The reason why the protests have been so widespread is simple: for 70 years India simply failed to expose both Pakistan and Bangladesh on their treatment of minorities.
Given the context of campus protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said yesterday (12 January) that the young were being misled over the act. He pointed out that the law does not discriminate against people professing any religion from seeking Indian citizenship in the normal course. The amendments exposed the nature of Pakistan’s anti-minority stance before the world.
“We must all know that any person of any religion from any country of the world, theist or atheist, who believes in India and its Constitution, can apply for Indian citizenship through due process. There’s no problem with that… Our initiative to amend the Citizenship Act has created a dispute. (But) it is the result of our initiative that Pakistan will now have to answer why they have been persecuting minorities for the last 70 years. Human rights have been demolished in Pakistan.”
He is bang on. The reason why the protests have been so widespread, even if driven by a thin consensus between some student bodies, Muslim groups, and the non-BJP political opposition, is simple: for 70 years India simply failed to expose both Pakistan and Bangladesh on their treatment of minorities. We were ruled by a fake 'secular' consensus that our own Muslims must not be told the truth about what was happening in the neighbourhood to Hindu and other minorities.
It is interesting that Modi did not mention Bangladesh, for this is where the intimidation and cleansing of Hindu populations have been gigantic. Nowhere has ethnic cleansing been as severe and as significant in terms of absolute numbers as in Bangladesh, where the Hindu population fell from 21-22 per cent in 1951 to 8 per cent now.
While Pakistan may have been more blatant and openly intimidatory in dealing with its minorities, in Bangladesh they have been more systemic in nature. Modi probably pussy-footed around this topic both because he was talking in West Bengal, and also because India has had good relations with the current Bangladesh regime of Sheikh Hasina. But there is no reason why the media and non-state commentators should not point out this reality. That they have by and large focused on CAA and not the reasons for its existence shows that the media is driven by its own peculiar biases.
To come back to our original point, the reason why the current anti-CAA protests have been so sustained is the failure of past governments to speak out against the atrocities in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Afghanistan is a minor player in this, for the numbers of Indic religious minorities residing there were much smaller at all times, even before the advent of the Taliban.
It is ironic that the very 'secular' parties that hid these atrocities in the past are now the biggest political beneficiaries of the anti-CAA protests. But as the truth finally emerges, one can hope that better sense will prevail.
The protests have been widespread due to a temporary convergence of interests among three groups: Muslims, Left-leaning student bodies, and the political opposition to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At the core of the protests are Muslims — again due to our political failure to inform them about what was going on in the neighbourhood. Even the ethnic cleansings that happened in Jammu and Kashmir were underplayed for the same reasons (ie, Muslim sensitivity).
If Indian Muslims had been consistently told about the atrocities being heaped by their co-religionists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, they may have been less inclined to view the CAA amendments as targeted at them.
The attempt to somehow shield Muslims from all inconvenient truths partly explains the virulence of their opposition to CAA. In the Ram temple case, Left historians and the 'secularists' told them that no Muslim ruler in the past destroyed temples for religious reasons, and that there was no temple below the Babri Masjid. Thus, there was shock when the Supreme Court finally decided to give the site to Hindus in a 5-0 judgement last November.
Similarly, they were shielded from being told the truth about the mass ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir Valley, due to which they saw the abrogation of Article 370 as a Muslim issue rather than merely a bid to correct the wrongs of Muslim majoritarianism in that state, where the extension of our liberal Constitution would be a plus.
Our secular parties also mollycoddled mullahs and conservative elements in Muslim society, preventing any social reform in the community. This again is why Muslims saw the abolition of triple talaq in one sitting as illegal. The government’s decision to pass a law to punish transgressors was seen as the BJP’s effort to oppress Muslims further.
As for the student protests, there are two reasons for it: one is the same as the one we mentioned earlier, where they were told nothing about atrocities against Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They thus saw the CAA in isolation. Secondly, students tend to act out of emotion and solidarity with fellow students. In this case, when their Muslim colleagues got angry with CAA, they saw the need to stand in solidarity with them even though the basic moral case for CAA was unassailable.
The irony is that it was Assam that lit the fuse for the anti-CAA protests, since it wanted the National Register for Citizens (NRC) to result in total ejections of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, both Hindu and Muslim. This contradiction has not dawned on the protesters: Assam wants total exclusion of illegal migrants, while the protesters elsewhere want total inclusion of both — the persecuted and the non-persecuted — when it comes to being entitled to applying for citizenship.
It will take some time for these facts to sink into the consciousness of all concerned. But seven decades of living in denial of the atrocities heaped on Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot be easily compensated for in a few weeks of candour.
The Modi government must dig in for the long haul and keep communicating. Where it does not want to alienate friendly governments like those in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it must use civil society partnerships to send the same message.