If the Indian Republic is to be saved from the ravaging of its soul by the dangerously divisive project of citizenship rights, graded by one’s religious identity, which the Union government has launched, then a nationwide movement of civil disobedience of the kind led by Mahatma Gandhi is imperative.
But, it will not be enough for all citizens to boycott the National Population Register and the National Register of Indian Citizens. It requires all non-BJP governments to join in by refusing to implement both the NPR and the NRIC.
Despite nationwide protests of a scale and spread unmatched since the freedom struggle, the Union government still signals its resolve to persist with its contentious agenda. The Citizenship Amendment Act has been notified for its commencement from January 10, and for the NPR, pilots have already commenced and is due to be rolled out nationwide from April.
Mahatma Gandhi had taught us that if citizens wish to oppose a law that they regard to be intolerably unjust and evil, then the peaceful and non-violent way to resist is to refuse to cooperate with this law through civil disobedience.
Citizens, particularly students around the country recognised quickly that if the Union government was allowed to proceed with the CAA-NRIC-NPR trio, it would destroy the constitutional pledges of the Indian Republic — of equal rights, non-discrimination on the basis of religion, and secularism. Spontaneous protests have spread rapidly to every corner of the country. Protesters hold in one hand the national flag, and in the other, posters rejecting the divisive agenda of the government, reading reverentially the preamble of the Constitution.
By standing together in this civil disobedience, citizens of every faith uphold the lustrous core of the Constitution, which is fraternity — the idea that we are all bound to and with each other, that injustice to any of my countrywomen or men is injustice to me, that we must all take care of each other.
History will long remember this moment for how citizens pulled India back from the edge of fascism, through both, the resolve of collective civil disobedience and the public affirmation of their solidarity. By contrast, when Nazi Germany withdrew the citizenship rights of Jews, reducing them to “state subjects”, there were hardly any protests by non-Jews, even as fascism made its advances (except when the Gestapo rounded up Jews who married non-Jews).
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However, this inspiring, and indeed historic citizen movement of civil disobedience and solidarity is unlikely to dent the hubris of the ruling government, or compel it to pull back from its ruinous ideological project which they have unleashed, fraught with the memories and perils of Partition. The brute and targeted repression by the Uttar Pradesh government, and the ugly force used to crush students in universities is likely to only exacerbate dangerously around the country in coming weeks.
What alone can stop the Union government in its tracks could be, in addition to the protests, a new form of civil disobedience rarely, if ever, seen anywhere in the world. This is the federal pushback from state governments. The Union government can perhaps implement the CAA directly through its own bureaucracy. But, it cannot implement either the NRIC or the NPR unless state governments make available their staff for the massive operation which involves house-to-house collection of information.
It will be remembered that political parties in India, except the Left and a few others, did not display the consistent moral and political commitment required to defend the Republic and its constitutional morality at a time when they were most gravely threatened. Instead, they hedged, compromised and voted in support of the amended law for immediate petty political bargain. It was only after the utterly unexpected national protests that one by one non-BJP state governments (even the Bihar government of which it is a part) announced that they would not implement the NRIC.
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There is still a danger of states not blocking the NPR, accepting on face value the Union government’s claim that the NPR is not connected with the NRIC. This is again a brazen official falsehood. The amendment to the citizenship law under the BJP government in 2003 laid the foundations for what is unfolding today. It laid down that a person cannot become an Indian citizen, even if born in India, if one parent is declared an “illegal citizen”. Further, to identify “illegal citizens”, an NRIC would be prepared. The rules under the Act then lay down that, first, the NPR would be prepared as a comprehensive national record of residents, and from among them, the executive would identify those who are “doubtful citizens”; even other citizens could identify “doubtful citizens”. This opens the doors for a frightening kind of communal targeting by even the lower executive and communal organisations which even the Assam NRC rarely gave space for.
If state governments still permit the NPR, they will, in effect, permit a process of communal targeting that will cause catastrophic suffering, the potential disenfranchisement of millions of Indian Muslims, and a permanent dismembering of social harmony and justice. There can be no greater betrayal by them of the Constitution. Following the example of the Kerala government, they must approach the Supreme Court for repeal of not just the CCA, but also of the amendments brought in 2003 which provide for the NRIC and the NPR. If these are not struck down, the only path before them is to disobey the Union government, and invite even dismissal as the cost of not permitting the destruction of the Constitution.
This will be unprecedented, and will doubtless create a constitutional crisis. But, paradoxically, it is only by creating such a constitutional crisis that the Constitution can be rescued from what would otherwise be a fatal blow to its foundational morality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2020 under the title “Rescuing the Republic”
Mander is a human rights worker and writer.