Citizenship protests: A new politics of resistance

By their sheer spread, the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) have become difficult to ignore. But they are instinctive and without a strategic core. This is their weakness.

The current protests will fail if they lose momentum or turn violent in the face of an unresponsive government. That would be disastrous. A protest that fails and dissipates, emboldens its opponents. And violence will weaken the cohesion of the protestors and erode their moral position. There are already attempts to undermine the protests through coercive action and by projecting them as violent. Is it entirely coincidence that violence has occurred only in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in those states where it has to contest elections shortly?

None of this should detract from the tectonic shift that has taken place in the public mood since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office. For the first time, the veil of fear that had engulfed the country has lifted. Ordinary citizens, are willing to be counted among those standing against attempts to define Indian citizenship by religious affiliation. The party in power clearly has gone too far in imposing it communal agenda on the nation.

The protests underline a growing anger against the way that an electoral mandate for five years, has been taken for a licence to overturn the nation’s constitutionally crafted secularism. However, if the movement has to achieve its objectives substantially, it must remain consciously non-violent.

India already has the sterling example of its freedom movement before it. Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard University social scientist, who studied more than three hundred social movements between 1900 and 2006, also found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent ones. Among the advantages of non-violent protests Chenoweth notes is that they encourage participation by a larger demography as people of all ages and abilities can join them. In her book “Why Civil Resistance Works – The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict” Erica Chenoweth along with co-author Maria J Stephan, have calculated that if 3.5 per cent of the population actively participates in the protest then it is sufficient to bring about serious political change. In the case of India, with a population estimated at 137 crore in 2019, about 4.8 crore Indians would need to protest peacefully to be effective according to the Chenoweth formula.

Muslims under the banner of United Muslim Action Committee during their protest rally against CAA(Citizen Amendment Act) in Darussalam, Hyderabad, Saturday, Dec,21,2019 | Photo: PTI
The anti-CAA/NRC protests cannot allow numbers to flag or violence to occur. Non-violence will allow them to retain their moral high ground, maintain transparency about their objectives and allow them to plan protests openly and innovatively. Nor can they then be easily broken by agent provocateurs.

A possible way of sustaining numbers is to broad base the protests by adopting other connected demands. The demand for secular citizenship is heady enough. However, it is vulnerable to being twisted for communal polarisation. From the PM’s remark that the protestors can be recognised “by their clothes” to assuring “Indian Muslims” that they have nothing to fear, the government’s is trying its best to give a communal colour to the nationwide agitation.

Therefore, while it may be necessary to have citizenship laws topping the agenda, other overlapping demands could be added. University students protesting against the citizenship laws have also been agitating against privatisation of education, for increased public funding of higher education, against fee hikes and the increasing privatisation of essential services in universities. They are also directly affected by lack of job opportunities. These issues could be part of a broader charter of demands on the State which has failed not only on the constitutional front but also in the areas of economy, public education and employment generation. Such a coalition could further expand beyond urban areas to include others affected by the Modi government’s failure or mal-intent.

But most importantly, the protestors must not allow mainstream opposition political parties to take charge. The political parties which support these protests must remain just supportive. They could instruct their front organisations of volunteers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals to provide help to the protestors as and when required, without attempting to take over their leadership.

There is also a need for the citizens’ movement to develop a thoughtful and strategic core to coordinate the nature and shape of protests. This would help prevent the nascent movement from splitting into factions and from loss of cohesion. The important lesson of Arab Spring is that the most organised groups end up benefitting from a mass movement (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt).

The strategic core of the movement could also help in developing a calendar of protests, innovative ways of protesting without always disrupting normal life e.g. a black shirt day, flash mobs, dressing up as a member of some other community and religion than one’s own, singing songs that celebrate the diversity of India, singing Gandhi’s favourite bhajans, a tricolour day, observing limited blackouts at night as a mark of protest, etc. In short, re-appropriating the symbols of India’s diversity and nationalism is necessary while protesting. Some of the innovative protests and slogans already have the nation in thrall. But coordination across geographies is not yet evident.

As evidenced on the front pages of international newspapers, the Modi government has already lost the moral high ground globally. Domestically as well the Modi government has come out as small-minded and communal. It has lost legitimacy with urban educated youth, the middle classes and the largest minority community, Muslims. This public withdrawal of consent will have to be driven home by sustained non-violent protests.

This is necessary because there are suggestions, completely erroneous, that the government is backtracking on the NRC. They cite the deletion of a tweet by Home Minister Amit Shah’s about a nationwide NRC and suggest that the extended list of documents for proving citizenship shows that the process is being made easier. The regime is biding time. As long as the NRC is definitely not off the table and the CAA is not withdrawn, the idea of India remains endangered.


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