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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Arrests of anti-CAA protesters are a moment of reckoning for all of us

Are enough Indians willing to place basic moral norms above their political preferences? For example, it should be possible for someone who is in favour of CAA to also oppose the arrest of protesters.

Written by Rajni Bakshi | Updated: June 25, 2020 8:57:56 am
anti-caa protest, citizenship amendment bill, NRC, Citizenship Amendment Act, anti-CAA protests, Express opinion, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences received a threat letter for conducting anti-CAA protests. (Express Photo: Harinee Chandrasekaran/Representational)

On June 3, there was a nationwide protest against the arrest of those who participated in the anti-CAA agitation or have otherwise raised their voice in dissent. While the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are vital issues there is a deeper question at stake here. Are enough Indians willing to place basic moral norms above their political preferences? For example, it should be possible for someone who is in favour of CAA to also oppose the arrest of protesters.

In a healthy polity, there would be no need to state this — it would be a truism. But today, almost the entire political spectrum judges a person not by their adherence to basic norms but by the “side” on which they stand regarding any specific issue. Therefore, arrests of anti-CAA protesters are a moment of reckoning for all of us.

Making excuses for those who are on “our side” of a political position is an old problem. It afflicts people across the spectrum — from “left” to “right”, though there may be differences in tonality. This partly explains why there is no public clamour for the criminal prosecution of those who openly advocated violence against those opposing the CAA. Many who want the CAA, but not violence, may have kept quiet lest they help the “other” side. Similarly, there was a time when many who were appalled by murders of “class enemies” made excuses for the Naxalite movement because they supported its struggle for justice.

Opinion | Anti-CAA protests gave us poetry to resist, but hard plumbing of alternative politics yet to be worked out

How can this perennial struggle between means and ends shape our responses today? Those who are opposed to the CAA face a rather complicated challenge. Opponents of the CAA correctly say that the letter and spirit of India’s Constitution are endangered by this law. But this does not mean that all those who want the CAA are necessarily indifferent to the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Yes, among those who sought to suppress the anti-CAA protests, many openly do not care for human rights. But could they be inspired to care for human rights? Might this become possible if their social and political insecurities were to be empathically addressed?

I have seen this happen in bilateral conversations. For it to be done at a larger level, the human rights and civil liberties movement would have to make room for people who, in many respects, might be deemed to be “politically incorrect”. People with whom we disagree on a specific issue might well be capable of speaking truth to power and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to assert the right to dissent. But this is possible if we don’t treat each other as “political untouchables”.

The moment of reckoning for those who are pro-CAA is relatively straight forward. Suppose you are convinced that the CAA is important to secure the future stability and safety of Hindus in India. You may even have cheered the arrest of anti-CAA protesters. But surely, at the back of your mind, there is a niggling doubt. Once suppression of protest is validated tomorrow, on some other issue, it could be you or your loved ones who are arrested simply for upholding the Constitution.

Equally crucial is the way in which families have been sharply divided — with some members, mainly young people, passionately creating posters to hold up at anti-CAA rallies, while their siblings or parents or other relatives condemn and lambast them. As long as all sides of the dispute are free and still together as a family, an ongoing exchange, a shifting of perspectives, is possible. When those young enthusiastic protesters are behind bars, uncountable creative possibilities are eliminated.

You may say that all of the above is a pipe dream, that political life is controlled by powerful forces who never put means above ends and thus individuals, families and groups are bound to be swept away. This would be tantamount to saying that the parents, siblings and friends of any of the protesters now languishing in prison, should just sit back and accept their fate.

How many people find this unthinkable and unacceptable because it is anti-life, not just anti-democratic? This will decide the future of our social fabric — that which is deeper and longer lasting than any partisan political agenda or any particular law.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 25 under the title “The Right To Differ”. Rajni Bakshi is author of Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi.

Editorial | It is not the protests that threaten to divide, their demonisation does that

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