When Narendra Modi’s BJP came out of last year’s Indian general election with an even larger parliamentary majority after 5 years of incumbency (despite the economic shambles of demonetisation, failed tax reforms and continuing high unemployment), he looked unconquerable. The opposition was shattered, and he had a full mandate to reshape the country from its very foundations. Several months later, he is in retreat as tens of millions of Indians take to the streets in protest, up and down in every corner of the country. Where did it all go so wrong?
WHAT ARE THE CAA AND NRC?
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) began in the northeastern state of Assam, after waves of Bengali migration (largely caused by war, natural disasters and economic incentives) threatened to change the demographics of the state, leading to deep and serious ethnic tensions between them and native Axomiyas. The NRC was originally intended as an exercise in seeking out non-Assamese people in Assam who were resident in the state illegally and repatriating them to Bangladesh or wherever else they came from. Its implementation began a year ago and the process has been full of irregularities and catastrophic mistakes. 1.4 million people have been asked to prove their Indian citizenship with the necessary legal documents, or risk internment in mass detention camps and possible deportation. There have been reports of people committing suicide and facing extortion threats due to a lack of their documents. BJP leaders, politicians and spokespeople on several occasions said that the NRC would be expanded to the rest of the country. It was widely expected that the process would affect Muslims in Assam the most, but the plurality of people caught out by the register have actually turned out to be Hindu – causing a great headache for the BJP.
Which is where the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) comes in. The CAA is an act which is intended to give automatic Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs who are citizens of Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan – while deliberately excluding Muslims. The government claims that the purpose of this act is to make life easier for persecuted religious minorities in India’s neighbouring countries, but this claim falls apart in two ways. Firstly, the act itself makes no reference to religious persecution or refugees – it is merely a fast track to naturalisation for people who can prove themselves to be Hindu. Secondly, the bill doesn’t just exclude persecuted Muslim groups (e.g. Hazaras, Ahmadis, Balochis, Rohingya and Uyghurs) but also deliberately excludes Buddhist Tibetans and Hindu Tamils who face persecution in China and Sri Lanka respectively.
The bill is widely seen as an attempt to undermine the status of India as a secular democracy where citizenship is not tiered upon one’s faith. Hindus without legal documents will be able to earn immediate Indian citizenship by dint of their religion, while Muslims would be treated as illegal immigrants even if they’re Indian-born citizens. The Assam NRC has already been plagued by incompetence, carelessness and cruelty on the part of the administration. At the scale of the whole country, the NRC would amount to something far worse than even the Windrush scandal, but a million times bigger, creating a permanent underclass of 2nd-tier citizenship for non-Hindus. If an India-wide NRC However, in practice it also amounts to an attack on the poor and most precarious, who will have the least accessibility to sources of legal paperwork and documentation.
AFTER YEARS OF UNCHECKED CONSOLIDATION, MODI’S REGIME HAS MET ITS MATCH
The mobilisations began in universities, led by students, before expanding to the streets of other cities. The government have been forced to make repeated reassurances (contrary to what several of its own ministers and MPs have said), claiming that there won’t be an NRC implemented across India. This is the first serious retreat that the BJP has had to make in 6 years of government. The protests have been met with an increasing crescendo of violence, at its most intense in states governed by the BJP (such as Uttar Pradesh) where the police responded by shooting and even killing protestors. That hasn’t prevented historic levels of turnout to protests against the CAA/NRC in several of the largest cities across the country – even those with relatively small Muslim populations, and RSS strongholds. Trade unions representing 250 million workers went on strike last week, breaking historic records for one of the largest industrial actions in the country’s existence. A turning point came when members of the ABVP (a BJP-aligned student body) stormed a campus by force and viciously mauled students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University inside their dorms while police passively looked on. Since then, a wave of celebrity support and solidarity from other universities across the country has materialised, even seeing Bollywood celebrities visit the campus to stand with students (an industry otherwise apolitical or servile to the party in power).
UNDER THE BJP’S STATE HEGEMONY, SIGNS OF WEAKNESS ARE EMERGING
Of note is the large number of regional state governments – including those governed by parties within the BJP’s electoral coalition – coming out and openly promising to refuse to implement any NRC or CAA bill. Right now, the BJP has a standalone majority, without other allied parties. But its inability to win over its own allies to one of its signature proposals signals the limits of its power. As the BJP continues to suffer massive losses at the state level, this can be expected to carry further repercussions for the central government.
MODI HAS DAMAGED INDIA’S GLOBAL REPUTATION – CENTRAL TO HIS PROJECT
India’s PM emerged as the favourite of the global pro-business media around 2014, when he swept to power with the promise of reforming India’s economy in a more neoliberal, laissez-faire and pro-market direction. Economic growth has slowed drastically in the last three years, and the promised benefits of the reforms he did roll out have not materialised. Ever since the protests began, international investor confidence has been shaken, and this has been reflected in increasingly negative coverage of the situation. A vital plank of Modi’s mission was establishing India as a both a geopolitical actor and a destination for investment on the world stage. The former ambition was derailed by his destabilising actions in Kashmir – met with widespread concern and even condemnation from western world leaders, albeit rewarded with a boost in domestic popularity. However, the latter has been undermined by the political unrest and polarisation unleashed by the government, leading even right-wing papers and publications like the Wall Street Journal, Economist and Financial Times to denounce Modi’s rule as a failure.
THE OPPOSITION PARTIES LARGELY IRRELEVANT, BUT HINDUTVA IDEOLOGY IS FINALLY FACING SERIOUS CHALLENGE
The Indian National Congress and other parties with historic commitments to secularism have for some time now been drifting towards expressions of “soft Hindutva” and making a big deal of photo ops to temples, wearing saffron and refusing to challenge the basic ideological premises of hindu nationalism head on. School curriculums have begun to pull into the orbit of the RSS worldview as well. But the real strength of the protest movement has been its power and strength in co-opting the symbols of patriotism which opposition parties largely ceded to the hindu right. Every protest is a sea of Indian tricolours, and people of all faiths and backgrounds reciting the preamble to the Indian constitution together. For the first time in a while, the very idea of India itself is finally being contested again. Their success in doing so may spell long term trouble for the hegemony of Hindutva ideology.
THIS ISN’T FINISHED, NOT BY A LONG SHOT
Having now retreated from its own previously explicit commitments to implement an India-wide NRC in the face of enormous resistance, the government’s emphasis has now shifted to the next census due in 2021. They are promising the rollout of something known as the NPR (National Population Registry), which would link the collection of census details to the biometric data of the citizens being accounted for. The protest movement and opposition groups widely understand this to be a tool which would help future governments to round up and intern people without documents, so that can also be expected to face wide opposition. Furthermore, the existing CAA itself is now almost certainly going to face a challenge in the countries highest Supreme Court – meaning that the law itself could be struck down as unconstitutional. India’s legal system has largely remained institutionally independent but has a record of hewing close to the line of incumbent governments. The BJP has also tried harder than previous governments to expand the influence it wields over the institution. However, the widespread mass opposition to the government’s actions could just as likely empower the courts to defy Modi. No matter what happens, the future direction of India at the crossroads of secular democracy will be determined on the streets before the judiciary, parliament or ballot box.
By Tejas Mukerji