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Scars of CAB protests will further burn bridges between northeast and rest of India

Politics after CAB: On the one hand, are principles emptied of meaning. On the other, a clear-headed majoritarian project.

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: December 14, 2019 12:16:13 pm
Citizenship Amendment Bill, CAB 2019, CAB protests, Citizenship Bill protests, Citizenship Amendment Bill protests, Amit Shah, Assam protests, Assam CAB protests, India news, Indian Express In the domain of mass protests, two very different strands of opposition are emerging. One is from Assam and Tripura. (File photo)

Parliament has passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The debate over the bill bears testimony to the significance of the values of constitutionalism and secularism and the importance of icons like Gandhi and Ambedkar. For, in defending the bill, the ideological deceit of the BJP — along with its cowardice — could only hide behind these fig leafs. Nowhere in the debates has the BJP or its supporters shown the courage to say that they want to change the basis of what constitutes citizenship. The constant refrain is that what they are doing is true secularism and that even Ambedkar would have been happy with what is being done.

This situation is compounded by a combination of over-use and abandonment of those same values and icons by the “secular” forces. For long, secular politics has resorted to these values and icons without bothering to infuse among the masses their implicit message and meaning. They have also taken recourse to the selective or symbolic use of these ideological and intellectual resources. Thus, Ambedkar or Gandhi are conveniently used for limited purposes, leaving the public exposed to distortion, fraud and rank falsehood in the name of the Constitution, Ambedkar or Gandhi.

No wonder, the larger public, which was mostly unconcerned about the CAB during the Lok Sabha election (Lokniti’s pre-election survey showed that over three-fourths of the respondents did not know about the CAB), is now willing to be convinced that the bill is fair and does not violate the Constitution nor deviates from the ideas of Gandhi and Ambedkar. Such a complete rigging of public discourse has probably never happened in our democratic history so far.

Now that the bill is passed, what are the pathways of opposition and democratic recovery? The first is public campaigning over values, ideas and ideals. “Eminent citizens” have signed letters, scholars are writing in public media, small groups of activists are trying to mobilise public opinion. There have been more dramatic individual cases of civil disobedience, protest and sacrifice. These are morally valuable, intellectually rewarding and ideologically necessary actions. Yet, they are most likely to lack real political traction. One, because they are isolated, two, because the present regime is not sensitive to such critical responses, and three, because these protests would mostly lack mass participation.

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The other route is institutional. Parliament has chosen to pass the bill speedily. Now if the law is challenged, will the judiciary dispose of it equally quickly? Will it stick to its own basic structure ruling? These are complex matters and have been dealt with in these columns (‘The morning after CAB’, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, IE, December 12). If one goes by that assessment, there is not much to be gained from the judicial route. Another institutional response that has already emerged can be characterised as the crisis of the federal structure.

With the abrogation of Article 370, the practice of asymmetric federalism was abandoned. But the Centre has revived it in the Northeast in order to placate anti-CAB public anger in the region. Will the Centre similarly address anger in Assam and Tripura? Now, some state governments have declared that they will not abide by the changes in the citizenship law. While this might not have much legal significance, such declarations signify another flashpoint.

In the domain of mass protests, two very different strands of opposition are emerging. One is from Assam and Tripura. This is mainly in response to the fear that the change will allow “Bangla Hindus” to claim citizenship. This has the local vs Bengali dimension. This protest has two layers within it. One, it portends a rupture in the sketchy peace brought about by the Assam accord. Two, exclusion of some territories of the Northeast tends to fracture the fragile internal balance among states and communities of the region. This is a huge challenge and while the government is sure to quell the protests, the scars will further burn bridges among communities within the region and between the NE and rest of India.

While, at the moment, attention is focused on this protest because of its severity, another muted opposition, more about the signal given by the amendment, may begin to take shape among Muslims. Because, along with consolidating a Hindu vote bank, the changes unambiguously send a message to the Muslims about their status — that they will be tolerated, but just that. The danger, here, is apparent. Besides the spectre of a Hindu-Muslim divide, this could further ghettoise and communalise Muslim politics. The politics of the Muslim community often shows a tendency to slip into the hands of the more orthodox, conservative elements. Like the Ayodhya agitation, this moment too, further erodes the possibility of a liberal, internally progressive leadership among Muslims. Muslim mobilisation will give the appearance of democratisation but at the same time it will remain blind to questions of internal democracy and intercommunal harmony.

Both these protests will be most certainly discredited, divided, and suppressed. The festering wound will remain, but the system will ignore that. After all, non-secular and non-democratic nations are often built on the debris of not just principles and aspirations, but also of actual people, the opponents and the protesters.

At the same time, protests in the Northeast and among Muslims will disappoint the old-world secularists. While they follow entirely different, and even somewhat contradictory, logic, they do not necessarily flow from the abstract principles of secularism and religious non-discrimination as foundational values of the Constitution. Therein probably lies the most critical lesson from the CAB controversy. Democratic struggles for high principles do not happen in a vacuum; nor do they occur on absolutely abstract principles, howsoever lofty. The limitation of liberalism is that it expects abstract rationality to win politically in favour of principles whereas democratic struggles are mainly about the here and now, which is less about principles. Principles get strength only collaterally.

If one recalls the Ayodhya agitation, besides being similarly anti-Muslim, it was a warning that ordinary Hindus (and ordinary Muslims) were not interested in questions of secularism as a principle or democracy as an abstract phenomenon of negotiation and compromise. Similarly, the idea of social justice could get traction only when it became a clumsy and controversial site for contesting interests of different social sections. The current debates over the “idea of India” are unfortunately happening in a world of imbalance.

On the one hand, is the romance with principles and deployment of icons emptied of meaning wilfully by the supporters themselves, and on the other hand, a clear-headed project of telling one community that it owns this land and therefore the ideas that should govern it. No expert is needed to tell us what the outcome will be, unless principles are married to lived realities and actual group anxieties.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2019 under the title ‘Politics after CAB’. The writer, based in Pune, is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics and co-director of Lokniti research programme.

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