On January 26 1950, the people of India gave to themselves a constitution which recognized and guaranteed a secular, democratic federal framework with equality for all citizens as its basic principle. The British always sought to manipulate the diversity of India into hostile differences as part of their strategy to divide and rule. In 1925, the Secretary of State for India, Lord Birkenhead, had thrown a contemptuous challenge to the people of India in his speech in the House of Lords: "Let them produce a constitution which carries behind it a fair measure of general agreement among the great peoples of India." Such was their contempt that the Simon Commission set up in 1927 to propose constitutional reforms for India did not have a single Indian as its member. The British were confident that the people of India could never unite to produce their own constitution. They were proved spectacularly wrong.
Our constitution has served India well, helping it to survive multiple challenges. But it is not as though there is no criticism of the basic contradiction within a constitution which proclaims the republic as being socialist while it affords no protection against the growth of obscene social and economic inequalities, the hallmark of rampaging capitalism. The latest Oxfam report brings this stark reality home with the statistic that one per cent of India's super rich own more wealth than 70 per cent of the country's population. The constitution does not recognize the right to work as a fundamental right. It does not recognize universal health care or housing or food security as a constitutional right. At a time when unemployment is at its highest in four decades, when a large section of India's children are stunted due to malnutrition, when homelessness and landlessness are a reality for millions, it is clear that there are serious gaps in the constitutional and legal framework which need to be discussed and addressed. These are issues which haunt the lives of the vast majority of the working poor of India.
What we see today is not concern to ensure a stronger constitution to guarantee social and economic justice, but an all-out attack on precisely those aspects of the constitution which have strengthened us as a people, as a country - the principles of secularism, democracy and federalism. In the 70th anniversary of its adoption, the grave challenge to the constitution, and therefore to the country, comes not from external forces inimical to the interests of India, but tragically for India from its own central government. The trident of the CAA, the NRC and the NPR pushed through parliament by the Modi-Shah government hits at the heart of India by linking religion with citizenship. This is the first step towards a theocratic State. The argument that this is only for "outsiders" is disingenuous. If they are "outsiders", why should rules governing their applications for citizenship in India depend on their religious affiliation? If indeed it is to address, as claimed, the issue of religious persecution of people of Indian origin living in neighbouring countries, why be selective? Why only Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan? Why not Sri Lanka or Myanmar? What about the Tamil refugees who may want to become citizens? What about the Rohingyas or the Ahmaddiyas? Have they not suffered religious persecution? If they want to become Indian citizens, why should they be disallowed? According to the CAA only those refugees count who are leaving a country ruled by Muslims and secondly, only those refugees count who are not Muslims.
This is highly discriminatory and therefore objectionable. The assumption behind the CAA is that India is a Hindu Rashtra and that no Hindu, even if a citizen of another country, can be considered an outsider and that India will welcome only Hindus who suffer persecution. But India's constitution allows no such differentiation. India is a secular country which must give equal treatment for all those who suffer, regardless of their religion or the religious affiliation of the country they may come from. This is why the steps taken by the government are against the constitution.
The follow-up steps to the CAA, namely the NRC (National Register for Citizens) and the NPR (National Population Register), are admittedly not for "outsiders" but for Indians to prove that they are not outsiders. With the experience of the Assam exercise, where over 19 lakh people were excluded from Indian citizenship because of lack of documentation, the protests against the extension of the NRC to the rest of India have gained momentum. As in Assam, it is the poor belonging to all communities who are more likely to be undocumented and at risk of being declared non-citizens. Several parties and Chief Ministers who are part of the NDA like Nitish Kumar and the Akali Dal, or those who had supported the CAA like Naveen Patnaik's BJD, have now stated that they will not support an NRC exercise in their states. Put on the back foot, the Prime Minister himself started a totally untruthful campaign that the NRC had not even been discussed, when there is enough evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, the government has approved a revised version of questions for the NPR including details of parents' birth dates and place of birth, etc. In Assam, it is these documents which were most difficult to produce and the fact that the cabinet chose to add these questions carries its own message. The NPR is the first stage of the NRC. This is part of the Citizenship Law as amended in 2003. The rules also specifically make the link between the NPR and the NRC. It is therefore a straight lie to say that the NRC and the NPR are not linked. The NPR exercise has been notified to start anytime from April 1 to September 30, depending on the schedules decided by the state governments which are responsible for carrying out the survey. Although it will coincide with the Census survey, the questions are totally different. Kerala has been the first state government under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to issue a notification putting a stay on the NPR exercise. It is only logical for other states opposing the NRC to take the same route and indeed, it is very likely that the NPR will not take place in many states. This is a victory of the mass protests.
In spite of police brutality in many states ruled by the BJP, especially in UP, the public protests, far from fading, are getting stronger. Led by women and young people, Shaheen Bagh is finding resonance all over India and numerous such similar protests are taking place. There are many more sites in Delhi, and protests have spread to Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, from Gaya and Samastipur to Patna and Park Circus in Kolkata and many other places, attracting solidarity from ever-increasing crowds. What is significant and lends the most strength to people's unity is that everywhere, in every meeting, the slogans are not in defence of this or that religion or caste, but for the defence of India's constitution. What greater tribute can there be for the founders of our constitution that 70 years later, on January 26, 2020, lakhs of people, women and men across the length and breadth of India, will read aloud the preamble of the constitution as a mark of their determination to save it, to defend it, to uphold it.
And what is the response of the government? It can hardly conceal its rage at being thwarted. From the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and all the rest, the abuse against the protesters, the invective against opposition parties, gets ever more shrill and offensive. The UP Chief Minister shows his utter lack of respect for women's autonomy when he makes objectionable comments and threats against the women sitting on dharna, describing them as pawns and their menfolk as cowards. The Minister for Information and Broadcasting cannot speak about the protests without invoking the name of Pakistan, giving our neighbour such undue importance. And all this is symbolized by the concerted effort to project the protests as a Hindu-Muslim communal issue. The desperation is seen in the latest, rather diabolical attempt to manufacture a slogan that was never given in any gathering, the slogan of "Jinnah-wali Azadi". Suddenly, we have a host of BJP spokespersons accusing the protesters of shouting this slogan. Who said it, where and when, there is no evidence except the assertions of those who have come to be described as "godi media". The captivating, wholly secular slogan of "Azadi" against hunger, against casteism, against communalism, which rings out at every gathering Is sought to be defamed. But this too will surely boomerang.
What is Jinnah-wali Azadi? It is the two-nation theory, the demand for a separate nation based on religion. But who were the first proponents of this theory? Before Jinnah, it was the ideological forefathers of those who rule India today, like VD Savarkar, who first described India as two nations, Hindus and Muslims. In his book "Essentials of Hindutva" and later in a speech at the Ahmedabad conference of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, Savarkar had said, "There are two antagonistic nations living side by side in India...India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation. On the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Muslims, in India." Three years later, the All-India Muslim League, led by Jinnah, adopted the concept in its Lahore session. Supporting Jinnah, on August 15, 1943, Savarkar said in Nagpur, "I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah's two-nation theory. We, Hindus, are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations."
The protesters across India are opponents of the two-nation theory, its proponents occupy the highest positions in government today. It is they who stand for Jinnah-wali Azadi.
In his closing speech at the Constituent Assembly, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had posed a question, "Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain, that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood."
This is what Republic Day, 2020 is about: The determination of citizens to defend India's constitution, which places country before creed, and thereby its independence, with the last drop of blood.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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