Indifference in the Time of Political Repression

Protesters forming a human chain at the Raj Ghat against the CAA and the NRC on January 30, 2020. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has created a sense of fear over a possible nation-wide roll-out of the National Register of Citizens / National Population Register (NRC/NPR). Such a move will be an assault on the plurality embedded in the Constitution of India. A likely result, it is feared, will be a sense of loss of belonging by vulnerable communities and minorities - especially Muslims - who will struggle to prove their citizenship. However, despite a number of protests taking place in all regions of the country, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains unmoved. Even worse, it has been obfuscating the issue, speaking in many voices, creating panic with its belligerent stand, and lacking in honest two-way communication.
In this article, Jharna Pathak, Assistant Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, sounds a note of caution that unless such shrill notes of populism are effectively countered by the nation’s intellectual and popular leadership, combined with an effective call to defend the Constitution's basic character, the idea of India as a secular and progressive democracy would be destroyed.

1. Background

Right-wing populism has, of late, shaken the very foundations of democracy in various countries including Ukraine, Brazil, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Elected right-wing leaders have become increasingly autocratic. Bolstered by vast referendums in their favour, they have hollowed out institutions of liberal democracy with corrupt practices. They have wielded state power without the necessary checks and balances against their own citizens, stripping them of social justice (Krastev, (2014) and Temelkuran, [2019]).

Related Article: Seshadri, E. 2020. "CAA and the Devaluation of Secular India", The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, February 12.
Related Resource: Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India. 2019. "The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 [PDF 645 KB]", December 19.
Press Information Bureau, Government of India. 2020. "Official Release: CAA - 12 Key Points to Remember", February 20.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). 2020. "USCIRF Releases New Factsheet on India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act", February 20.
Supreme Court of India. 2020. "Application for Intervention",, March 5.

They have also chipped away, little by little, at the basic rights and freedoms granted by the constitution in the name of national interest and security. If people had understood their machinations, they would have protested publicly in large numbers and the governments there would not have had their way. However, in reality these governments were able to nip all protests in the bud with the use of force and the support of pliant media platforms and adoring fans.

In 1965, the U.S. economist, Mancur Olson, observed that a 'protest' is a 'collective good', viz. it is non-excludable as everyone can benefit from it regardless of whether they play a role in securing the good. So, individuals who value personal time, opportunity cost, and the risks involved in raising their voice against the state higher than the collective good prefer to sit back and let someone else take to the streets. Such apathy enabled the leaders of their countries to systematically dismantle democracy in broad daylight while being cheered on by docile institutions and belligerent voters.

Read with the implementation of the NRC and NPR across India, this Act will turn the people of India subservient to the state rather than the other way around.

Sadly in India too, democracy and various freedoms of the people seem to be slipping away. Emboldened by a landslide victory for a second term in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and proposed measures like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) across India which are in direct antithesis of the ideal of plurality1 protected by the Constitution of India. Ostensibly the CAA is about granting citizenship to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but it discriminates on the basis of religion: by excluding such citizenship rights to followers of Islam. Read with the implementation of the NRC and NPR across India, this Act will turn the people of India subservient to the state rather than the other way around: Citizens would require to provide a set of yet-to-be-announced documents to prove their citizenship failing which they would be sent to detention camps. Then among them people of all faiths except Islam would be granted citizenship while Muslims would have to scamper for documents, fight legal battles in order to prove they are citizens of India. It is quite clear that the state has put in place these invidious measures to polarise the electorate and consolidate the ruling party’s votes but in the process they it has inflicted a grievous tear on the secular fabric of the country.

2. CAA and government obfuscation  

That the state has no legitimacy in formulating discriminatory measures such as the CAA, NPR, and NRC has been extensively documented and debated (Rodrigues, 2020; Prasanna, 2018).

The principle of secularism is embedded in the Constitution of India which entitles every person in India, not only citizens, to the equal protection of the law. The principle of equal protection and treatment of the law prohibits the government from distinguishing between two groups of people unless the distinction is reasonable and non-arbitrary, and a clear purpose can be provided by the government for making the classification. These are fundamental constitutional principles that any Indian law has to comply with. However, the CAA plainly contravenes this important constitutional principle.

Though certain groups of people (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) from these three countries are granted immunity from being deemed illegal migrants and are given a fast track to Indian citizenship, another group of individuals (Muslims) from these countries will continue to be prosecuted as illegal migrants. The assumption behind the CAA is that India is a Hindu Rashtra and no Hindu, even if a citizen of another country, can be considered an outsider, and that India will welcome Hindus who suffer persecution. However, the Constitution of India allows no such differentiation. In response to any potential challenge to the law before the Supreme Court of India, it is unclear what constitutionally adequate rationale the government will provide for treating certain illegal migrants differently based on their religion.

A reasonable analysis based on primary legal principles, on the Constitution’s language and on the Court’s own past decisions, will show that the CAA, in and of itself, is an infraction on fundamental rights, in particular the guarantee of equal treatment contained in Article 14. By so doing, the law also lays the foundations for a brutal assault on secularism — a bastion of the Constitution’s basic structure. The Bill was passed with the help of the majority the Government has in both the houses but some opposition parties like the Indian National Congress (INC), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi party, and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) among others raised concerns over the CAA2. Legislative Assemblies in Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala, West Bengal, and Puducherry, passed resolutions condemning the Act3. Some parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and the Janata Dal – United (JDU) that had voted in favour of CAA in the parliament changed their stand when they realised a large number of citizens in their States were angry with CAA. The most emphatic reaction came from Asaddudin Owaisi, MP from Hyderabad and founder of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party who tore the Bill in Lok Sabha and said it was "worse than Hitler's laws and a conspiracy to make Muslims stateless". Another stalwart who opposed the CAA was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader, M.K. Stalin, who led protests across Tamil Nadu and condemned the Act.

In stark contrast, the BJP has remained unmoved and unrelenting. The government tabled the Bill in the Lok Sabha despite witnessing the widespread chaos and fear it generated in the North-eastern States earlier during 2016 and later during 2019. As seen in Assam, the enumeration measures of the NRC have created havoc on the most vulnerable groups of people who have lived in India for generations but do not have the necessary documents to prove citizenship. In addition to Muslims, these would include the poor from all faiths who are distant from the state and its mechanisms – migrant labourers, landless, domestic workers, sex workers, dalits, adivasis, women, especially single women, and LGBT community persons.

In a functioning democracy it is the government’s job to provide its citizens with adequate information on priorities, programs and activities, and thereby foster a regime of transparency and accountability.

Instead of allaying the fears and insecurities of its people, the government has been obfuscating the matter further4. If the government really had nothing to hide it would have cleared the air with clear, concise communication regarding the CAA/NRC. After all in a functioning democracy it is the government’s job to provide its citizens with adequate information on priorities, programs and activities, and thereby foster a regime of transparency and accountability (Howlett, Jonathan Craft and Zibrik (2010). In contrast, India has a Union Home Minister saying one thing and the Prime Minister the exact opposite. While the Home Minister has time and again reiterated that his government would do a nationwide NRC, the Prime Minister said there had never been any discussion about NRC since he first came to power in 20145. Subsequently, even the Home Minister changed his stance and said there was no plan for a nationwide NRC just yet.

Such flip-flops do not give confidence and when NRC is not outright denied, it could be a case of being implemented in the future, if not in present. Though there is clear evidence that there are a number of detention centres already in existence6, the PM denied their existence completely and repeatedly blamed the Congress and 'urban Naxals' (a pejorative phrase coined to denote individuals, thinking public or anyone who has a reasoned view against the government) are responsible for spreading this canard. In order to buttress his claim further the PM also cherry picked a quote from Mahatma Gandhi which said "Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan have full right to come to India if they are fleeing persecution."7 It was partition time when he said that but it was only a part of what he had been advocating. Ravish Kumar (2020) elaborates from Gandhiji's prayer discourses of July 10, 19478.

"If people flee their homes in Sindh and other places out of fear and come here, shall we turn them away? Welcome them saying, this too is your country just as that is your country. This is how we should deal with them. If nationalist Muslims are also forced to leave Pakistan and come here, then they too will live here. As Hindustanis, we all have the same standing. If this cannot be, then Hindustan cannot come into being."

The Mahatma had been advocating Hindu-Muslim amity and wished that Muslims who had been forced to go to Pakistan against their will would feel safe enough to return. However, the Prime Minister omitted this part. The booklet, which came out later and is also available on the official website of the BJP, also commits the same mischief9. Taking a cue from these leaders, other BJP leaders addressing rallies have sought to pin the blame on the Congress and other opposition parties of misguiding people when BJP supporters attending their rallies do not even know what CAA/NRC stand for10. Not satisfied with the half-truths and lies that keep the ill-informed citizenry on tenterhooks, some BJP leaders have taken to dog-whistling and even issued open threats and warnings to the minorities.

Not satisfied with the half-truths and lies that keep the ill-informed citizenry on tenterhooks, some BJP leaders have taken to dog-whistling and even issued open threats and warnings to the minorities.

Sebastian (2020) documented hate speeches by BJP leaders11. If the BJP-ruled Karnataka’s Minister for Tourism, C.T. Ravi, said: "The majority community is being patient. This does not mean that you can provoke people"12, the party’s Bengal President, Dilip Ghosh, threatened to shoot and kill anti-CAA protesters who ostensibly damaged public property: "Our governments in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Assam and Karnataka shot these people like dogs."13 Another BJP leader in UP, Raghuraj Singh, while addressing a pro CAA rally in Aligarh threatened to bury alive all those who raised slogans against the PM or the CM of UP14. Such threats from mainstream politicians obviously do nothing but exacerbate tensions between communities and breed hatred among people.

This government seems to be a master of misinformation and chaos; fostering an atmosphere of insecurity among people by not quelling rumours that even documents issued by the government like passport, voter ID, Aadhaar and PAN cards are not proof(s) of citizenship. The reports of on-going construction of detention camps in States across India, for those declared "illegal", are alarming and chilling, to say the least. Though these measures are likely to directly affect the vulnerable people the most, it is not that the non-vulnerable, privileged sections are likely to escape the consequences either. They will have to spend considerable time, effort and money in order to collect documents and prove their citizenship.

3. Protests by brave collectives

There is a section that understands the likely impact of such draconian measures on the country and chose to protest. However, in States where police control rests with the BJP, the fundamental right of people to dissent was sought to be throttled at the maximum15. They resorted to measures such as the imposition of Sec-144 and/or refusal to grant permissions to hold protests or perform a sit-in protest16. While protests in States not ruled by the BJP remained largely peaceful, there were reports of arson and violence in these [BJP-ruled] States. In UP, there were reports of police excesses and they were seen looting and vandalising private and public property17. There are also reports that in order to malign the image of peaceful protests some elements mingled with the demonstrators and indulged in arson, there is no direct evidence that peaceful protesters were in the wrong18.

In a normal world, such violent acts would have met with widespread revulsion and condemnation. However, as has been commonplace in these manipulated times, sections of the mainstream media which have been pliant, wittingly or unwittingly, and impudently partisan handles on social media defended such acts of brutal repression. They did not disappoint the dominant party by justifying blatant state violence; wackily argued that the police had no choice as the protests had turned violent. Even if one were to assume that the protesters were guilty of arson, there is no justification for the police to equate them with criminals and kill or maim them. This false equivalence breaks down when it is recognised that while the police are armed and the state is all too powerful, the anger if any by the people is borne out of despair and is no match to state power either in magnitude or brutality. Moreover, protests held in States not controlled by the BJP have not turned violent as yet, so these acts of violence cannot be seen in isolation. 

4. Opportunistic institutions and fence-sitters

While there are docile media that aggressively peddle the government agenda, the infamous IT cell of the BJP is also working tirelessly on the social media spreading humongous fake news aiming to drive a wedge between communities. Besides, there are intellectuals, elites, liberals who in a risk-free environment talk about upholding Gandhian values, virtues of brotherhood and love and adhering to the Constitution, but capitulate at the slightest whiff of danger. Celebrities and sports stars, barring a few, have joined the state bandwagon. Even the administration, police, and the judiciary seem to have succumbed to state pressure. One can imagine the pressure on them but when they bow down to the state they inevitably extend legitimacy to it.

Celebrities and sports stars, barring a few, have joined the state bandwagon. Even the administration, police, and the judiciary seem to have succumbed to state pressure.

In Ahmedabad too, the police promulgated Sec 144 to deter and criminalise the basic right to demonstrate peacefully19. While activists and students demonstrating peacefully against CAA, NPR, and NRC in Ahmedabad were detained by the police, when the Nagarik Samiti, supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, organised a meeting in support of CAA, the police not only granted them permission but made elaborate arrangements to allow the Chief Minister and BJP leaders to deliver aggressive speeches outside, of all the places, the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad!20 None other than the CM of Gujarat gave a fiery speech. Harping on the theme of persecution of Hindus in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan and even in Kashmir, he thundered: "Muslims can go to any of the 150 countries, but there in only country for the Hindus, and that is India". That the audience was quite receptive can be gauged from the aggressively chanting of "Jai Shri Ram" by his audience. The incongruity of such a vulgar display of deep rooted hatred and venom for Muslims outside the Ashram of the father of the nation, the apostle of peace, was utterly lost on the State administration.

The incongruity of such a vulgar display of deep rooted hatred and venom for Muslims outside the Ashram of the father of the nation, the apostle of peace, was utterly lost on the State administration.

Previously too, some peaceful protesters had met a similar fate21. In three separate incidents police had detained the protesters for a few hours before letting them off. Some academicians and concerned citizens had signed a letter of solidarity demanding the abrogation of the CAA and cancellation of NRC22. Even such a benign act of democratic exercise of right to dissent seemed to have irked the authorities. As if on a cue in just a few days after signing this petition a report published in the Gujarat Samachar  said that unnamed BJP sources have confirmed that BJP has taken it upon itself to keep a watch on 67 such professors from various institutes23. It seems fair to conclude that this appears to be done to have a chilling effect on the protesters. In contrast, business was as usual for other people in the city. Not only were they unconcerned with the unconstitutional measures taken by the government to curb dissent, they seem to have been unable to grasp the enormity of what the government wants to force down a nation’s throat. Protests seemed to find little favour even among citizens who themselves are going to be affected. This appalling lack of awareness about the assault on India’s democratic values could be because the thought leaders and persons of influence have let their guards down at a moment of grave and present danger to the country’s founding principles.

For example, in Ahmedabad,  the trustees of Gandhi Ashram24 not only denied permission to senior journalist and activist Nachiketa Desai – who also happens to be the grandson of Mahadev Desai, who was the personal secretary to the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi – after he launched a protest against the alleged police atrocities during the anti-CAA and NRC agitations in the country but, in sharp irony, allowed permission to BJP leaders to organise Gandhi Sankalp Yatra. Later one of the trustees justified what they had done by saying that they had decided not to allow protests to happen within the premises of the Ashram since 200225. Surely, protests are political and so was the Sankalp Yatra. If one type of politics is disallowed, then so should another. In it the BJP leaders had equated our Prime Minister with Gandhiji and had also talked about Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Surely then this was a political event by any standards. Elsewhere, another trustee clarified that the work of the trust committee was to ensure that the original works of Mahatma Gandhi were not tampered with and preserved in pristine condition and bleated it was not their job to protest26. Irked, Historian Ramachnadra Guha remarked27.

"After May 2014, you (Sarabhai and other trustees) should have kept the PM at arm's length. Was he fond of Gandhi before he became PM? He misused Gandhi's name to promote himself,"

In another incident, at Gujarat Vidyapith, an university founded by Mahatma Gandhi, some students wanted to fly kites with anti CAA slogans displayed on them on the day of Uttrayan, the kite flying festival of Gujarat28. However, they were not allowed to do so by the police29. Whether the authorities of Gujarat Vidyapith informed or asked the police to do so is unclear, but surely they did not stop them from doing so either. It is indeed a travesty that while Gandhiji’s whole life had been spent in protesting injustice, the custodians of his institutes and heritage are uneasy at the prospects of activities that are in opposition to the State. Such pusillanimity is not typical of Gandhiji’s institutes or Gujarat’s institutes but is endemic across the country.

Despite all this, the poorly informed common man in the street is unable to and has no inclination to understand the Act and its implication on his and the life of his countrymen. Apart from a few brave souls who venture out to protest or vent their heartfelt anguish and disappointment on social media, the majority remained indifferent and dormant at best or sided with the state at worst. It is disturbing to note that the public at large pillories the protesters calling them nuisance-mongers and troublemakers who comprise people who have a lot of time on their hands with nothing better to do. It is not new for elites to look down upon such large-scale protests led by students and activists.

The state derives its power from such indifferent people and emboldens their leaders to indulge in political dog-whistling. Subsequently, the majority uncritically accepted this state propaganda equating protesters with criminals and, therefore, justifying the use of violence against them. In internalising the brutal use of force by the police as normal, police practices that are anti-democratic, imperialistic, and unjust are legitimised. That is a dangerous development as the situation on the ground is entirely different. Protesters venture out on the street despite a lot of covert and overt threats. For merely wanting to exercise their democratic right to protest, the protesters are only detained and let go after either filing (or, at times, not filing) an FIR against them if they are lucky. If they are not they may be attacked violently by a brutal police and risk death and injury in tear gas shelling/firing. To deter them further, the state profiles them using sophisticated surveillance tools.

5. A familiar modus operandi

The above-described modus operandi plays out with unerring precision in all the egregious instances of abuse and violation of the Constitution by the state; it happened with demonetisation too. Every time the state comes up with some outrageous idea, accomplices of the state, on and off its rolls, vociferously applaud that idea and justify the move with some twisted sophistry. The majority, either too timid to question or neck deep in love with the state and its leadership, then reinforces the malevolence. The state, then, ups the ante and calls the protesters and the communities it wants to target as anti-nationals. The state is taken at face value and the protesters are blamed for all the wrongs on economic and social fronts. The majority then feels it was about to fall victim to a grand conspiracy but for the state which saved them from a certain disaster with its unbending resolve and farsighted policy.

Every time the state comes up with some outrageous idea, accomplices of the state, on and off its rolls, vociferously applaud that idea and justify the move with some twisted sophistry.

At the time of demonetisation, those questioning the government on the wisdom of demonetisation or its lack of preparedness in exchanging the scrapped bank notes or the havoc it played on the lives of people who had no access to bank or bank accounts, were branded as black marketers and profiteers30 the very same people demonetisation was designed to fight and destroy.  The popular public opinion was moulded to support the narrative that demonetisation was truly a war on the corrupt and those opposing the deed were either corrupt themselves or supporters of rabid anti national forces and entrenched interests. The same modus operandi was also visible when after the murder of M. M. Kalburgi a number of writers concerned with the rising intolerance, less space for free speech, and violence against dissenting voices began returning their awards as a sign of protest31. In response, the whole machinery got into action and painted the writers as some sort of a rabid anti-BJP gang out to malign the image of the Prime Minister and therefore of India. The writers were collectively referred to as "award-wapsi gang", their intentions questioned and denigrated32. Apparently it seemed to work because none other than the Union Minister Jayant Sinha garlanded eight men who were accused of lynching a Muslim cattle trader in Jharkhand in 201733.

Also the same modus operandi was used later to discredit opposition to what the government was proclaiming. For example, based on a report by the Planet Labs of San Franscisco and European Space Imaging, a major global provider of geo-spatial intelligence which found no visible damage to any structures, international media and concerned citizens raised suspicion about the failure of Balakot mission strike killing large number of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis and shooting down Pakistani F-16 on February 26, 2019. Indian authorities dodged such questions as unpatriotic34. In the intervening years new terms like "tukde-tukde gang", "urban Naxals" were created to ridicule and ruthlessly punish dissent.

Whenever the Indian Prime Minister visits foreign countries, he invariably pays lip service to India’s great tradition of democracy, dissent, unity among diversity and so on and so forth but in domestic affairs he has displayed that he would brook no dissent.

India, perhaps is seeing this modus operandi being played out with impunity for the first time but it is a common enough method followed around the world by right-wing groups to further their agenda. Whenever the Indian Prime Minister visits foreign countries, he invariably pays lip service to India's great tradition of democracy, dissent, unity among diversity and so on and so forth but in domestic affairs he has displayed that he would brook no dissent. Similarly, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s international spokesperson has written that anti-Semitism in Hungary is falling, but he himself has incited anti-Semitic sentiments35. In eerie similarity with the past and still prevailing methods used to incite anti-Semitism in Europe, hatred against minorities is being cultivated here in India too. American historians Lindemann, (1997) and Weiss, (1996) argued that modernisation, relative deprivation, ethnic competition and finding a false enemy are some of the methods adopted for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19 and early-20 century.

Advocates of the scapegoat theory hold that in times of crisis, people impulsively try and find groups upon whom to assign blame for their hardships (Birnbaum 1992; Marrus, 1982). Jews in Europe served as convenient targets for the majority’s problems (Lindemann, 1997).  Hate speech which referred to Jewish citizens as “dirty Jews” compared them to “fleas” and “said to be cowards and make poor soldiers” became common in anti-Semitic pamphlets and newspapers (Volkov, 2006). Repressive laws like Nuremberg Laws were passed against Jews which removed most of the rights of citizenship from Jews, using a racial definition which was based on descent, rather than a definition which was based on religion (Volkov, 2006). The Jews were concentrated in ghettos and later they were sent to concentration camps where they were eventually killed. The purpose of this discussion is to understand that if unchallenged, right wing extremism can descend to inhuman depths quite rapidly.

6. The Constitution at stake

On the face of it one would, uncritically, surmise that majoritarian politics is gaining traction. Although it lost the elections to the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly, the BJP got an increased vote share. In addition, a recent ABP-CVoter Survey claimed that a majority of voters was in favour of CAA36. On the ground too one can observe that widespread public participation expressing reservations against CAA/NRC are yet to gain full and focused momentum required for a national rallying call. As a result the Prime Minister and his government did not beat a hasty retreat from their position on CAA37. However, the protests seemed to have aroused some consternation among the BJP leadership that the Prime Minister did seem to change his strategy and appeared to try and mollify the citizens of the country by denying the existence of either the detention centres or the possibility of NRC being implemented countrywide. Maybe the change was a response to the image of his government being sullied in the international media.

Whatever maybe the reason this could be used as an opportunity to further strengthen the opposition to CAA/NRC because an authoritarian regime like this would not stop till the majoritarian will and control is thrust down upon all. The major purpose of modem authoritarian regimes is to establish the domination of political elites over society by arresting, subverting or destroying autonomous individual, collective and institutional behaviour and thereby, enhancing the authoritarian power at the expense of autonomy (Perlmutter 1981). Though the authoritarian regime tries to destroy disorderly and potentially anti-authoritarian types of group behaviour, it is dedicated to integrating other citizens and interest groups, political parties and social movements into the state. It does this by infiltrating and subverting these groups and inducing them to become the part of the newly formed organisations aimed at political mobilization. In other words, authoritarian regimes attempt to co-opt, subdue or eliminate all sources of political power outside the state system. Linz (2000: 167, 165) notes that one of the things upon which such regimes rest is popular mobilisation that is limited, exclusionary and restrictive.

This government has also, since 2014, shown all strains of authoritarianism in its style of governance. A major example of this is demonetisation. On November 8, 2016, it pulled out 500 and 1000 rupee notes as a legal tender without any prior warning and notification. It is widely believed that government went ahead with its decision of demonetisation arbitrarily without widespread consultation even among their own cabinet and against the advice of economists and bankers. Despite demonetisation causing widespread misery and anxiety, the government was able to convince its citizens that demonetisation would act as a deathblow to corruption and would aid in recovery of black money. When it started becoming clearer that demonetisation would not yield the promised goals, the government machinery spun further yarns tales that it would stop illegal activities like forgery and stop terror funding, and that the real aim of demonetisation was to change the behaviour of citizens from cash to digital payments.

Post demonetisation, the GDP declined from 8.2 per cent in 2016-17 to 4.5 per cent in July-September 2019 (Nagaraj, 2019). Investment rate which had peaked at 38 per cent of GDP in 2007-08 declined to 30 per cent of GDP a decade later in 2017-18. Corresponding figures for the saving rate are 36 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively. A secular decline is discernible in (i) industrial capacity utilisation (ii) a rise in the value of stalled investment projects (Nagaraj, 2016) and (iii) Job losses in the range of 6.2 million (Kannan and Ravindran, 2019) to 15.5 million (Himanshu, 2019). Subramanian (2019) showed that decline in per capita personal consumption, expectedly, translated into a rise in absolute poverty. Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) later said "The RBI's concern that costs of demonetisation will outweigh benefits" was conveyed to the government (Raghuram, 2017). The RBI offered an opinion on alternative approaches to note ban". He also added that the GDP and informal economy have both suffered due to note ban and demonetisation hasn't been able to identify black money hoarders38.

Emboldened by their docility, the state has violated the basic spirit of the Constitution on a number of occasions, viz. Aadhaar, scrapping of the Article 370, and now the CAA.

Despite such gross mismanagement, there was only a section of the people who complained and raised their voices. The majority, however, were solidly backing the government and cheering the move. Apparently they either swallowed the government propaganda hook, line, and sinker or were too timid to raise their voice. Emboldened by their credulity/docility, the state has violated the basic spirit of the Constitution on a number of occasions, viz. Aadhaar, scrapping of the Article 370 in the Muslim- majority State of Jammu and Kashmir and now the CAA. Parthasarathy (2017) argues against Aadhaar Act that even though the Constitution does not expressly declare a right to privacy as a fundamental right, the said right is an essential ingredient of personal liberty. The same sort of apathy was displayed by Muslims when the government criminalised triple talaaq or when it scrapped Article 370 and put Kashmir under the prolonged siege which is still existing. The cost of this silence is now that Muslims along with other vulnerable sections of Indian citizenry have to fight for something as basic as their relationship with the state. If many people had joined in with the protesters it could well have been that the state would have been forced to accede to the valid demands of the protesters to scrap the CAA and NRC.

Nothing rings truer in India than the observation of Mancur Olson that rational citizens refrain from joining protests in order to avoid risks. However it could well be that at present they may not be directly affected by such blatant acts of violation of the Constitution by this government, tomorrow their time could come and there would not be anybody left to defend them. Rahat Indori’s poem Lagegi Aag To Aayenge Ghar Kayi Zad Main; Yahan Pe Sirf Hamara Makaan Thodi Hai (When a fire breaks out, then many houses will burn; it isn’t as if it’s my house alone) would reminds us of the repercussion of being indifferent in times of repression. Baxi (2019) also urges the rational citizens or in other words the fence sitters to aim for a ‘foolish excellence’ in adhering to the tenets of the Constitution. Ricoeur and Escobar, (2004) was also concerned with the frightening prospects created for the vulnerable communities and called on the fence sitters to develop an ethical conscience. He thought of it as a responsibility of the privileged class to be willing to make sacrifices for the vulnerable because in safeguarding the freedoms of the vulnerable, lies the probability that their freedoms would be safeguarded. Temelkuran (2016) argues that resistance by taking to the street is the method to fight oppression and the growth of authoritarianism. The philosopher John Rawls was of the opinion that it is the duty of citizens to disobey an unjust law and stand up for what is morally right (Saikumar, 2013).

Sadly however such clarion calls hardly make a difference in India because our society is fragmented along caste, religion, region and language. We are also a society that treats its intellectuals shabbily. The way in which writers who returned their awards were hounded and maligned when they chose to return their awards as a mark of protest would have deterred many from voicing their dissent39. We do not even honour our forces who risks their lives trying to uphold the Constitution. There was not a whimper from the public at large when upright officers were persecuted40. In fact, they even elected political leaders responsible for the persecution.

Nevertheless the current protesters against the CAA mainly comprise intellectuals, students, activists, and Muslims. However, the voice of other vulnerable communities like Dalits, farmers and workers is largely absent. Established political parties led by Mayawati or Ram Vilas Paswan ostensibly representing the Dalits have not pledged their support to the CAA. The notable exception among them is Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan who has vociferously joined the protest. There is no reason to lose hope though. According to Saikumar, dissent will come about when there are lived experiences of injustice, suffering and humiliation (Saikumar, 2013). As and when more individuals fathom they are falling prey to the excesses of authoritarian governance, they will surely come forward to join the protests.

Another observation is that the middle class, as is its wont, is sitting pretty and is not at all concerned with the assault on the Constitution.  However, they will be forced to sit up and take notice because of second hand effects of authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian and nationalistic governments curb freedoms of people by citing security concerns.  They destroy the freedom of the press and censor news that reach the public (Temelkuran, 2016). In India too, the BJP has effectively wielded the sceptres of an unchecked Pakistan destroying India, and of Muslims breeding in large numbers and overtaking the Hindu population; to pass draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Sections of the media are also crawling and the society is bombarded with fake news to create a favourable halo around the government’s performance. The outcome of such actions has been that the media and hence the government is losing credibility41. The government then resorts to some or the other subterfuge to shore up their falling rankings. It does nothing for the morale of the country but does keep their support base happy.

The inability to take along everyone on the path of development also has costs on the economic front.

However, such empty rhetoric comes at a huge cost to the nation in terms of division within the society. The inability to take along everyone on the path of development also has costs on the economic front. A leadership that is obsessed with its own greatness does not listen to the advice of well-meaning people and takes decisions in isolation. Also this authoritarian style creates hurdles on the feedback mechanism that makes corrections difficult. This creates a tunnel vision towards the wrong outcomes because there are no other voices available that can change the process. Also, it will typically favour groups who support and profess their loyalty towards the leadership. In so doing it brings out policies that hamper growth and perpetuate inequality. Lack of trust coupled with poor economic environment pulls the economy down. The economy is already into a major slowdown and when livelihoods are affected people tend to rise up in defiance. 

Finally in conclusion, it is clear India is at the crossroads. It could either slip into a theocracy or become a more vibrant, progressive and democratic republic. This regime has made its intentions absolutely clear. The CAA is the very antithesis of plurality and democracy and is a step in the direction of orthodox theocracy. If people of various hues manage to unitedly fight back these forces of orthodoxy, we could see the rise of a new, modern state which would have a place of pride among the major democracies of the world.

[Jharna Pathak is Assistant Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research and Secretary, Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group, Ahmedabad.The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations she represents. She can be reached at [email protected].]


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The writer is grateful to Ghanshyam Shah, Retired Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Keshab Das, Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, and Amrita Ghatak, Assistant Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research for suggestions and comments on the earlier drafts of this article.

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Pluralism: India's demography is both diverse and cross cutting with religious, caste and linguistic divisions. Historical legacies of state formation in India favour a pluralist polity. Segmented and constrained forms of state power have favoured the accommodation of societal pluralism.

India’s constitutional framework is accommodative in nature instituting cultural rights for minorities and affirmative action for historically disadvantaged groups within a broadly liberal democratic framework. Group rights in the Indian Constitution include legal pluralism in religious family law (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis), affirmative action including quotas (known as reservations in India) in legislatures, government jobs and educational institutions for lower caste and tribal groups, as well as self-government rights for linguistic and tribal groups.  This long-standing commitment to non-majoritarian decision making, plural and egalitarian polity, staunch commitment to the rights of minorities and historically disadvantaged groups in face of partition and extensive anti-minority sentiments were as a result of the vision of the then Prime Minister Nehru and the chair of the Drafting Commitee Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Bajpai, 2017). While pluralism is part of India’s constitution, it does not translate as assimilation or mainstreaming of minorities. A visible, discernible, lively and successful engagement with diversity is pluralism indeed. If it can indeed be demonstrated that there undeniably is unity despite diversity, then that would be the path to achieving pluralism. Return To text.

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