People will not stand for blatant violations of a nation’s principles
“Strong men, typically surrounded by sycophants, are often last to realize that their popularity is not what they thought it was” -- an observation made on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a recent article in New Yorker magazine.
The article is a narrative on the recent India-wide demonstrations and protests over his government’s latest assault on his country’s largest minority through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
This blatant contrarian action to the much-haloed secular image of India that is enshrined in its constitution is the latest blow of the BJP-led government of Modi not only to the country’s biggest minority, but also India’s international reputation.
Modi rode back to power earlier this year with a roaring majority on a reputation that was built on a strong economy and defensive prowess, particularly against Pakistan.
During his campaign for his second term, he made three election promises that actually were his personal agenda. First, resolution of the long-standing Babri Masjid dispute by reestablishing the site as a temple in Ram Janma Bhumi (birthplace) and knocking down centuries-old Muslim claim over the site as a mosque.
Second, abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in the Indian constitution. Third, the amendment of the Indian Citizenship Act to prevent Muslims from neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens.
The Modi government and his party can crow success because all of the above election promises are a reality now.
After years of litigation in lower courts over the right of Muslims to have the mosque against the claim by BJP that the land was Lord Rama’s birthplace, the Babri Masjid case was finally resolved by India’s Supreme Court ordering that a temple be built there. Thus, a cherished objective of BJP was fulfilled.
Earlier in August, PM Modi and his party had achieved a long-standing objective, that of eliminating Article 370 from the Indian constitution that accorded the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Under the article introduced in 1954, the article provided Kashmir a separate constitution, a state flag, and autonomy over internal administration.
That article along with Article 35A allowed residents of the state to be governed by a separate set of laws and rights of property ownership to the state residents only.
It had been a long-held view of BJP and Modi that a root cause of India’s inability to bring Kashmir under complete central control and contain insurgency was this special provision in the constitution.
With a parliament dominated by BJP, Modi was able to fulfill his long-cherished aim of dismantling the special status of Kashmir. With one fell swoop (rather a cover of darkness) his government abrogated Article 370, bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir in two parts, one part (Jammu and Kashmir) being accorded status of state but under governors’ rule, and the other part Leh being a union territory.
His government put a ban on politics in the territory and literally put the place under the lid with curfew and ban on communication.
The last act of fulfilling an election promise was the Citizenship Act. This has been on the works for some time since before Modi’s second term.
BJP leadership had been advocating fast track citizenship for those immigrants to India from the neighbouring Muslim countries alleging religious persecution.
Since the Indian citizenship act does not make a special provision for the fast-tracking of these immigrants, the previous BJP government made some changes in the Foreigners Act of 1946 in 2015 to allow some minority groups that included Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis to apply for citizenship on special grounds.
This change was later incorporated in the new CAA 0f 2019.
The new CAA was passed overwhelmingly by the BJP dominated parliament as well as the upper house, Rajya Sabha. What BJP could not do earlier (because the government was part of a larger alliance), it could do easily now.
A particular reason why the Modi government was eager to pass this act is the resistance to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) from many states including prominently West Bengal.
In other cases, in some states, such as Assam where NRC was a demand of the state government, it led to undesirable consequences. In Assam, the government found that the new NRC excluded 1.9 million of state citizens from the registered, the majority of whom were Hindu.
So, the government halted the completion of NRC in other states until after the CAA was amended. The amendment provides for the inclusion of all migrants before 2014, provided they are not Muslim.
It is inconceivable that in their haste to please its members and the migrants who they seek to help, BJP has glossed over Article 15 of the Indian constitution that provides for fundamental rights to all citizens irrespective of race, place of birth, religion, or caste.
BJP may argue that the law applies to intended migrants from other countries, not its own citizens. Even then, with a constitution that guarantees fundamental rights to all, discrimination made on the basis of religion cannot be made to anyone whether citizen or aspiring citizen.
If the spate of protests and angry demonstrations against the CAA in various states of India including even Delhi are any indication of the unpopularity of the act, it will cost a loss of some political capital for Modi and the BJP leadership over the next few months.
Modi has several cauldrons boiling now in India. The situation in Kashmir is very fragile.
The eastern states are not only unhappy with his new act which they fear will bring demographic changes in their area, but also with their political future.
Neither Modi nor his party can afford any more erosion. But as the New Yorker article referred to earlier suggests, BJP and its leaders may not have noticed in these protests that the party is not basking in glory.
It cannot ride on legislating something that is fundamentally wrong or demonizing some 200 million of its own citizens.
India has touted itself as the largest democracy in the world. Democracy does not thrive by keeping a large section of its own people because of what they practice or believe in. It cannot function as a democracy when a vast number of people face the threat of disenfranchisement.
The good news is what has sustained India so far is its democracy, and people’s direct hand in choosing its government. The current leadership of India should heed to its past and realize that popularity is not permanent.
What is good today may not be good tomorrow. Acts that go against the founding principles of the country cannot sustain its popularity.
People will not accept such blatant violations of the principles and they will speak up. As we go into the New Year, we hope people in India, as well as our own country, will make the right choices for their country.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.