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View: Here’s what govt needs to do to fix unintended fallout due to CAA protests

The list of towns and cities where Section 144 has been imposed, and are under sporadic internet shutdown, has grown longer over the last few days. The directory of educational institutions many of whose students erupted in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has also grown.

Governments often forget that agitating students do not speak just for themselves. Every student is connected with family and friends outside campus. They, members from different walks of life, have also lent support.

The irony is that many of today’s politicians from the ruling party have themselves been on the other side of the picket lines and police baton. The anti-Emergency protests remain one of the most important cornerstones of India’s political landscape — and, indeed, were part of the prime minister’s formative years in politics. Given this, GoI’s belittling of public anger from sections of society seems unduly arrogant. Hubris has often undone administrations when faced with opposition.

Violence, of people and public property, cannot and must not be condoned. But repressing nonviolent dissent removes safety valves, necessary for the peaceful functioning of society. Sadly, stonepelting is becoming the ‘new normal’ for many protesters when it comes to venting anger against the State. The optics are bad — instead of the rest of India exporting peace and normalcy to Kashmir Valley, it seems that violent protesting has been imported from there.

In agitations against laws that appear to many to segregate one religious community from others, there is a risk of the movement feeding communal polarisation. There is the inherent danger of violent anger being expressed in localities ‘identified’ as being Muslim-dominated — ‘resettlement’ colonies in northeast Delhi, for instance. In this context, the PM’s comment about most agitators being identified ‘by their clothes’ is unfortunate, however one tries to interpret it.

The possibility of protests against CAA being vented solely by India’s Muslims has been clearly negated. Students from educational institutions beyond those identified with the community — like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University — and members of civil society across communities are also registering opposition in the perceived link between citizenship and religious identity. Rather ironically, support for the protests has also been backed by several state administrations that had voted in favour of CAA last week.

This demonstrates that the initial projection of CAA as a ‘mere’ stepping stone for nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) was strategically myopic. The slip-up stemmed from the ebullience shown towards realising an objective, arguably more ‘ideological’ than the three most contentious items on BJP’s agenda — construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, suspension of Article 370, and introduction of uniform civil code. Yet, accomplishing this ideological goal seems to be proving costly.

After the faux pas over ‘Modi ally’ Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit being cancelled, and Bangladesh pulling out two ministers at the last minute from scheduled visits — coupled with the US State Department urging New Delhi to ‘protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s constitution and democratic values’ —the PM will have to prioritise countering notions about CAA being ‘anti-Muslim’.

India is not new to State heavyhandedness. This administration, though, driven by ideology more than previous ones, could trigger further social polarisation. These protests cannot continue indefinitely, and probably won’t result in the government conducting a ‘rollback’ with CAA. But the time in retreat could provide an opportunity to those opposing the law to broaden their concerns. Just as it happened with the anti-Emergency movement against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, when issues kept being added to the original charter. From perpetually being in T20 mode — and winning those ‘matches’ — BJP must ready for a long Test series.

As police action in Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, and Mangaluru — where two protesters were reported to have died from police fire — have shown, giving a free hand to control law and order can have its own brutal consequences. The Indian political system is not a closed society, despite large sections, including some from the intelligentsia, finding authoritarian action justifiable. The protesters may be in a minority, but this is a loud minority that can gain critical mass.

It is time for BJP to take its own words seriously. After re-election in May, the PM advised his party colleagues to ‘win even those who did not vote for the party’. There is no better time than now to walk that talk.

Source: Economic Times