Does the world’s largest democracy really require the kind of violent protest witnessed recently when issues can be settled through ballot?
Many parts of the country witnessed unprecedented civil unrest in the last couple of months. And this followed passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) by Parliament in early December last year, which many termed as “communal, divisive and unconstitutional”. The murmur of opposition, which preceded the passage of the Bill, eventually spilled out onto the streets as large-scale violence was witnessed in many parts of the country. The government of the day was clearly caught napping as miscreants indulged in arson and damaging of public property at various places, before eventually being reined in by security forces through use of force.
But not before much damage was already done, not only in terms of lives and property lost, but also to the country’s image as a matured democracy. In fact, for a few weeks, it seemed the entire country would descend into total chaos as some opposition leaders didn’t leave any opportunity to extract their pound of flesh by openly inciting people and even justifying violence, while the government was left completely clueless.
A particular political party in Uttar Pradesh had even announced pension to kin of those killed in police firing, while a few leaders offered to fight legal battles free of cost to those found on the wrong side of law.
And gradually as the unrest spread to a few universities, chiefly Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, the focus shifted to these higher seats of learning as students and some prominent citizens joined the bandwagon against CAA. Not content, a section of the Indian diaspora abroad also took to streets to highlight how democracy was apparently in danger back in their homeland due to the new legislation.
And to keep the momentum going, a few non-BJP-ruled state governments even took the lead of passing resolutions in their respective legislative assemblies declaring that they would not implement the Act, while a couple of chief ministers led mega public rallies, totally oblivious to the fact that the matter of granting citizenship was in the Centre’s list and not a state subject.
With so much of discontent all around, it was only logical that mass media too joined the cacophony by playing to the gallery and interpreting events based on their political inclinations, at least most of them. Social media platforms too were abuzz and they served as force multipliers for many used them to further their propaganda, adding to the chaos.
Taken aback by the kind of campaign carried out by those opposed to the Act, the ruling dispensation too took no time in organising counter-rallies. Amid the din, for once it seemed the country was virtually headed for a split down the middle between those opposed to CAA and those supporting it.
No wonder, foreign media, especially in the West who are normally biased against the country, were only too happy to report how India was gripped by a supposedly popular civil disobedience, thus damaging its overall image as a shining example of functional democracy for the world.
Fortunately, the ruling dispensation chose not to get provoked and the country was thus spared the horror of having to witness a possible brutal crackdown normally seen in other countries under such circumstances. It’s also to the credit of the masses that they refused to be drawn onto the streets for long after actual facts began to emerge. With reports showing how certain radical Islamic groups exploited the situation and orchestrated some of the unrest, the movement lost much of its sheen as it proved that it wasn’t spontaneous, as was initially thought to be, if not manufactured. Nonetheless, the last word is yet to be heard as those doggedly opposed to CAA has refused to give up with Shaheen Bagh becoming the symbol of their defiance.
Now, without going into the merit of the Act, there’s no gain saying the fact that the anti-CAA stir has thrown up some very fundamental questions before the country. For instance, is protest as a democratic right justified when it impacts public life? Or is the right to protest absolute when there are other avenues still open in this country like judiciary to address popular grievances? Does the world’s largest democracy really require the kind of violent protest witnessed recently when issues can be settled through ballot? Can a section of society run down democratic institutions simply because a political party not to their liking has assumed power?
How can violence be justified in the name of popular protest? Even the Supreme Court had to remind the anti-CAA protesters that it won’t be bullied to hear their case hurriedly, stressing that violence had to first stop.
In fact, from the very beginning there was a fundamental flaw in the entire narrative vis-a-vis CAA. Unlike the impression that is being sought to be given, the fact is that the legislation to grant Indian citizenship to religious minorities – Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Hindus, Parsis and Sikhs – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and residing in India was passed by Parliament, hence it wasn’t an executive decision of Modi Inc.
Yes, BJP might have used its brute majority to ensure safe passage of the Bill in both Houses of Parliament, but it can’t be denied that it has passed the due legislative process. And similar majority numbers in Parliament were used by the ruling dispensation in the past too in passing some of the most regressive and controversial legislations like the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (or IMDT) and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.
Of course, one can disagree with CAA, but that cannot be done through show of strength on the street or through violence. It has to be borne in mind that no law is till eternity. Hence, any group that feels that a particular legislation isn’t in the best interest of the nation always has the liberty of applying for a judicial scrutiny, and even start a democratic campaign to influence the next electoral outcome so that the particular law is repealed in the same House by people’s representatives.
But opposing legislation through violent protest is no way to get rid of it, especially in a country that is the largest democracy with people periodically electing their representatives to make laws on their behalf. Yes, the first past-the-post system may have loopholes, but again that is something to be debated upon, and definitely not decided on the street.
One can cite the repeal of the IMDT Act as a perfect example of how laws can be junked by the judiciary, if found “unconstitutional”. Considered a hindrance in detecting and expelling of “foreigners” from Assam, it was enacted at Indira Gandhi-led Congress government’s behest in 1983 before being struck down by Supreme Court in 2005 following a review petition filed by current Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was then a student leader. Therefore, even in the current context, when hundreds of petitions have already been filed challenging CAA before the Supreme Court, there’s simply no justification in continuing with the stir any longer. Rather, the opponents of the Act can start a campaign to influence voters’ behaviour so as to impact outcomes in upcoming polls.
Actually, show of strength on the street is no yardstick to measure popular mood for which constitutional India’s founding fathers thought it prudent to have a Parliament where popularly-elected representatives can frame laws on people’s behalf. Show of strength on streets has the potential to descend into chaos and spread anarchy in the society. Fight issues but democratically and through ballot for ultimately majority prevails in any democracy. Undermining Parliament, the temple of democracy, or any other democratic institution will set a dangerous precedent.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)