First mass movement in defence of the Constitution
Most protesters have no interest in bringing down or damaging the government. They demand rollback of a legislation that is discriminatory and violates the Constitution
I am 50 years old and I have not seen a mass movement and agitation like the one against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It is very different from anything that we have ever seen.
I have lived through several agitations of scale. I have vague memories of Emergency. There was excitement in our Vile Parle East neighbourhood in Bombay one night but it was not long lived. There were no large numbers of people on the streets in our area. I remember a yellow coloured booklet being circulated by the Janata Party.
The next period of agitation came a decade after Emergency ended and this was Mandal. But just before Mandal, there was an agitation in Gujarat (I was then living in Surat) in 1985. This was against reservations and the urban middle class, including my friends, went door to door, spreading the message against Dalits. Of course, the protestors were all Savarna. As it usually happens in Gujarat, this agitation turned into a riot and for no reason Muslims were punished.
A few years after that, Mandal erupted. There were two sorts of protestors, those for and those against the reservations. Because Mandal empowered Savarnas (many Indians do not realise that the C in OBC stands for class and not caste and that peasant Shudras possess varna), they were able to mass mobilise in a way that Dalits could not. And again, the upper castes protested the fact that their monopoly was being threatened. One individual, named Goswami, set himself on fire and became a sort of hero.
Around the same time we had another agitation, and this was the most dangerous of them all: Babri. In his autobiography, LK Advani says that there was no violence on his Rath Yatra’s route but all across India, neighbourhoods were in flames and Muslims were again being punished. Two thousand Indians died after the BJP pulled down the mosque. The agitation that preceded the vandalism was long and sustained but it was not like the current one and we will get to why that is so.
You see, all the agitations in India have been for personal reasons. The Mandal and Mandir agitators were agitating for themselves. Whether or not one agrees with reservations, the fact is that both sides in those agitations were standing up for their own benefits.
There has never been a sustained mass movement in defence of the Constitution before this one. Irom Sharmila was an individual on a long protest in support of constitutionalism and human rights. This is millions of Indians standing up for values rather than an individual gain.
Many of the protestors (like me) have no interest in bringing down or damaging the government. It is elected and it will serve out its term and if Modi wins again then he will serve out a third term too. That is not the object of this agitation and it is not our concern. What is being protested and what is being sought to be rolled back is the legislation that is patently discriminatory and violates India’s Constitution and treaties and agreements that India has signed on to internationally. It is true that many of the protestors are Muslims who are afraid that their rights are going to be taken away from them. Their fear is legitimate.
But even here they are not asking for anything more than they already have. They do not want reservations or a temple and have no other demand other than that they not be harassed. This is why this protest is unique and this is why this protest has for the first time made this government uncertain and doubtful of what to do next. It is not in full control of the events that will follow and that is worrying.
This is the reason why the world is taking notice and has put the Modi government under pressure. It is not only Mahathir Mohamed and US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal who are telling Modi to stop what he is doing in Kashmir and on citizenship. India presently has no defence against the accusation that it is bullying its own citizens.
It is only the recognition of the fact that this is a moral and legitimate agitation and only a rollback of its legislation and proposed survey that will bring an end to the protests. One hopes that the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister, both among the sharpest political minds in the world, understand that and do the right thing.
(Views expressed are personal)