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Anti-CAA protests: A reiteration of people power over political muscle

Topics Citizenship Bill | NRC

Protestors participate in a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Act in New Delhi. PTI
The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the Parliament in December 2019, became controversial for introducing a religious test for granting Indian citizenship to migrants from neighbouring countries.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, led by its President, Amit Shah, had repeatedly argued during the campaign for the 2019 General Election, that changes would be made to citizenship laws and this will be followed by a nationwide exercise to separate citizens from non-citizens by way of a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC or NRC).

The fears over denial of citizenship by a combination of CAA and NRC (as repeatedly underlined by the present home minister in his campaign speeches) created a fertile ground for protests to erupt across the country. Different parts of the country have seen relentless protests over this issue since then.

Journalists and commentators have written about the nature of these protests in some detail. Reports have highlighted how these protests have been amorphous, bringing more and more professionals into their fold, out of their sense of public service. From lawyers helping detainees to doctors taking care of those injured, these protests have brought two things in sharp focus. One is the nature of protests with common people joining and the second is the absence of participation by an organised political opposition.

From the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi to the women of Shaheen Bagh, these protests have attracted common people from all walks of life. The conspicuous absence of opposition parties has been underlined as well. How do these protests compare with other such major protests through independent India’s history?

The Navnirman Andolan of 1974

Crop failure and the global oil shock in 1973 had inflated India’s import bill. Oil prices had gone up by 200 per cent and food prices rose by 24 per cent between between July 1972 and June 1973. Inflation reached 34.6 per cent in September 1974. In this backdrop, the decision to increase mess charges at an engineering college in Gujarat sparked student protests across the state and led to the Navnirman Andolan against the state government. The movement eventually spread to the rest of India. In Bihar, student leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ravi Shankar Prasad emerged from this movement. In Delhi, the late Arun Jaitley went to jail as the government imposed emergency. These protests were also created by students and not by political parties. Instead of being directed by the political opposition and leaders, the movement chose Jaiprakash Narayan as its leader. As disorder spread across the country, the Indira Gandhi government imposed emergency in 1975 and jailed the opposition leaders including the new student leaders. According to political scientist, Suhas Palshikar, the Navnirman andolan of the seventies, similarly situated at the cusp of authoritarian regime and bankrupt, directionless opposition, comes closest to the anti-CAA+NRC stir that we see across India these days.

The Mandal Agitation of 1990

Mandal Commission was constituted in 1979 by the Morarji Desai government. Chaired by former Bihar CM, B P Mandal, the commission submitted its report in 1980. The report recommended 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs and education. This was in addition to the 22.5 per cent reservation that existed for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In 1990, the V P Singh government decided to implement the report and this was followed by widespread protests. Strikes opposition the implementation of these protests often turned violent. One feature of this agitation was the self-immolation by students against OBC reservations. These protests were also led by students and were not driven by political parties. The agitation led to a counter consolidation of OBC politics in the country and shaped Indian politics for the next few decades. “Anti-Mandal had a more pointed agenda and also a specific caste context. That is why after initial spur, not many parties actually sought to extend open support to it,” says Palshikar.

Anti-corruption Movement of 2012-14

Having returned to power in 2009 after a comfortable win in the elections, the UPA government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faced its big test soon as it was rocked by allegations of large-scale corruption. CAG reports on the allocation of coal blocks, the 2G licences and the organisation of Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 created an atmosphere in which corruption became the biggest cause of public anger. The movement was led by people who were well known but not involved in party politics. Former Magsaysay Award winners like Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, religious leaders like Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and academics like Yogendra Yadav joined the movement that had Anna Hazare as its head, against the government of the day. Helped by widespread media coverage, the movement gathered steam and received support from the middle class. The movement invoked Gandhi and nationalism to target the government over corruption and threw up new public leaders in the form of Kejriwal and Bedi. The movement was said to have been helped by the BJP and RSS in the background.

“Anti-corruption agitation certainly had a more active implicit and explicit support from RSS and BJP, and that is why is spread as much as it did. From that agitation onward, a set of new factors also intervene: media ( in case of Hazare agitation, the media played a key role) and social messaging,” says Palshikar. The movement also helped reshape politics even as differences cropped up between its leaders later on. Kiran Bedi became BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate in Delhi against the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (a creation of this anti-corruption agitation). The agitation also played a major role in helping the BJP take-on the now unpopular UPA government in General Election, 2014. Narendra Modi benefited from this movement immensely to emerge as Prime Minister in 2014. Thus, another seemingly non-party agitation had shaped politics in the country.

Caste quota agitations

Whether it was Gujars seeking ST status in Rajasthan or Jats or Patidars seeking OBC status in Haryana and Gujarat respectively, the agitations have not been led by political parties. In Andhra Pradesh, the Kapu agitation also took on a similar colour. Jats, Patidars and Kapus represent dominant peasant castes in their states but sought a change in how their communities are classified in order to open new avenues for their youth. All these protests may have been supported or used by established political parties but still had non-party leadership. In Gujarat Hardik Patel became a popular leader of the Patidar community.

While the present day anti-CAA stir does have public support while having an non-party base, it is not unique as these examples show. Independent India has had a few political agitations over 70 years but these protests have often been created by the people themselves descending on the streets, with or without political party support.

Suhas Palshikar explains, “It is not very uncommon that people take to more or less spontaneous political action. From Occupy Wall Street to Arab Spring to Hongkong protests, there are enough instances to underscore people's agency. Party politics ordinarily is supposed to coordinate the people's agency. But in the process, party politics also tend to set the menu which may from time to time exclude more urgent concerns of people--leading then to popular protests, uprisings, street action etc. This in turn gives way to either new political forces or reconfiguration of existing forces.”

The anti-CAA protests

Opposition parties have taken clear positions on where they stand on CAA and its cousin, the NRC. They have either supported or opposed the CAA inside the parliament. Those in opposition to it have also extended their support to the protesters across India. While they have faced criticism for the lack of direct participation in the stir, there may be reasons to oppose it. Home Minister, Amit Shah has accused the principal opposition party, Congress’ leaders of fomenting riots in the country. Their absence from the sit-in protests and marches may therefore have even helped the stir.

On the anti-CAA protests Suhas Palshikar says, “two things are clear: diffuse and unarticulated disappointment has been piling up. Economic woes, political oneupmanship and sheer incompetence in governance have contributed to this sense of dispersed disappointment. Given the political skills of the ruling party and the disarray in which non-BJP parties are found meant that there will be no coordinated protest combining these factors. Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, having each their own separate grouse and afraid of repression, kept quiet and a moment then arose when many social sections felt the need to take to the streets. So, yes, failure of established parties along with authoritarian governance unleashed by the present regime are the key factors in explaining what is happening.”

Whether party participation or the lack of it is by default or by design, the anti-CAA stir will only help shape Indian politics further. With preamble readings, the reclaiming of nationalism and its symbols,  perhaps it might even introduce a new language of constitutionalism to Indian politics and perhaps some new leadership too.

Twitter: @Bhayankur


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