December 2019 will go down history as the month of violent protests. The Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, earlier this month to fast-track the process of granting Indian citizenship to members of religious minorities from the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
On December 15 night, pictures of police brutality on students of Jamia Milia Islamia began circulating on social media platforms, leading to outrage and anger on the way police dealt with “peaceful protest” by students of a university. The Jamia protest spread to Aligarh Muslims University and pictures of purported police excesses on the Aligarh campus also found way on the social media.
These protests were over the CAA. In Assam, where about 1.9 million people were left out of NRC, protests were against about 1.6 million of them, who are Hindus, becoming Indian citizens on the back of the CAA. In other states, the protest was because the amendment linked citizenship with religion, which protesters argued was against the secular nature of the Indian Constitution. In some states, the chief ministers themselves led such protests.
But more than the CAA, which does not affect an Indian citizen, the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) roiled the citizens, especially Muslims, who feared losing citizenship. In Assam, the NRC process has been flawed with high margins of error, leaving out scores of people from the register because they couldn’t produce the requisite documents to prove they were domicile of Assam before 1971.
Home minister Amit Shah had categorically told Rajya Sabha during the winter session that NRC would be conducted across the country. The Muslims thought that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is seen as a Hindu nationalist party, had plans to throw them out of the country or put them in detention centres after declaring them as illegal citizens.
Through a discreet mobilization through WhatsApp messages, a bigger protest than that seen on educational campuses was planned after the Friday prayers on December 20. The state governments tried to face this off with imposition of Section 144, which prohibits assembly of four or more people in an area, and shutting down mobile internet.
But this proved insufficient deterrence. In many parts of the country, the protests turned violent, resulting in 25 deaths, 18 of them in Uttar Pradesh. In this north Indian state, one city after the other erupted in violence. In Sambhal, Kanpur, Rampur, Lucknow, Aligarh, Firozabad, Muzzafarnagar and Meerut, protesters clashed with the police, pelting them with stones and even firing at them. Out of the 18 deaths in the state, 14 are from bullet injuries. UP government, led by Yogi Adityanath, who practices hardline majoritarian politics, was indiscriminate in its use of force. The UP Police, which denied opening fire on the protesters, was caught on the wrong foot with pictures of them firing.
The CM threatened revenge. He ordered assessment of damage to public property and asked the district administrations to levy fines of people found involved in vandalism, and confiscate their property if they failed to pay. Police arrested 865 people and filed 135 cases in connection with the protests. It said 500 non-prohibited bore cartridges were recovered from the protest venues. UP DGP OP Singh said radical groups and mainstream political parties were behind violence, and blamed Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political front, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), and political parties, including the Samajwadi Party, for the violence caused damage to public property worth around Rs 100 crore in seven districts.
Two days later, addressing a rally in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed the Opposition and the “urban naxals” for the violent protests but more importantly, underlined that there had been no discussion in the government over countrywide NRC. This indicated a softening of stance. But people didn’t forget Amit Shah’s repeated commitment to NRC, on several occasions, including in Parliament. The reassurance seemed insufficient.
And in the midst of this, the government took another decision on December 24. The Union Cabinet approved fund allocation for updating the National Population Register (NPR) to revise the pan-India list of “usual residents”. The government said the NPR will have citizens self-declare that they have lived in a local area for the past six months or more with any proof or document.
The home minister said NPR was unrelated to NRC and that the data of NPR would not be used in NRC. But the Opposition called it the first step towards a nationwide NRC. Congress leader Ajay Maken said the latest annual report of the home ministry said NPR is the first step of NCR.
“We did NPR but never took it forward to NRC. We made a list of ‘usual residents’ through NPR. But as soon the government wants to link NPR with NRC, we have to object to it because it was not something the Congress had envisaged,” he said.
According to a gazette notification issued by the government in August: “NPR will be prepared at the local (village/sub-town), sub-district, district, state and national level under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.” The notification added that it was mandatory for every usual resident of India to register in NPR.
The three – CAA, proposed NRC and the NPR – have caused uncertainty over citizenship. There’s no clarity on the kind of paperwork required to prove citizenship. For clarification, the government is issuing explainer advertisements. The PM has done good to assure the country that NRC was not on his agenda but these seem inadequate to dispel fears among the citizens.
Some people feel it suits the BJP’s politics to roil the Muslims – it polarizes the Hindus in its favour. In UP, where the protests against CAA-NRC have been most violent, and which has close to 40 million Muslims, the party did not give ticket to even one Muslim candidate and yet swept the 2017 Assembly election.
The Muslims were unhappy with the UP results but respected the mandate. They were unhappy with the abrogation of Article 370 but did not react. They may not have liked the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya disputed site but chose to lie low to show respect to the judiciary. But now they have erupted. Some political pundits feel the Modi-Shah combine must be discreetly celebrating this development because it helps them polarize their constituency. Experts feel some political parties may be exploiting the fluid situation to fan anger.
All this could be a topic of debate but what is certain is this: people are genuinely worried about their citizenship. The government must do more than issuing print and TV advertisements about CAA do dispel the worries and build trust.