The long wall along the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University in Delhi is plastered with posters affirming Hindu-Muslim unity, portraits of Bhagat Singh and Bhim Rao Ambedkar and — no surprises here — charcoal scrawls against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or CAA, 2019, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Central Government has stepped back for now on the NRC, clearly in response to civil protests that have shown no signs of giving over, instead growing bigger and wider and taking the shape of a people’s movement covering large swathes of urban India.
Flag as the pivot
The most striking thing on the JMI wall is the national flag, hundreds of which are strung together in such a way that the tricolour runs parallel with the road. It is a beautiful, moving sight, offering scope for multiple interpretations. The flag as an act of both patriotism and protest. The flag as a symbol of citizenship as well as the citizens’ ownership of the country. It is known by now that in combination, the CAA and the NRC could be lethal for Muslims. The CAA offers priority citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, while the NRC, when implemented, will demand citizenship proof from India’s own citizens. Though anyone from any religion could be left out of the NRC for lack of proper documentation, the fear is that unlike Hindus and other religionists who will be protected via the CAA, Muslims stand the risk of losing their citizenship. Muslim anxieties have been stoked by Home Minister Amit Shah’s unceasing threats to pluck out and evict the ghuspetiye (Muslim infiltrators). It is against this backdrop that JMI erupted in protest on December 15, 2019. However, the police crackdown that followed was so brutal that it set off a cascading reaction beyond anyone’s expectation and certainly beyond the control of a government that arrogantly believed that the people would acquiesce in its every unjust decision. Jamia’s answer to the police action was the flag and the Constitution. In an instant, the message communicated itself to other secular-spirited Indians. A lot more in numbers than previously believed, these were men and women who understood that there can be no India without Muslims. The young, assumed to be apolitical or coopted, emerged from their universities in swarms, proving that they carried in their blood India’s founding values of equality and inclusion. Since then the waving of the flag and the reading of the preamble to the Constitution have spread like a contagion, but one that is lovely to behold. Indeed, the preamble seems to have become an anthem in itself as spaces in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and other smaller towns have filled up to resounding recitals of its inspirational content. Equally significant has been the emergence of women in leadership roles and from within conservative homes. They have taken the lead whether in college assemblies or in protest marches, raising slogans loud enough to be heard above the din of the city, or as in the case of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, simply assembling to show off their strength. Shaheen Bagh is a Muslim-majority neighbourhood and conventionally, women here have been home bound. Yet since the day of the Jamia crackdown, they have stayed put, day and night, in a make-shift pandal, waving the tricolour and energetically singing along patriotic songs. The flag can be seen imprinted on the cheeks of little children as also on the wrists of their mothers. Many here are uneducated but know what is at stake: They are fighting for the country and their place in it. And hence the symbolism of the flag which has now become a matter-of-fact part of their protests, their lives and their collective Indian identity. The irony is unmissable. All these years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its right-wing allies had used the flag as a weapon against Muslims and secular Indians. Between 2016 and 2017, scores of BJP volunteers took out tiranga yatras ostensibly to instil feelings of pride in the country but in actual fact to taunt Muslims and liberal Indians. The then Human Resource Development Minister, Smriti Irani, decreed that each of India’s Central Universities will fly the flag atop a 207-foot high mast. Four years later, the Narendra Modi government has been rendered speechless by the sight of thousands of flags flying in all corners of India. The BJP used the flag as a threat, as an instrument of coercion, as a test of loyalty for alleged “anti-nationals”, and finally as a symbol of the Prime Minister’s New India.
A new India
Today, a different version of New India confronts the rulers, one that has turned the “anti-national” slur on its head. Unlike in the case of the BJP, those waving the flag now are not threatening anyone but are reading the preamble alongside and asserting the inviolability of the Constitution’s basic tenets. They are the patriots, not the pseudo-patriots populating the BJP. The largely peaceful rebellion and the beauty of the spirit on show are as compelling as the message they radiate: that there exist people in India who will not be cowed down by the aggression of Hindutva, who believe in the essential unity of Indians and who have the courage of their convictions. Some questions nonetheless arise. How long can the protesters withstand the might of the state? The Prime Minister continues to be immensely popular and electorally saleable. The anti-CAA-NRC protests have also consolidated his majoritarian base.
Of and by the people
The most obvious questions, though, concern India’s political Opposition. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been outspoken and has matched wit and word with Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah. The Congress has expressed its opposition to the CAA-NRC architecture. But no politician till now has shown the leadership quality essential to take the protests forward —– from colleges and the buzzing streets of cities and towns into the farthest villages. Partly the reason for this is the people-driven nature of the protests. The movement has been of and by the people with the participants apparently keen to keep it that way. It is a wariness born of apprehension that the presence of political parties will politicise the protests and dilute their impact, which in turn will give a handle to the rulers to condemn the phenomenon as a whole as agenda-driven. It is also evident that the political parties have lived so long in fear of a Hindu-Muslim polarisation that they have started to shy away from doing anything that could be seen as favouring Muslims. The Prime Minister knows this. In his rallies he has been asking whether the Opposition would offer citizenship to all Muslims from the neighbourhood. The question is intended as a trap and deliberately avoids nuances. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is an example of the secular dilemma. He has the right instincts but he has refrained from showing up at the protests because he has an election to fight next month. There has not been a more opportune time than now for India’s Opposition to prove that they are in the fight. The ferment on the streets can remain citizen-driven. But surely a strong-willed Opposition can lend outside support, ensuring the fight does not fade away and India is rescued from those who want to change its character.