CAA-NRC Protests Engulf India: How Did Modi-Shah Go So Wrong?

The government initially dismissed the growing opposition as being limited to Muslims, but that changed quickly. 

5 min read
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Parliamentary majority can be fairly intoxicating. An increase in vote share from one election to another can induce hubris.

After passage of Bills that struck at the core of Article 370, amended the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, criminalised instant divorce and the ease with Supreme Court paved the avenue for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the government and Bharatiya Janata Party began believing that none of its intentions could be blocked.

The ease with which the government managed its numbers on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Rajya Sabha, given that there is no such worry in Lok Sabha even sans allies, was however accompanied by calibrated toning down of rhetoric on CAA.

It had not taken long for the government to realise that the script was beginning to go awry.

Immediately after the passage of the Bill in Lok Sabha, on 9 December, Assam erupted in protests. This forced the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, to alter the vituperative character of his Lok Sabha speech.

By then, Bangladesh had announced the cancellation of the visit of foreign minister AK Abdul Momen to New Delhi and its home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan's trip to Shillong at the invitation of Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma.

The decision of India's most unwavering ally over the past few years in South Asia was followed first by reports and later confirmation, of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pulling out of the annual summit meeting with Narendra Modi, scheduled to begin in Guwahati on 15 December.

Internal Unrest, Diplomatic Setbacks – First Signs of Trouble

The twin diplomatic setbacks triggered a sense in South Block that the party's aggressive posture had backfired and necessitated an alteration in diplomatic priorities.

Additionally, the violence in Assam suggested that people had turned against BJP as far as the decision on CAA was concerned. Yet, Shah's modified posture in the Upper House failed to assuage sentiments in Assam and other Northeastern states. And whether lost diplomatic ground is recovered or not, remains to be seen.

Clearly, the home minister was advised that his vigorous CAA-NRC linkage in Lok Sabha could lead to India's backers in the Islamic countries making common cause with the West, with the United States already having issued a statement cautioning on targeting religious minorities.

Consequently, after speaking about implementing NRC countrywide, in his Rajya Sabha speech, Shah dropped all reference to this.

While it became clear that the government had been prepared for backlash in Assam and chose the strategy of tiring the protestors, it certainly was ill-prepared for the fury against CAA in the rest of the country.

The government initially dismissed the growing opposition as being limited to Muslims, with Modi making the abhorrent remark that those taking to the streets against the CAA "could be identified by their clothes".


BJP’s Three Failures in Handling Anti-CAA Protests

The government at first hoped protests would be limited to educational institutions identified with Muslims – Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University – and to localities in various cities and towns recognised as Muslim-majority colonies. It initially helped that violent protests occurred in localities like Seelampur in New Delhi.

Despite use of brutal force in the two educational institutions, in contrast to tactics adopted by this regime while dealing with protests at the other national university at odds with the government, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the government failed at three levels:

  • One, use of excessive force did not scare the student community and protests have continued almost ceaselessly.
  • Two, the government failed in dividing the student community on communal lines – in fact, there was this unique spectacle last Friday of non-Muslims forming a human shield for Muslims to offer Friday prayers on the road outside the Jamia campus.
  • The final point that rattled the government was the swift spread of protests to other towns and cities across India.

Many of these protests have been staged in places not known for a high ratio of Muslim population. Moreover, a large number of those taking to the streets are the youth and this worried the BJP.

So far, efforts to polarise the support and opposition to CAA on communal lines has not succeeded although there are reports of BJP continuing with efforts in this direction.

Despite ‘Damage Control’, Situation Far From Under Control

Over the last few days, several voices of significance, within the party and in government, have repeatedly clarified that NRC is not on the anvil.

Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi declared that there had been no discussion within government on nationwide NRC. A similar statement was made by Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad earlier in the week. BJP office bearers ranging from JP Nadda to Ram Madhav too issued similar clarifications.

Finally, even Modi declared on Sunday, 22 December, at his public meeting in the capital, that no plans had been drawn for updating the NRC. He, in fact, laboured to present certificates of secular behaviour.

The problem, however, is that there are innumerable assertions in the public domain regarding the imminence of NRC once CAA is enacted. Shah, in fact, linked the two on several occasions during the Lok Sabha election campaign and thereafter, till as late as his Lok Sabha speech on 9 December.

To make the clarifications more credible, the government also issued two documents on the Press Information Bureau website.

The two, titled 'CAA: 12 Key Points To Remember' and 'Q&A on NRC' were released on 19 December and 20 December respectively. Yet, this has not allayed fears and protests continue unabated. This poses three challenges for the BJP.


Challenges Ahead for BJP

First, belated efforts to decouple CAA and NRC not succeeding is an indication that people are now beginning to consider the former as the 'root' of the problem and protestors will not accept mere rollback on NRC.

Second, the continuation of a broad-based agitation and not one that is restricted to Muslims is indication that efforts to polarise society has not worked thus far. Yet, CM Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh continues making effort to force a communal conflict.

The third and the biggest worry for the BJP is that people may consider the government and BJP's backtracking as a sign that even this powerful regime can be forced to bend on its knees.

This will certainly bolster confidence of people and they are likely to begin agitating on livelihood concerns.

For long, the BJP has succeeded in brushing these issues, ranging from rising unemployment to declining growth by pushing nationalistic matters to the fore.

The government may eventually control the situation and force protestors to return to their daily grind. But the challenge has just begun for the party.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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