In an opinion piece published in The Guardian last month on the implications of India’s brand-new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that will grant Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Parsi refugees citizenship, leaving out only Muslims, novelist Amit Chaudhuri wrote, “What’s being put to death here with the omission of a single word is what it means to be Indian: part of a fraught but great experiment that has no parallel anywhere in the world. Every Indian has contributed to creating India, and we — not just Muslim refugees — are suddenly being denied access to what we’ve created.”
As the unprecedented citizens’ protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) continue across the country, Chaudhuri, 57, has found reason to be hopeful again. “BJP’s second term has introduced profound dissonances in our understanding of what India is. Part of the reason behind this is the second term seeing them return to power with a huge mandate. This led to suppression, fear and voluntary self-censorship. Then, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the imposition of NRC in Assam, the home minister declared what would be the criteria for (what was then) the Citizenship Amendment Bill and it seemed that we had reached the very limit of what was once acceptable in this country. What these protests — first in Assam, and now across the country — have shown is that an overwhelming majority does not mean that democracy and the Constitution can be put on hold. I think the BJP underestimated how democracy, in its own complex, unwieldy and chaotic way, has functioned robustly in India. What we are seeing now is a remarkable volume of non-politically organised political protests — a range of people, irrespective of gender, religion, caste, class have taken to the streets to speak up not for gender, religion, caste, or class but for an ideal, unconnected to self-interest: something that one presumed was no longer possible in the world, let alone India. It is an extraordinarily powerful and hopeful thing to witness. An intimidatory line that should not have been there in the first place has now been breached and it is not going to be possible to put it back in its place again, despite the state-backed terror we’ve seen in UP, and the recent unthinkable events in JNU,” he says.
Chaudhuri was among a group of writers, filmmakers, academics, activists and artists who wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the stifling of dissent in the country in October last year and one of the 900 signatories of a letter protesting what was then the Citizenship Amendment Bill that was released by the Indian Cultural Forum since. But there have been other writers, too, who have lent their support to the ongoing protests. From children’s writers, publishers and festival organisers such as Richa Jha and Swati Roy participating in readings of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution in different metro cities to writers and poets such as Arundhati Roy, Akhil Katyal, Sridala Swami and others breaking down the implications of the CAA and the NRC and joining people’s rallies to Amitav Ghosh condemning violence in university campuses on social media, the literary community has pitched its support firmly behind the protestors. “A writer who is not tuned into the world she inhabits isn’t much of a writer. The best of writing nudges us into taking a stand…Writers have a responsibility to question what is evil, be it societal practices or governmental policies,” says Anita Nair, author of Ladies Coupe (2001), and, more recently, Eating Wasps (2018), who is a vocal critic of the CAA.
In Assam, where the NRC was first introduced and detention camps set up, the CAA has provoked massive protests. “I think the feeling right now is ‘enough is enough’. We have really had it with you (the government) messing around — from demonetisation to Kashmir to Ayodhya — and this time you’re striking at the very heart of something — the nation, yes, but also at decency and dignity,” says writer Janice Pariat, who is from Meghalaya’s Shillong and has spent a considerable part of her peripatetic childhood in Assam. Pariat has been explaining on Twitter why the NRC and CAA are both “anti-secular” and “anti-indigenous” and can impact the language, literature and history of minority communities. In a series of tweets, she has countered claims of “the xenophobic Northeast” and explained how the projects will impact the Assamese — “not a monolithic ethnic block but an intricate, precarious web of over 200 tribes” — and urged people to be empathetic.
“We have to remember that Assam has been protesting this act when it was still a bill in 2016. Those protests were ignored by the rest of the country, including the media. There is a peaceful democratic and consistent popular uprising currently taking place in Assam against the CAA, led by students, writers, academics and artists. There is a strong sense of betrayal in Assam and there is a real and palpable fear among people because of what happened in Tripura (a massive influx of migrants outnumbered the original inhabitants, rendering their language and culture secondary in the state) to the indigenous population. I urge the rest of the country to listen to the masses in Assam and not dismiss and reduce this as mere xenophobia because there is a long history and context to this fear,” says Aruni Kashyap, 36, a writer from Assam, who is a faculty at the University of Georgia, USA.
On January 6, a day after students were attacked in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University by masked assailants, writer Ravinder Singh tweeted, “Speak, for not taking a position IS taking a position. And just don’t condemn attacks, hold the government accountable, for the law and order is its (sic) responsibility. #JNUViolence #JNUattack”.
This was not the first time Singh, 38, author of bestselling romances such as I Too Had a Love Story (2007), Can Love Happen Twice (2011), Will You Still Love Me (2018) has spoken up. After the central government was re-elected last year, Singh says, he felt it was important that he educate himself better on policies and broke them down for his readers — after all, his readership is highest among those in the age group of 18 to 24 years; many are first-time voters. “The BJP’s election slogan in the first term was ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas.’ In the second term, they added, ‘sabka vishwas’ to it. But they have made one announcement after the other that chips away at constitutional rights. It begun with the beef ban in the first term; its fallout was the gau rakshaks and the horrific lynchings. Now, with the NRC and the CAA, they seem to be sending out a signal that this is a Hindu rashtra in the making. If I keep quiet now, I’ll be failing in my duties as a citizen,” says Singh.
The backlash to his outspokenness is sometimes vicious on social media. “But I tell myself that people don’t read my books for my political beliefs. They read them because they enjoy them. What I am speaking up against concerns us all. And, really, it’s religion today, tomorrow it will be caste, or something else. When discrimination becomes mainstream, it will reach us all one day,” he says.
This, of course, is not the first time that the writing community has come together to protest against the rupture in civil liberties. In 2015, too, when widespread communal violence had broken out, writers were at the forefront of protests, returning awards and voicing their concern. But the CAA has also drawn criticism from unlikely quarters. Writer Chetan Bhagat, usually a firm supporter of the central government, tweeted on January 5: “Time to see obvious. Put CAA aside, officially. Major communication gaps. Announce NRC won’t come, as execution issues, anxiety created and the chances of abuse means we are not ready for it. Focus on upcoming budget. It’s not worth it. Can’t let a country burn to save ego.” This came on the heels of a series of tweets that he had posted on the flagging economy, the pitfalls of CAA and NRC. Bhagat, who has also condemned the attacks on the JNU students, declined to comment.
For many writers, what has been most heartening about these protests is the reclamation of symbols of nationalism, including most crucially, the Constitution. “An entire range of symbolism has been appropriated by the BJP, including Hinduism and nationalism. But what they have been passing off as Hinduism and nationalism are not these at all, and protesters have been right to reclaim the national flag and anthem. Hopefully, Hinduism, too, will be wrested away from the BJP by those who have a different sense of its variety and traditions. India’s spiritual history is, after all, full of rebuttals of religious distortions. The other thing that has emerged is that the Muslim community has begun to protest again as Muslims, and, as Indians. Our Constitution upholds individual religious identity, and it’s very moving to see them reclaim a fundamental constitutional right. The India we have known and loved is everybody’s, a place of chaos, creativity, and fierce disagreement, and it’s clear that millions refuse to silently connive with its hijacking by pettiness and hatred,” Chaudhuri says.
Nair, 53, agrees. “For the first time, the Constitution has begun to represent all that stands between us and the current regime’s agenda of turning India into a totalitarian state that would start with erasing a minority community, and, thereafter, do away with anyone and everyone who would disrupt their notion of what India should be,” she says.
Pariat, who was part of a citizens’ protest in Delhi on December 19, says, “Standing at India Gate, reading the Preamble, was a moment of mixed feelings for me — I’m post-nationalist, and believe that nations, or the process of nation-building, can be cruel, inhumane, arbitrary. I’m indifferent to ‘national’ symbols, I don’t stand for the national anthem, the flag (any national flag) means little to me, and so being there in a circle, beneath the glow of the monument felt admittedly strange. But I realised that if there is a nation, as there is for now, then this is what it should stand for — justice, liberty, equality, secularism. If there are to be nations, these are the only ones worth fighting for.”