Not just Citizenship Act, blame the state of economy too for protests

In April 2019, the signs of disaffection with the Narendra Modi government were there, but they were muted. In Lucknow, traders affiliated to the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) were openly and bitterly critical of the government for the way it had rolled out the goods and services tax (GST) regime. This was hardly surprising. Many of them were small and medium operators who had kept their dealings with the government restricted to the box (sometimes, boxes) of sweets delivered at regular intervals to the excise department. In return, the revenue collection agency looked the other way when the 14 (or thereabouts) per cent of the tax owed to the government went unreported and contributed as profits of these traders.

Now everything had changed, they said, when Business Standard met them in Lucknow in April 2019. Because everything was online, you could fudge nothing. Their 14 per cent profit was now tax that had to be paid to the government. “We are Indians and we are proud to pay tax,” said a trader piously if somewhat disingenuously. “Everything is now online. So you don’t have to queue up with your box of sweets. But,” he asked rhetorically, “have the demands stopped?”

“Of course not,” he said. “You get a call: ‘Aapka Rs 3.5 crore ka mismatch hai. Sahab bahut gusse main hai, documents le kar office aa jaaiye’. But aren’t the documents already there, online? ‘Yes, but please bring them here,’ says the voice on the other end. That’s where it all happens.”

But then why did he vote the BJP? “What do you think? We should have voted for Rahul Gandhi?” the trader asked incredulously. In the subsequent General Election, the BJP candidate, Rajnath Singh, trounced his rival by a margin of nearly 300,000 votes. But resentment lingers.

Then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley heard of this among several complaints about the first signs of the crisis the economy was facing in the mid-2018. “No crisis,” he said. “If there really was an economic slowdown of the kind you’re talking about, we would not have been winning election after election. People would have been on the streets, protesting”.

Now they are.

It’s the economy, stupid!

“The economy is lost. Please help us find it,” stated a placard at the Jantar Mantar demonstration last week, held aloft by a young man. While the proximate causes of the protests raging across India appear to be religious and ethnic discrimination, the underlying causes, not clearly articulated, seem to be anxieties over jobs, income, land rights and lack of upward income mobility. This is manifest in Assam, where locals believe once the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is in place, Hindus from Bangladesh will flood Assam, grab land, jobs and business. Gorkhas — who came to northeastern India in the 1950s and in the 1970s, overran Sikkim, helping India overthrow the Chogyals and force the merger of Sikkim in India — continue to fight statelessness because they represent a threat to indigenous Mizos, Sikkimese Lepchas, and other tribes.

These fears might not have mattered if India had jobs for all, had been growing at 8 or 10 per cent and everyone saw a possibility of upward mobility. But there is little about the economic data coming out that is cause for cheer. Unemployment continues to be at a 45-year high. The slowdown in GDP growth in this financial year’s second quarter confirmed weakness and accentuated the role of government spending in propping up growth. Nomura’s Sonal Verma reports that higher government spending contributed 1.9 percentage points to 4.5 per cent GDP growth (in Q2), with a sharp slowdown in private investment. And to compound all this, after its monetary review earlier in December, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) put off lending rate cuts for another day, citing future inflation worries as the reason.

For ordinary people, what does this mean? Onions were selling in retail markets for up to Rs 120 a kg. The cost of milk in Delhi rose Rs 2 per kg last week, the second rise in price after it was kept in abeyance till May and raised immediately after the General Election. Kindergarten school fees for hole-in-the-wall institutions have to be paid in cash — and are extortionate.

On top of this are fears of the knock on the door, the demand for papers, and if you don’t have them, the detention camps (or “ashram” as the underclass calls them). Last week when protests against the CAA and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) had just begun, a Muslim domestic help asked: “We came from Bangladesh 20 years ago. My family has Aadhaar card, and voter card and we even voted in the 2019 election. There is talk that the police will come and take us away even though we have all these documentation. They say we will be sent to an ashram. Do you know if children are allowed in the ashram? What will my children do if they separate us?” 

The human factor

“We are ready to talk, ready to reassure. The NRC has not yet been notified. We will consult everyone. But we won’t talk to the tukde-tukde gang or the urban Maoists,” said Ravishankar Prasad, law minister. So far, this is the only indication of flexibility offered by the government.

The problem is also definitional. Tamils, whose ancestors were taken by the British as bonded labour for Sri Lankan tea gardens, fled and came to India in 1983 during the war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan Army. They were refugees. Today they are neither Indian nor Sri Lankan. Although many have married Tamil Nadu Tamils, their children, born in India, are still not naturalised Indians, says 78-year old SC Chandrahasan, who heads the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation, an NGO that works with around 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, of whom around 60,000 live in camps. They contribute in their own way to the micro-economy of their region and while they may be refugees, they object to being described as “termites”, the word used for illegal immigrants by Home Minister Amit Shah. They are unsure what will become of them and their families once the NRC process starts.

It is hard to predict how the NRC and the CAA will be rolled out. But this much is clear: Something that threatens human existence in such a fundamental way can’t possibly be good politics.

70 years and counting...

This timeline after Independence shows a history of population exchange, a state trying to regulate flow of people, movements of ethnic nationalism that were defined by a fear of outsiders and attempts to define citizenship in a land of fluid frontiers

1950: The Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act came into force on March 1, 1950, following influx of refugees from then East Pakistan to Assam

1951: The first-ever NRC was published in Assam based on the Census Report of 1951, containing names of 8 million people

1955: The Citizenship Act came into force. It codified rules for Indian citizenship by birth, descent, and registration

1957: The Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act was repealed

1960: The Bill was passed in the Assam Assembly to make Assamese the only official language

1964: The Centre issued the Foreigners Tribunal Order under the Foreigners’ Act, 1964

1964-1971: Influx of refugees from East Pakistan because of disturbances there

1979: Anti-foreigners movement started in Assam 

1979-1985: Six-year-long agitation, led by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners

1980: The AASU submitted the first memorandum demanding updating of the NRC to the Centre 

1983: Massacre at Nellie in central Assam killed 3,000. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act or IMDT Act passed.

1985: The Assam Accord signed by the Centre, the state, the AASU and the AAGSP. It stated, among other clauses, that foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall be expelled

1990: The AASU submitted modalities to update the NRC to the Centre and the state government

1997: The Election Commission decides to add 'D' (doubtful) against names of voters whose claim to citizenship is doubtful

1999: The Centre took the first formal decision to update the NRC in accordance with the Assam Accord’s cut-off date

2003: The Citizenship (Amendment) Act was introduced. Among other changes to the 1955 law, it said anyone born in India between 1950 and 1987 is an Indian citizen. Anyone born between 1987 and 2003 is a citizen provided one of the parents is Indian. Anyone born in India from 2004 is a citizen provided one of the parents is Indian and the other is not an ‘illegal immigrant’

2005: The Supreme Court striked down IMDT Act as unconstitutional. A tripartite meeting between the Centre, the state government and the AASU decided to update the 1951 NRC

2006: The Centre issued the Foreigners (Tribunal) Amendment Order, exempting Assam from the 1964 tribunal order.

2009: Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, filed case in the Supreme Court praying for deletion of foreigners’ names in electoral rolls and to update the NRC.

2010: Pilot project started in Chaygaon and Barpeta to update the NRC. A successful 
run in Chaygaon, but 4 killed in Barpeta. Project shelved.

2013: The SC, on the APW plea, directed the Centre and the state to begin the process for updating the NRC 

2015: The process to update the NRC begun

2016: The BJP introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. It proposed to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

2017: The Draft NRC published with names of 19 million of total 32.9 million applicants.

2018: Another Draft NRC published, 4 million people excluded on July 30

July 26, 2019: The Additional Draft Exclusion List of 102,462 was released on July 26

August 31: Final NRC released on August 31. A 10-month window given to those 1.9 million who failed to prove  citizenship before being sent to detention centres

December 13: The Citizenship Amendment Bill became an Act


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