The agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act appears to have gone through three phases. In the first phase, it was a protest against its enactment, as there were genuine apprehensions that the Act, followed by a pan-India NRC exercise, would lead to a large section of society, mostly Muslims, being declared illegal migrants/citizens. There was protests in Jamia Millia Islamia and large-scale demonstrations in Assam and other Northeast states. In the second phase, it became a confrontation between students and the police. Allegations of police high-handedness spread and there were sympathetic protests in educational institutions across the country. The CAA remained the trigger, but it was pushed to the background. Student anger was directed against the police and the government. In the third phase, which we are witnessing today, the movement has been hijacked by political opportunists, separatist factions, fundamentalist groups and lumpen elements. The CAA is an excuse; the target is the ruling party.
The government, in retrospect, appears to have seriously miscalculated the fallout of the CAA. Its success on three fronts appears to have made it insensitive to the simmering anger among the Muslim community. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill 2019, which banned triple talaq, was a good measure for the emancipation of Muslim women from an atrocious practice, but it antagonised the radical elements. The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, ending the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, aggravated the discomfiture of Muslims. Then the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya added to the sense of unease. The canard that the judiciary had been influenced to give the disputed plot to the Hindus for the construction of the Ram temple, with some luminaries writing about the alleged flaws in the judgment, added fuel to the fire. All these three developments — the annulment of triple talaq, the abrogation of Article 370 and the Ayodhya verdict — collectively led to a feeling of anger, resentment and frustration among Muslims. The government either was not aware of the depth of Muslim resentment or was not bothered about it and was confident of being able to weather any storm.
The announcement of the National Population Register was unexceptionable, but it was ill-timed. Heavens would not have fallen if it had been delayed by a few months. It has provided further ammunition to the Opposition which has embarked on a disinformation campaign to mislead people.
The police are presently doing a thankless job. If they take action against the agitators, as they did in UP, there are allegations of high-handedness. If they play it safe, as they did in West Bengal, the agitators will have a field day — destroy railway property, burn buses, attack police posts and indulge in acts of vandalism. It is indeed sad that in most of the states, the governments are not particularly bothered about the destruction of public and private property. The taxpayer’s money is nobody’s concern.
The Supreme Court had, in the context of state governments not taking effective measures to protect public and private property from being damaged by unruly mobs, constituted two committees, one headed by Justice K T Thomas and the other by F S Nariman, to study the problem. The Thomas Committee gave recommendations regarding the modalities for preventive action and for providing sharper teeth to inquiry/investigation. The Nariman Committee made suggestions regarding the assessment of damages. These were accepted by the Court which clearly said that “the liability will be borne by the actual perpetrators of the crime as well as the organisers of the event giving rise to the liability” and that “exemplary damages may be awarded”. Uttar Pradesh is perhaps the first state to have shown the political will to punish those who vandalised property.
The agitation has thrown up some disturbing questions. In UP, according to the police chief, there was a conspiracy to create disturbance. If so, one would like to know its full ramifications. Another senior police officer said that the pattern of protests in the state showed guerrilla tactics. The official version that the police did not open fire, and the fact that there have been deaths due to bullet injuries need to be reconciled. Reports about the involvement of Popular Front of India (PFI) in the agitation are a matter of grave concern and require in-depth investigation. The Karnataka home minister, speaking about the Mangaluru violence, stated that the attack on police was premeditated and the arson was orchestrated by anti-social elements. It would appear that the roots of the agitation go much deeper. Resentment against CAA was perhaps the proverbial last straw. But the movement has since degenerated into a confrontation between the government and diverse elements opposed to it.
The objections to the Citizenship Act are generally unconvincing. Assam is the only state which has reasons to feel aggrieved. There is substance in the argument that the Act contravenes Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which guaranteed safeguards to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. Reservations on the NRC are understandable. While going ahead with the CAA, the government would do well to scrap the proposal to expand the NRC and explore the possibility of settling refugees in other states across the country which are willing to and in a position to absorb them.