In the first Sukumar Sen memorial lecture, organised by the Election Commission of India in memory of India’s first Chief Election Commissioner, former President Pranab Mukherjee mentioned that the “present wave of largely peaceful protests” against the new citizenship law will deepen “our democratic roots”. He referred to the presence of a large number of youth in the protests and said, “their assertion and belief in the Constitution of India is particularly heartening to see”. And he stated a fundamental principle of democratic practice. Mukherjee said: “Consensus is the lifeblood of democracy. Democracy thrives on listening, deliberating, discussing, arguing and even dissent.”
Mukherjee’s wise words come at a time when influential politicians holding public office have been heard arguing for criminalising dissent. As Mukherjee mentioned, protests are taking place across the country against a severely contested law. The protesters have sought legitimacy by anchoring their dissent in the Indian Constitution. The protests in many places, many of them led by Muslim women, have been reminiscent of the satyagraha pioneered by Gandhi during the freedom struggle. These sit-ins have also been a restatement of constitutional values, with protestors holding readings of the Preamble of the Constitution, reciting patriotic songs and celebrating inter-faith harmony. They have been public acts of listening, deliberation, discussion and argumentation about citizenship as well as the rights, duties and responsibilities of both citizens and the state. These exercises have sought to remind us that democracy is not just about holding elections at regular intervals and having legislative deliberations, but also to be experienced as a process of consensus building through extended dialogue and debate.
However, the making of an informed citizenry seems to have upset a section of the political class, who have sought to demonise the protests as anti-national. For instance, UP Chief Minister Adityanath has been attacking women who are attending the anti-CAA sit-ins in a coarse language reeking of patriarchy. Ironically, these politicians had in the past defended the Modi government’s decision to criminalise triple talaq as an act of empowering Muslim women. Now, as the women show agency to protest a law that they believe is aimed at reducing Muslims to second class citizens, the likes of Adityanath taunt them for voicing their concerns independent of men. Adityanath has also threatened to book those who raise the slogan, azaadi, for sedition. The Indian Constitution and its juridical interpretations allow citizens to peacefully protest and even speak of azaadi, if they do not incite violence. The Uttar Pradesh administration has sought to criminalise dissent against the CAA and put down the mobilisations using excessive force — at least 20 people, all Muslims, were shot during the police crackdown on protests. These actions speak poorly of the state of both governance and democracy in UP. The government should listen to Mukherjee, who has been a student of democracy and spent a lifetime in public life, and rethink its approach to the anti-CAA protests.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines