CAA Row: Why Citizen Protests Can’t Only be Assessed Electorally

Protests, unless marred by violence, become an opportunity for a much needed citizen-polity interface. 

4 min read

(The Supreme Court on Wednesday, 7 October, held that the Constitution gives a right to dissent and protest but that such protests cannot occupy public spaces, in a judgment relating to the pleas against the Shaheen Bagh protests against the CAA that ran from December 2019 to March 2020. In light of this development, we are republishing this opinion piece by Manish Dubey, originally published on 18 December, 2019, from The Quint's archives.)

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is not the first contentious proposal the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has pushed ahead with. Seven months into its second term alone, it has criminalized triple talaq, revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, and reorganized Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). In the earlier stint, there was demonetization and an under-cooked Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime.

The moves haven’t gone unchallenged. Petitions and columns calling for introspection were written, protest events organized, judicial intervention sought. In the case of J&K, there were some cautionary murmurs in diplomatic circles too.


Why Dissent Has Been Tough to Sustain

The efforts weren’t persuasive enough for the pause button to be hit. For a variety of reasons. Sections of the polity, including opposition parties and NDA partners with supposedly secular credentials, acted in concert with the government.

An energetic communication machinery defended the official position and strongly counter-attacked the dissenting view, eulogizing the government’s unprecedentedly muscular stance, interrogating the motives of questions and questioners, selectively reporting if not choreographing shows of normalcy amidst information clampdowns.

With the entire response backed by the power of the State and located within a systematically built narrative around the tough legacy problems and conspiracies the government has been combating, dissent has proven tough to sustain.

Whether the ongoing protests against the CAA will meet the same fate remains to be seen. Having weathered similar winds without much political damage, the government has reason to be hopeful, indeed may have been emboldened by it.

Why CAA Protests are Different from Earlier Expression of Dissent

However there are a couple of things that make the anti-CAA protests different.

Firstly, it is citizens, college and university students in the main, who are at its forefront. Some political parties have expressed solidarity, but they aren’t the ones spearheading the stir. This makes the effort difficult to discredit on account of its political ‘sponsorship’ and the taints of such association.

Suggesting that the students are being misled by political rivals underestimates both the intelligence and agency of the youth and overestimates the political parties’ grip over them.

If the political opposition was as capable of the kind of popular mobilization as it is being credited with, its electoral fortunes would have been different.

Secondly, the timing of the CAA hasn’t exactly been sound. The pinch of a long-denied economic slowdown is widely being felt. The political opposition, though roundly trumped in the parliamentary elections earlier this year, has found traction at the sub-national level and is in power in several large states. It is also likely that the CAA, after relative silences that have preceded it, is turning out to be the back-breaking straw.

Protests, unless marred by violence, become an opportunity for a much needed citizen-polity interface. 
Students protest against the CAA.
(Photo Courtesy: Jamia Students via Shruty Yadav)

Could CAA Protests Become a Gamechanger like ‘India Against Corruption’ Protests of 2012?

One fall-out of this constellation of factors is already evident. Several state governments have expressed their reluctance to proceed with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It is being widely seen – despite the government’s assurances - as the initiative where the worst fears of mass statelessness sparked by the CAA will be realized.

Even parties that supported the CAA’s passage in parliament are developing cold feet and demanding changes to it. These could well be the voice of opportunistic antaraatmaasthe inner voice—and the legal tenability of state ‘non-cooperation’ may not be established.

It is obvious, however, that positions on the CAA are being re-thought and that the NRC’s way forward won’t be as smooth as its chief proponent, the BJP, would like.

The apolitical character of the anti-CAA protests and their occurrence at a time when the government isn’t enjoying a honeymoon phase is reminiscent of the India Against Corruption (IAC) protests of 2011 that set the ball rolling against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Some of the leading lights of the IAC have plunged into electoral politics since and the movement itself is said to have enjoyed covert support from those with electoral interests, but its impetus undeniably came from projection as a citizen-driven initiative.

Could the anti-CAA protests herald for the BJP something similar to what the IAC did for the Congress? Difficult to say, despite both movements having prima facie similar character and being inconveniently timed for those in power.


Citizen Protests Shouldn’t Only be Assessed Electorally

The Congress had to contend with a (at least then) credible mascot and loosely federated leadership team from the IAC that strategized and steered it after the initial momentum withered, and a politician savvy enough to harvest the anti-establishment sentiment the IAC had stoked.

Given the names that have spoken out against the CAA, the protests may find capable stewardship going forward, but Narendra Modi, the man whose rise to prime ministership the IAC abetted, collaterally or otherwise, remains a formidable political force and his party, the BJP, is a better-oiled machine than the Congress was (and is).

That said, citizens’ protests (and I do not refer to anti-CAA protests alone here) need not be looked at from the lens of electoral politics and its winner-loser formulations alone.

Unless marred by violence, they can serve as occasions when citizens call attention to their more pressing concerns and the polity has an opportunity to engage and respond. It is amidst such citizen-polity interfaces that democracy is oxygenated and the case for peaceful protest and meaningful dialogue, both so salient to democracy, are reinforced.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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