- Supriya Bansal
The Death of Liberty in the World’s Largest Democracy
This article comments on the protests against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. As Supriya notes, undocumented immigrants who entered India prior to 2014, with the notable exception of Muslims, can now access a legal fast track to claim Indian citizenship. Thus, it has been understood as intentionally discriminating on the basis of religion, provoking outrage and concerns that many poor Muslim Indians may be rendered stateless. Supriya is an MPhil candidate in criminological research at the University of Cambridge.
The ideal of protest is deeply embedded within India’s democratic identity. In the years leading up to its independence, Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi became a global icon for the ideal of non-violent activism: with his assassination in newly independent India in 1948 (at the hands of a Hindu extremist) he became a martyr who would inspire activists for generations to come. His exalted status in Indian public life continues to this day, with his face on currency and his legacy lauded. What is ironic therefore, is that the nation’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a member of the same nationalist organization (RSS) that has Gandhi’s assassin amongst its alumni. This shift is representative of India’s broader decline from a nation founded as a secular home for citizens of all faiths to an increasingly intolerant Hindu Rashtra that aggressively oppresses its Muslim minority population and represses protest from many of its dissenters.
The ideal of protest is deeply embedded within India’s democratic identity.
As India’s government continually violates legal procedures, under the pretext of maintaining public peace, conflicted judicial processes fail to ensure accountability. The reviled Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a colonial-era law written to justify repression, is frequently used to crush democratic dissent. According to section 144, authorities can prohibit assembly and protests if they fear public disorder or imminent violence. In practice, this has been used to enforce curfew restrictions, impose internet shutdowns, use excessive force, detain protestors, track whistle-blowers, and blatantly undermine freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Under the current governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a populistic Hindu nationalist agenda has come to the fore. With unprecedented state control of India’s major media broadcasters, a national campaign was led against all forms of protest and demonstration. This involved the extensive tracking of agitators, the unlawful enforcement of section 144, internet shutdowns, and, crucially, the suppression of the anti-CAA movement.
The Citizenship Amendment Act was passed into law in 2019, altering the foundations of India’s constitutional promise to its citizens. The act gives all irregular immigrants, but Muslims, a right of passage to citizenship, challenging the ‘unity in diversity’ upon which Nehru and Gandhi founded India as a democratic independent state over seventy years ago. In cooperation with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Home Minister said that the CAA would throw away ‘termites’ that could infect our holy land.
With millions of people lacking official proof of citizenship, this hateful rhetoric could have been legally enabled but, within a few days of its passing, anti-government student activists coalesced into one of the largest student protests in Indian history. The government response was extreme; the internet was shut down, peaceful protests prohibited and broadcasters warned against the promotion of an ‘anti-national’ attitude. Furthermore, police stood by as Muslim neighbourhoods were ransacked and even a year after a pro-government mob attacked Jawaharlal Nehru University, not a single person has been arrested.
The effect of these protests has seeped into the everyday lives of Indians, where the generational divide on political issues materialises in domestic divisions in many people’s family homes. Growing up in a right-wing, Hindu nationalist family, ideological conflict was constant. For me, determined debates over the fundamental rights of people from different economic and social demographics was a characteristic part of everyday life. These naturally intensified with the backdrop of national CAA protests. The fundamental natural rights to life and liberty, that seem utterly obvious and easily communicable, become difficult to justify to those who firmly believe in the criminality of a religion or social caste. How do you explain something as basic and fundamental as a person’s right to life?
India, like all nation-states, has a real problem with the reckless sanctification of its political leaders. With the help of a compliant media, that is now, more than ever, under the government’s influence, the BJP has continually vilified protests and protesters. Exploiting ideological divisions, the government condemns all critical voices as ‘anti-nationalist’ and thus defames them in the eyes of the masses. Indian news programs ably assist in this criminalisation narrative by passionately disavowing them with bogus claims. The manipulated masses react in turn by harassing protestors who they have dehumanised. More than a few times, I have heard my family criticise protesters for being ‘anti-nationalist’ for taking to the streets to question our country and its constitution. Every supportive post that I share on my social media leads to a flurry of DMs accusing me of being a desh-drohi (traitor to the nation) and a Muslim. This polarised political culture threatens our democracy by conflating anti-nationalism with anti-government sentiment to limit our right to question authority.
Democracy should be of the people, for the people and by the people. While the government in India is elected through free and fair elections, the suppression of dissent, discriminatory legislation and blatant violations of human rights threaten its democratic character. A country that constantly and violently meets protest with repression, introduces discrimination under the veil of advancement and condemns political accountability as anti-nationalism cannot fairly be called ‘the world’s largest democracy’.
Between the infringements on basic constitutional rights and the toxic political culture that makes me an outcast in my own family, I ask, where is India’s democracy?
 Apurva Vishwanath , Shruti Dhapola , (December 20, 2019), Explained: How Section 144 CrPC works, The Indian Express.
 Meenakshi Ganguly. Dissent Is ‘Anti-National’ in Modi’s India.
 Enkataramakrishnan, Rohan (Dec 20, 2019) “Who is linking Citizenship Act to NRC? Here are five times Amit Shah did so”.
 HRW India: Deadly Force Used Against Protesters