The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
As waves of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) swept large parts of India last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party went into damage control mode.
In several states people had braved heavy repression to register their opposition to the new law, seen as incompatible with the constitutional values of democracy and secularism.
The National Capital of Delhi and BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka were the worst-hit. Delhi state has a non-BJP government but its police force is under the Centre’s control.
The anti-CAA agitation has taken a toll of at least 25 lives so far. UP accounts for 18 of the deaths. Among those killed was an eight-year-old Varanasi boy. He was allegedly trampled to death by protesters fleeing from baton-wielding police.
UP’s police chief claimed 288 of his men were injured. He said 879 persons were arrested on substantive charges and some 5,000 detained on suspicion. Delhi police said ‘outsiders’ were involved in the violent incidents in the capital, but did not name any group or organisation.
Anti-CAA campaigners circulated in the social media video clips which challenged the police claims and indicated involvement of pro-BJP groups in the violence.
The current protests are the most extensive the country has witnessed in many decades. Historian Irfan Habib said the repression was of a kind not seen even during British rule.
The protests drew many young people, including techies, who were joining any form of public action for the first time. They broke the spell of fear Modi and Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah had cast on the body politic and even some constitutional offices.
Rahul Bajaj, an industrialist, had referred to the pervasive climate of fear at a recent event at which Shah too was present. If there was such an environment “we need to work to improve it,” Shah said.
Meanwhile Rajasthan and Sikkim joined the states which have decided not to implement NRC. Karnataka’s BJP government said it would water down the NRC process.
West Bengal and Kerala stopped activities related to preparation of manpower register, which is part of the 2021 census process, as the material gathered could be used for NRC purposes.
The CAA vests powers relating to citizenship exclusively in the Centre. However, it is well-nigh impossible for the Centre to exercise these powers without the cooperation of the states.
The forked tongue response of the government and the BJP to the protests suggests they are yet to take serious note of the widespread criticism. While seeking to allay people’s fears they are at pains to save the macho image Modi and Shah had cultivated assiduously.
On Saturday the BJP announced plans to hold 1,000 big and small rallies, 250 press conferences and a mass contact programme to reach out to 30 million families across the country to counter what it called “opposition propaganda”.
Modi himself opened the campaign at an election rally in Delhi, which goes to the polls shortly, He said CAA and NRC had nothing to do with Indian Muslims. He claimed there were no detention centres in the country and accused the Congress and ‘urban Naxals’ of spreading rumours about such centres.
It was a false claim. About 1.9 million people adjudged non-Indians are currently in detention camps in Assam, the only state to have gone through the NRC process.
According to published reports, which remain uncontradicted, the Centre has asked the states to set up detention centres. The Karnataka government recently told the High Court it had identified sites for such centres.
A news agency circulated a purported fact-sheet with answers to a set of frequently asked questions about the citizenship, made available to it by unidentified government sources. It says that “at the national level, no announcement has been made to officially begin the NRC process”.
After critics drew attention to Amit Shah’s statements about nationwide NRC exercise, they were removed from government websites.
As a counter to a recent statement by 1,000 academics of India and abroad voicing opposition to the CAA and condemning attacks on protesting students in campuses, the BJP came up with a pro-CAA statement signed by as many academics.
This does not mean the BJP is ready for a fair, open debate on the issue. Its government allowed the party to stage a pro-CAA rally in Bengaluru but denied permission for an anti-CAA event.