The message of the Delhi elections

If the Muslims were indeed considered equal citizens of a secular India, why would government ministers speak so disparagingly, and even scornfully, of anti-CAA protesters who are mainly burqa and hijab-clad women - ranging in ages from the twenties to the eighties - most of whom are out for the first time in the streets, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor 

Feb 11, 2020
AAP celebration after party won Delhi Assembly elections

The Constitution of India has been called "a bag of borrowings", as its 284 founding fathers, who made up the Constituent Assembly borrowed and adopted best practices from constitutions of many countries - from the United States to Japan. The Preamble was borrowed from the US Constitution and begins with the words "We, the People of India", bestowing, with astonishing foresight, the people of the 'democratic republic' ownership of the document that lays out its supreme law and political ideals. Today, the Preamble, and the principles it enshrines, has become the most quoted document among ordinary people of India, particularly the young, and has been read, recited and quoted from a range of public platforms across the nation by protesters against the amended citizenship law, called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In one legislative stroke, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has, perhaps unwittingly, restored to the people a hallowed document that was  drafted in their name, but was so long confined to the forgotten recesses of public libraries. It was, therefore, ironical that the adoption of the Constitution was less celebrated among its rulers and legislators and more by people for whom the latest amendment was as seen going against its fundamental principles of "equality" to all religions.

As the anti-CAA protests have spread nationwide, they have come to acquire a certain identity, with people sympathetic to the cause saying they have scripted "a new grammar of Gandhian protest." Detractors brand them uncharitably as the "tukde tukde gang," a moniker for anarchists, a favourite of Home Minister Amit Shah, or worse, traitors who deserve to be shot. 

For the Delhi assembly elections on February 8, the battle lines were sharply drawn between two pitting ideologies that polarised national discourse like at no time before. An overzealous BJP candidate gave a bizarre jingoistic twist by describing the electoral battle as India vs Pakistan, insidiously labelling the Shaheen Bagh protesters, predominantly Muslim women and youth, as 'Pakistanis' being supported by the ruling AAP. This, despite the fact that the protesters have striven to be non-partisan, with effusive  displays of Indian flags and copies of the Constitution, accompanied by chanting of patriotic slogans, and have been supported by a broad cross-section of the liberal intelligentsia and enlightened citizens. And the AAP, cleverly, refused to be trapped in the BJP's communal polarisation, and made its work its election plank. 

Seventy years after the Constitution of India came into being - the longest Constitution in the world - it is being as avidly discussed, as much as it is seen to be violated. While Modi has repeatedly asserted that the CAA is not against India's Muslims, who number nearly 200 million, why is it that his putative lieutenant, Shah, never misses an opportunity to not just demonise but 'other' the Muslims, using choice pejoratives when alluding to them and saying with pointed venom at one of his Delhi campaign rallies that "people should press (the button) with such force"  on the electronic voting machine that "people of Shaheen Bagh should feel the current".

If the Muslims were indeed considered equal citizens of a secular India, why would government ministers speak so disparagingly, and even scornfully, of anti-CAA protesters who are mainly burqa and hijab-clad women, ranging in ages from the twenties to the eighties, most of whom are out for the first time on the streets. The vituperative language used by BJP leaders, including ministers and MPs, had by all accounts touched its nadir. 

With the Shaheen Bagh sit-in set to complete two months, the reluctance of the government to speak to its "own citizens" is, indeed, baffling. The Modi government has made national security its core governance plank and seeks to assure citizens that the nation can be secure only under its watch. It has adopted a militarised political vocabulary; created a Pakistan bogey to drive fear among ordinary people about a perennial threat from across the border and 'suspect' co-religionists in India; seeks a pan subcontinental Hindu consolidation, and dubs anyone opposing its policies as "anti-national," to create sharp ideological fault lines across Indian society. 

The Constitution's founding fathers, in their visionary wisdom,  thought it essential that, for the proper functioning of democracy, and promotion of national unity and solidarity, "communalism should be eliminated from Indian life", a view echoed by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who told the Constituent Assembly that the "alliance of religion and a most dangerous alliance" and was "harmful to the country". Many saw in the present political situation a battle to reclaim the nation's soul, one that the country, and the world, is closely watching. The Delhi elections, though just a local one, may have given a forceful thumbs down to the politics of hate and division but whether the message goes home remains to be seen.  

(The writer is President, SPS)