There have been signs that anxiety was building up among the youth for some years now. The initial manifestation came with the agitation following the unfortunate suicide of Rohith Vemula in January 2016 in Hyderabad, which highlighted the callousness and insensitivity of university administrations towards Dalit students. At the same time, JNU was simmering: Its vice-chancellor had done enough to damage what is arguably the most outstanding university in India. Harsh actions against students and faculty, locking up of spaces to curb the movement of students within the campus, restrictions on speech caused umbrage in universities not just in India but across the academic world. There have been protests elsewhere too. Adding to this anger is the fact that there are few jobs available to students leaving universities.
Protests in Jamia Millia Islamia against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) provided the spark for an inferno to rage across the country. Jamia was established 100 years ago. Gandhiji (like Madan Mohan Malviya for BHU) travelled throughout India collecting funds to set it up. Jamnalal Bajaj became the university’s first treasurer. Its founders participated in the freedom movement and none went to Pakistan. The university retains its tradition of nationalism and India’s syncretic culture. Jamia’s students have never participated in a protest of a communal nature. To give a communal colour to the recent protests betrays a lack of understanding. Today, students of Jamia are mobilising against the National Register for Citizenship (NRC) and CAA, which they believe are contrary to the secular values enshrined in the Constitution.
It is true that students at Jamia, AMU and some other universities have been increasingly concerned over the repeated challenges to their patriotism or nationalism. Many of these young boys and girls come from India’s mofussil towns. They share the same dreams as the students who may follow other beliefs. To this end, they need confidence-building measures. Quite naturally, they have concerns about how they are, at times, viewed as the “other”. This new legislation claims to help those fleeing persecution abroad but divides communities within. It underlines the fact that Muslim citizens are not intrinsically “Indian”.
It is tragic that Jamia’s authorities did not counsel the students towards restraint. The students had no senior leader to turn to. In fact, it is devastating that the Muslim community has no seasoned leadership to turn to. Its leadership has fallen into the hands of poorly educated, backward-looking, conservative maulanas. And, with palpable antagonism from the government, young Muslims have no one to turn to.
So far, most Muslim students in leading universities have been removed from negative influences. But anxieties and frustrations run high among them. Statements of ministers and ruling party spokespersons that the NRC will be implemented across India have only increased their anxiety. There have been reports of detention camps coming up in some states. The government is pushing increasingly provocative policies and using tactics like shutting down the internet to stifle dissent and free speech. The CAA was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
While the constitutionality of the CAA is for the Supreme Court to judge, the India-wide NRC is the immediate cause for concern. Originally meant only for Assam, it is intended to be extended to all of India. Such an exercise is understandably feared for its potential to disenfranchise millions of Indian Muslims.
The final register in Assam became a major source of embarrassment both for the Union and state governments. The majority of people excluded from it were reportedly non-Muslims, who would now have to go through the tedious and expensive process of appeal, and even then would not be certain of their inclusion. Thousands of non-Muslims in Assam were potentially in fear of losing their homes and being condemned to a life in camps. Faced with a major embarrassment, the government rushed in to pass the CAA to reassure the non-Muslims that their right to Indian citizenship is fully protected:Under the new law all others, barring Muslims, who having come into India (from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) till 2014, are guaranteed citizenship. Simply put, only Muslims’ citizenship is under threat and there will likely be thousands of them who will not have the required documents.
The protests by students may quieten soon. But they will possibly recur with greater ferocity in the near future. Assam and many parts of the Northeast are seething. The uncertainty of the NRC process destroyed people emotionally — some committed suicide, unable to bear the anxiety. They are now burdened with the appeal process, having been excluded from the Register. Once the CAA comes in, there is fear of being swamped by non-Muslim refugees — that will challenge the ancient Assamese culture and burden Assam’s scarce resources. There are similar concerns in other parts of the Northeast.
This week has seen the biggest display of opposition to the government since it assumed office. This is largely because it confirms the fears among many that the country’s government is taking it on the trajectory of becoming a Hindu nation with minimal dissent allowed. Unease among many of us — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and secular-minded people who believe in the principles of the Constitution — will remain. There will be more protests. In all probability, thousands will boycott the NRC process. States will decline the Centre’s diktat, challenging the very core of our federal structure. Where will the detention camps be built? What will be the cost? How much of administrative manpower will be used?
Those of us with some administrative experience know the cost of usual work for conducting elections or carrying out the census exercise. Almost all routine work in field offices comes to a halt. School teachers, revenue officers, panchayat employees are all utilised, causing delays. Where will state governments get the manpower for this exercise? I need not add the beating India’s image is taking in the international community.
The implementation of the NRC will put India in a state of conflict. It is up to the Union government to quickly step in, initiate dialogue with a range of people that should include political parties, Muslims, students and civil society, and come up with some understanding to restore the people’s confidence urgently.
This article first appeared in the December 20 print edition titled ‘What the young say’. The writer is a former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia and was Lieutenant Governor of Delhi
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