The Muslim community, in short, viewed the course of politics since 2014 as a series of defeats. Determination to reacquire political relevance found expression in the anti-CAA stir, aided and abetted by those who had other political scores to settle with the Modi Government
There are two very conflicting versions of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement that are doing the rounds. Both need dispassionate scrutiny if we are to anticipate the future trends in Indian politics.
The first narrative would have us believe that the anti-CAA stir is essentially an uprising of civil society against a bid by the Narendra Modi Government to steer India towards a majoritarian state. According to this point of view, the CAA may seem innocuous at first glance but in effect prepares the groundwork for relegating Muslims to the status of second-class citizens. Although the way this argument has been translated into political messaging in the grassroots would suggest that Indian Muslims must henceforth prove their Indian citizenship with documentation, the more sophisticated of the anti-CAA concede that there is nothing in the laws for the state to undertake such a draconian exercise. Their contention is that it could happen and a pre-emptive strike to negate all discriminatory practices is imperative.
The second feature of this narrative is that the anti-CAA stir is presented as an uprising of civil society and includes a wide cross-section of society. In particular, it is held that students, Dalit organisations and all minority communities are involved in defeating the Modi Government’s project. It is also being held that the CAA is against the tenets of the Constitution and will be struck down by the Supreme Court after the hearings resume in April.
Initially, the parliamentary opposition was slow to react to the CAA. The hearings of the Select Committee weren’t marked by too much acrimony — although dissenting notes were submitted. The Opposition believed that the main opposition to the CAA would happen in Assam and the North-eastern States and would be linked to the pre-existing disquiet against outsiders and all foreigners — Hindus and Muslims. The Opposition felt that the real pressure on the Government would come from these areas and that the rest of the country would be largely unaffected. Certainly, there was no anticipation that the Muslim community would react so adversely to a legislation that was aimed at benefitting small communities of refugees. In hindsight, the Opposition has merely piggy-backed on a movement that has been initiated and nurtured by community organisations.
The alternative narrative presented by the Modi Government sees the CAA as attending to a long-standing issue centred on the loose ends of Partition. It has proceeded on the assumption that while illegal immigration from Bangladesh is difficult to contain, the issue would become more manageable and politically rewarding if a distinction could be made between refugees who had fled from religious persecution and those who had entered India for other regions. If the refugees were driven by a push factor, the infiltrators were pulled towards India by economic considerations.
Underlying this distinction between refugees and infiltrators was the unstated conviction that India was the natural homeland for all Hindus. The CAA, in effect, guaranteed a right of return to all Hindus of the subcontinent. Coming to the anti-CAA stir, the Government too was taken by surprise when Muslim protests erupted all over West Bengal on December 13 — two days after Parliament passed the Bill — and quickly spread to the Muslim-dominated campuses of Aligarh and Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. Hostile demonstrations were anticipated in Assam and the North-eastern States and the Government was prepared to meet these with a combination of persuasion and firmness. There does not appear to have been any corresponding strategy for the protests in the rest of India. Once the protests escalated, the narrative of the BJP and the Government shifted focus to the composition of the protests. The Government was always clear in its mind on two things.
First, that the composition of the demonstrations and the geography of the protests clearly indicated that it was a pre-planned Muslim uprising.
Secondly, it was also felt that the CAA was incidental to the protests. The Muslim community, it was felt, was smarting over the fact that in two successive general elections, the BJP and Narendra Modi had coasted to outright victory without any Muslim support. Modi had not only undermined the political clout of the Muslim community; he had added to the insult by enacting three laws that many Muslims felt were inimical to their community interests. The first was the triple talaq legislation, the first time Muslim personal laws were altered since 1940. The second was the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, a long-standing BJP election commitment that the pundits felt could never be implemented. Thirdly, there was the CAA which clearly distinguished between Hindu refugees and Muslim infiltrators. In principle, by stating that those who were deemed illegal immigrants were ineligible for citizenship, the CAA has left the door open for deportation of foreigners. The CAA also ruled out the possibility of India granting any form of asylum to Muslim Rohingyas fleeing Bangladesh. Finally, the simmering disquiet over the Supreme Court verdict in the Ayodhya case was waiting to find an outlet.
The Muslim community, in short, viewed the course of politics since 2014 as a series of defeats. The determination to reacquire political relevance found expression in the anti-CAA stir, aided and abetted by those who had other political scores to settle with the Modi Government.
What is being witnessed in today’s India is a sharply polarised environment based on two very different narratives. India is actually witnessing a sharply ideological division which won’t easily be resolved.