments, in addition to many other individuals who have filed cases calling them unconstitutional.
Yet a Congress meeting in Delhi last week saw several major Opposition parties – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party – refusing to turn up, in part because of rivalries among them in the states. And over the weekend, two Congress leaders raised questions about tactics that others, including from their own party, were resorting to. The impression one gets is that the Opposition parties are still unsure about where they stand, legally and political, in opposing the Citizenship Act, the NRC and the NPR.
Read: ‘Withdraw CAA, stop NRC and NPR projects,’ 20 Opposition parties tell Centre in resolution
The protesters aren’t just Muslims but for many CAA remains a Muslim concern
Early on, the BJP tried to make it seem as if the protests against the Act are solely being attended by Muslims, including in the North East. Modi said that the protesters could be identified “by their clothes” and the BJP – which thrives on anti-Muslim politics – sought to convey the idea that the agitators were purely Muslim and also violent. (I wrote, last week about how Modi and Shah have also tried to connect the protests to Pakistan).
But the police’s decision to unleash violence in predominantly Muslim college campuses to further this narrative seems to have backfired. Students around the country decided to express solidarity, coming out to protest both the state’s brutality as well as the Citizenship Act amendments. The sight of students even at premier engineering and business colleges and the international coverage that came with it, has ensured that the government’s attempt to make it seem as if only Muslims are protesting has failed.
Despite this, the concern is still seen as a purely Muslim one, bringing in allies in the form of students and the sections of the population that were anyhow opposed to Modi and the BJP. The Modi voter does not seem to have been swayed and, as the BJP’s ground game is mobilised and as the protests continue, may be convince to turn against the movement.
Read: Who are the students protesting against the Citizenship Act across India?
The mobilisation has dented the BJP’s image but it could still benefit politically
Narendra Modi’s entire political image is built on the idea that he is universally beloved and has the trust of Indians everywhere. This is naturally not true, yet there have not been widespread protests that take on Modi’s core agenda in the last six years. Farmers and trade unionists have taken to the streets previously, but this is unfortunately seen as rather routine and not especially threatening to the government.
Now, there are mass protests against a party that was given a huge re-election mandate less than a year ago. These have been spread throughout the land and attempts at preventing more demonstrations – including brutal police violence in Uttar Pradesh – have not snuffed them out. The protests have also received plenty of international coverage, bringing added global scrutiny to Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda at a time when a flagging economy means India’s star is already on the wane.
That said, Hindi news media presents a very different picture. In that world, the protesters are indeed all Muslim and violent too, and, thanks to propaganda spread by the BJP, they are depicted as venal, politically motivated anti-nationals. In Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by a riot-accused hardline Hindu nationalist, this narrative may help polarise the polity and actually give the BJP political dividends. If the same happens in West Bengal, where elections are due next year, then the law will have achieved its purpose.
Read: Muslim anger, Hindu support – In Uttar Pradesh, police rampage deepens old faultlines
The protests are still going on a month later but where do they go from here?
When the law was passed in Parliament, it seemed likely that the BJP would be able to manage the fallout, which at the time was expected to only come from the North East. Instead, a month later, the protests are still gathering steam, and have been effective enough to shake Opposition parties from their stupor. Few could have predicted this.
In some ways, this longevity alone has an impact. Muslims, who have for decades been told not to protest openly because it will backfire, are now asserting their politics in a manner that is not easy to go back from. The involvement of campuses suggests a political awakening among students, one that will have long-term consequences.
But the Citizenship Act, unlike other policies that the government has rolled back in the past, is part of the BJP’s core Hindu nationalist agenda. Even now, few expect Modi and Shah to give in to what they have tried to portray as a Muslim concern, though the North East element is an outlet.
So what happens next? This is the question on many minds. Does a stand-off help the BJP, which has more time to build its own narrative, while waiting for the middle-class to get annoyed by protests or hoping that they eventually just simmer out? Or will the demonstrations continue to gather support and grow in size, as the political Opposition figures out how to leverage them?
The political awakening has meant that the protests have already had an impact, denting Modi’s image globally and bringing out a new language of constitutional secularism. But if this level of mobilisation fails in the face of the massive BJP machine, what will it mean for the lakhs who made their way on to the streets?
Rahul Verma, fellow from the Centre for Policy Research and co-author of Ideology & Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, suggests four books about how Indian demcracy came to be:
At a moment when Indian democracy is undergoing a deep churning, it becomes even more imperative to understand the foundational moments of our body politic. In the past two years, four excellent books on this subject help the reader to explore these critical years from different vantage points.
In India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, Madhav Khosla reminds us of the radical promise our founders made to this newly independent nation. This book offers great insight to anyone interested in understanding what the twin forces of democracy and constitutionalism bring to the table when they arrive simultaneously.
The wide-ranging debates were marked by vigorous contestation over half a century. Abhay Datar in Political Representation in India: Ideas and Contestations, 1908-1952 provides a rich description of how institutional structures of political representation in the form of the electoral democracy were envisioned.
Ujjwal Kumar Singh and Anupama Roy in the Election Commission of India: Institutionalising Democratic Uncertainties” capture the institutional design and framework to maintain the democratic uncertainty of electoral outcomes in diverse India. While providing a deep history of the Election Commission of India, Singh and Roy describe how the Election Commission emerged as one of the most trusted institutions within India’s democratic setup.
Ornit Shani in How India Became Democratic: Citizenship And The Making Of The Universal Franchise narrate the story of a political and bureaucratic imagination that grounded the process of India’s democracy with the first general election held in 1952 based on universal adult franchise. Every name on the electoral roll had equal weight in independent India. This was an audacious experiment of a mega scale. The odds were against us as a country as poor and diverse as India had never succeeded in expanding democracy so widely before. Yet, despite those odds, Indian democracy overcame all the doomsday predictions.
Have recommendations for an article, book, podcast or academic paper that deals with Indian politics or policy? Send it to email@example.com
Yet again, people are debating whether it is time for the Gandhis to go. Historian Ramachandra Guha said that re-electing former Congress President Rahul Gandhi to Parliament merely hands an advantage to Narendra Modi.
Bhim Army’s Chandrasekhar Azad was given bail, but with several conditions. The young political leader who is attempting to forge a Dalit-Muslim coalition has been told to stay away from Delhi, where elections are due in early February.
Election Watch: Who is up against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal? Though voting is on February 8, neither Congress nor BJP have yet to name a candidate against the Aam Aadmi Party chief.
The BJP has tied up with Pawan Kalyan in Andhra Pradesh. Kalyan’s Jana Sena has worked with the BJP before, giving the latter a more local presence in the Southern state.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos isn’t doing India any favours by investing $1 billion, according to Union MInister Piyush Goyal. A BJP leader connected the comments to critical coverage of India in the Washington Post (which Bezos owns), to an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s Indian unit and also the impending arrival of a Reliance e-commerce play. Goyal later said his words were taken out of context, after unhappy responses from industry.
Reports and Op-Eds
Why is inflation going up while demand stays low? Economist Himanshu says, in Mint, that it is because of mismanagement of food stocks by the government. Read also Niranjan Rajadhyaksha’s thread on how the Reserve Bank of India inflation model works.
Is there such a thing as the ‘Congress model’? Congress leader Rajeev Gowda and aide Akash Satyawali have an Op-Ed in the Hindustan Times arguing that there is one, focused on welfare, increasing consumption demand and establishing communal harmony.
We know a little bit about the Centre but what is going on with state finances?BloombergQuint’s Ira Dugal has an important series of interviews with state finance ministers examining the subject, most recently talking about Punjab’s fiscal crisis.
Is this the beginning of the Great Indian Firewall? The Supreme Court’s direction to the state to only reinstate some portions of the internet in Kashmir has given the government the chance to put in place a firewall that may soon become commonplace all over the country, writes Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa.
It has been 50 years since a landmark Amartya Sen paper. Jesús Zamora Bonilla writes in Mapping Ignorance about ‘The impossibility of a Paretian liberal’, Sen’s influential paper that examined the way individual rights come up against society’s preferences.
This week’s Weekend Fix collected a number of pieces about Davinder Singh, the Jammu & Kashmir Police Officer caught with militants last week, opening up many questions about his past and sparking conspiracy theories all over the valley and beyond.
Since the newsletter is already long enough, I have put other interesting links from this week on this thread.
Can’t make this up
When the prices of onions went above Rs 100 per kilo at the end of December, the states appealed to the Centre to import the bulbs that are a crucial part of nearly ever Indian cuisine. So the government went ahead and imported 18,000 metric tonnes of onions, with a large contingent coming from Turkey and Egypt.
Then two things happened. Indian onions began returning to the market, and prices immediately fell. Meanwhile, the consumers complained that the Egyptian and Turkish onions simply did not have the taste that Indians were used to.
Many states have now withdrawn their demand for imported onions. Indeed, of the 18,000 MT that was imported, only about 3000 MT has been procured by the states, per the Print. Considering onions perish rather quickly, this is a major headache.
So, now, the Indian government has asked Bangladesh to import from India the onions that India imported from elsewhere, likely at a rate lower than the amount New Delhi paid for them.
The seasonality of onion prices is quite well known, so the question now being asked is, who was responsible for this farcical set of policy moves that will likely turn out to be quite expensive for a government that is scrambling around for every last paisa?