A movement to save the Idea of India

If you asked my father Neil O’Brien, the pioneer who brought quizzing to India in 1967, what his favourite subjects were, pat would come the reply: heavyweight boxing and World War II. Our bedtime stories, oddly enough, were not about Hansel and Gretel.

Now you know why my speech in Parliament last month on behalf of the All India Trinamool Congress drew a comparison between Hitler’s Old Germany and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s “New India”.Were the drafters of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the National Register of Citizens-National Population Register (NRC-NPR), which are inextricably linked to it, drawing from the Nazi copybook? The similarities are ominous.

One, in 1933, the first Nazi concentration camp for Jews was set up in Germany. In 2018, the Union home ministry sanctioned a detention camp in Assam for non-Indians.

Two, in 1935 Germany, one needed an “ancestor pass” to prove their Aryan lineage. In 2019 India, a piece of paper proves your Indian citizenship.

Three, the Germans called it GroßeLüge or the Big Lie, which convinced them how the Jews are a threat to their race. Today’s lie: India is under 24×7 threat.

Four, Germany had the Lügenpresse or the lying press to push propaganda. Today’s Indian equivalent of the Lügenpresse is fake news and the pressure on the owners of mainstream newspapers and television networks to push the BJP’s divisive agenda.

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah, or the Mo-Sh (copyright on the coinage!), government is good at making promises. They are even better at breaking promises. How easily we forget. Didn’t the prime minister publicly plead for just 50 days to fix the disaster created by demonetisation? “Hang me in public after that! 50 days is all I ask for.” The failure was so monumental that the PM has barely used the term demonetisation in the last two years.

In April last year, the PM said “Chowkidar ki paanchvarsh ki chowkidari mein koi bada dhamaka hua kya? (Has there been a big attack in the five years that I have been a guard?)” Another broken promise. A total of 388 “major” terrorist incidents were recorded in India between 2014 and 2018. In 2018, Kashmir saw the highest fatalities in terror-related violence in a decade with 451 deaths in a single year.

If one was generous you would call Mo-Sh breakers of promises. But using a more blunt characterisation about the licenses they take with truth will not be out of place either.

Last month, the home minister had the gumption to tell Parliament that the government would implement NRC across India. At least two Union ministers said the same on the floor of both the Houses. There is also more evidence in the public domain linking CAA-NRC-NPR. As a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that examined the CAA for three years, one doesn’t know whether to be angry or just plain amused when the Mo-Sh duo are now doing damage control and saying there is no link. It is simply not true.

Even greenhorn marketing managers would laugh at the idea of scaling up a failed “pilot project”. The pilot was a big disaster. In Assam, 7% of the residents of the state were left out of the final NRC list. Extrapolating 7% to the national level, over 100 million Indians will become stateless. How will the government ever make up for the human cost of this exercise?

The Trinamool Congress had estimated the scale of the catastrophe, and even provided hard numbers in writing to the JPC. The guestimates turned out to be very close to the actual figures. Beyond just the verbatim records of the committee which prove our contention, the dissent note submitted by the two Trinamool Members of Parliament on it could have the words “we told you so” scribbled on it.

Then of course, what of the 10 million people who migrated to India from East Pakistan? They did not come here in the 1970s because of religious persecution.It is well- documented that they moved here because of linguistic persecution. Or take the case of the Matuas, Bengali Hindus living and voting in Bengal for decades. They are deemed citizens who have not only voted, but in 2011 even had a minister of state for refugee rehabilitation in the Bengal government. You are gifting them citizenship that they already have.

At the end of it all, just like demonetisation, the debate on CAA-NRC-NPR boils down to the rich versus the poor. Were there any crorepatis in queues during notebandi? Of the 130 people who died during demonetisation, how many were lakhpatis? In this cold, senseless legislation too, the poor and the marginalised will suffer once more. The socially deprived will suffer. They will scurry around for documents lost in floods and ethnic violence. Worse still, millions of them, genuine Indian citizens, have never had documents.

In 2006, Mamata Banerjee sat on a 26-day hunger strike to fight for land rights and rights for farmers. She fought the good fight. In 2016, the Supreme Court vindicated her decade-long struggle. In 2020, ordinary citizens, including students, are headlining this people’s movement against CAA. A mass leader like Banerjee, who hit the streets from Day One, will be only too glad to play the role of just a catalyst. This isn’t a battle to win brownie points. This is truly a people’s movement to save the Idea of India.

[This article appeared on Hindustan Times | Wednesday, January 15, 2020]