Delhi, over the past four days has been witness to unprecedented riots. So far, over 20 lives have reportedly been lost, scores injured. There are accusations of partisanship against the Delhi Police, which has shown remarkable ineptitude over the past few months. It is unimaginable that an 80,000-strong force, with an annual budget of over Rs 8,000 crore, well-trained and equipped, is unable to control riots that are limited just to a part of the national capital, and, that too at a time when India was hosting the American president. These riots will shift the global focus on India, which anyway has been fixed in recent times on the Indian government’s actions and pronouncements on the NPR/NRC and CAA. With shoot-at-sight orders now in place in some parts of northeast Delhi, we can presume that peace will be restored. It will now be incumbent on Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to ensure that the civil administration is on the ground forming interfaith peace committees, and ensuring all logistical help including emotional support that people need at such times.
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Home Minister Amit Shah’s belligerent speeches in Parliament and during election campaigns to introduce a pan-India NRC, and eliminate “termites”, fuelled fears of a life bereft of home and hearth — and a future in detention camps. The NRC campaign was so insidious that even the prime minister’s assurance — that the government did not intend to introduce NRC — did not reassure people. All this was followed by an election campaign in Delhi that was bitter and communal. A minister in the Union cabinet, a Delhi MP and a prospective MLA candidate spoke a language that has never been used even in the most hard-fought elections. No action was taken against these people and it gave licence to Kapil Mishra (the prospective MLA candidate) to lead a mob in northeast Delhi that kickstarted this grim situation. As if to conclusively prove its incompetence, the Delhi Police has still not taken any action against Mishra.
Fortunately, most NPR/NRC/CAA protests (barring a handful) have been peaceful and, while a majority of participants are Muslims, there has been enthusiastic participation from other religious communities too. The most interesting aspect has been the significant role of Muslim women. With a copy of the Constitution in hand, they read the Preamble, sing the national anthem and Vande Mataram as well — a far cry from the time a Muslim MP walked out of the Lok Sabha when the national song was being sung. These women see the irony that as they fight to be Indian, it’s their nationalism and patriotism that is being challenged.
The combination of NPR/NRC/CAA, and the speed at which these were introduced — and the communal speeches of members of the ruling dispensation — have shaken the confidence of not just Muslims but all minorities in India. Christians have long been at the receiving end. The murder of Graham Staines and his sons was not a one-off incident. There have been repeated instances of churches being vandalised, and harassment of the Christian clergy and nuns. The Sikh community watches with consternation (1984 is never far from their mind), and their sympathy with the anti-CAA protestors is evident from the large Sikh presence at Shaheen Bagh, and the langar they have managed there.
Today, Shaheen Bagh has become a symbol of a unique resistance: Students, women, Dalits, and minorities are speaking with a new confidence. They do not fear the police danda or the local politician, nor do they fear being called a Dalit or a minority. It is, as Nehru said, the soul of India, long suppressed, finding utterance. Women at Shaheen Bagh have been sitting in peace and, even in difficult times, they have kept up their spirits through patriotic songs. They welcome visitors and no communal/religious speech is allowed. Stand-up artists, singers, film stars, writers, teachers, come and speak here.
The government thought that doing away with triple talaq among Muslim women would release them from male oppression and that would help with their votes. These women have gone much farther. They speak of the hollowness of the government’s claims to Muslim women, even as thousands brave the winter nights with no one from the government either paying a visit or showing any interest in dialogue. Undeniably, there have been law and order issues during some protests but, by and large, the non-participating public have understood the mood with a degree of empathy, and have borne inconveniences with compassion and understanding.
The fact is, the protests will not cease. Minorities in India are slowly coming to believe that there is a campaign to make them second-class citizens. Whether this perception is true or not is not the question. Such a thought is dangerous in itself and must be dispelled. Government spokespersons have repeatedly said that the CAA does not take away anyone’s nationality. But what happens to Muslims and Jews who are unable to meet the requirements under the NPR (even presuming that a pan-India NRC is not introduced)? What happens to those who are put in the “doubtful” category under the NPR? Will Muslims and Jews be packed off to detention camps or forcibly pushed across our borders? For Jews, however small their number, it’s back to the Holocaust nightmare. There are horror stories emanating from detention camps. Can a 200-million community, or should a population that large, live in fear rather than contribute to the overall development of the country?
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It is difficult to comprehend why the government is not understanding the impracticality of going through with the NPR. A number of state governments have already declined to carry it out. Some like Bihar (where the BJP is part of the ruling alliance) have indicated the inability to adopt the NPR in its present form. How does the government expect the enumerators to collect data then? There is fear of violence, and even if this were not the case, there would likely be incorrect information given — or a simple denial to give information. Therefore, this exercise becomes a non-starter. Indeed, if any attempt is made to carry this out, it would risk diluting the entire census data, thereby harming the country’s planning process.
So, it is of prime importance that the government immediately take steps to initiate dialogue on these fraught issues. The protests are not as leaderless as they seem. There are community leaders who can be spoken to. The government must engage political parties, teachers, journalists and other opinion makers and immediately start a dialogue process. The concerns of all must be addressed and the prime minister’s promise of winning “sabka vishwas” must be upheld. For the present, let it be said, that if the price of proving their nationalism and patriotism is blood, then the minorities of India have overpaid. Jinnah was wrong in his two-nation theory and the India of today shall not prove him right.
The writer is a former civil servant and was lieutenant governor of Delhi
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