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A cold government

Last Updated : 19 January 2020, 09:53 IST
Last Updated : 19 January 2020, 09:53 IST

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It has become clear that India hasn’t seen so many non-violent protests since the days of its freedom struggle as it has over the last few weeks. Photos and videos of large and small gatherings of people expressing disapproval of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which cuts loose from the secular roots of the Indian Constitution through offering legal avenues for citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have moved to India before 2015, and of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), which leaves crores of Indians without proper documents vulnerable as their citizenship status is left to be verified by taluk and district-level officials.

The patience, determination and strength of the protesters, the creativity and the political energy of their protest songs and slogans, and their renewal of the idea of a hospitable India, the rejuvenation of the spirit of the Constitution on the streets, the cultivation of democratic consciousness among students across campuses: these have been clear to observe in the peaceful dissent gatherings all over India.

The texture of the protest voices suggests a larger scope for the dissent: the assault on student autonomy on various campuses, the removal of statehood status from Jammu and Kashmir, the curbing of media freedom, the menace of fake news, among many other troubling issues, have coalesced with the anti-CAA concerns.

Even as one notices the protest episodes vitalizing India’s democracy, there is no forgetting the tragic turn of events alongside, with the brutal counter-dissent measures of the police in Uttar Pradesh, taking the lives of over 18 protesters, and similar measures in Mangaluru taking the lives of two persons.

How has the government responded to the month-long protests? “Don’t worry. The CAA won’t mean harm to Indians.” “The opposition parties are indulging in scare-mongering tactics.” “We will not budge an inch on our decision to implement CAA.” Accompanying such hardened responses of the government were the efforts to mobilize missed-call endorsements in favour of the CAA and the launch of a 10-day countrywide door-to-door pro-CAA campaign. These measures are odd to see initiated since both Houses of Parliament have already passed the CAA. If it matters that Indians approve of what the government wants to do, then the consensus should have been built and shown before the CAA was passed. The recent measures of the government therefore seem more an exercise to preempt any diminishing of its electoral support base rather than an effort to clarify why the CAA does not pose harm to Indian citizens.

In any case, if the BJP-led governments at the Centre and the state levels are certain that the CAA does not violate the secular framework of the Constitution and that it does not exclude Muslims, they ought to invite the protesters – students, legal scholars, academics, former bureaucrats and diplomats, among others – to public discussions on the CAA all over the country. The reasons for their dissent can then get clarified. Their fears and anxieties can be felt. A process for building a genuine consensus will then have been initiated.

Instead of being invited for a dialogue, the dissenters are being viewed as adversaries of the government. Key politicians of the BJP are warning students not to protest. Film actors, writers and other public figures expressing reservations about the CAA invite calls for a boycott by BJP supporters. The Union government’s silence towards these uncivil gestures is tantamount to their tacit endorsement and will aid in the corrosion of India’s political culture. And its unconcern towards the dissenters erodes their faith in democratic processes and stokes political cynicism.

The protest gatherings have proved a communion for keeping alive the faith in India’s democracy. A democratically elected government ought to work with the new opportunities for dialogue, and not turn hostile to them.

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Published 19 January 2020, 09:53 IST

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