The country has been witnessing large-scale protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and proposals for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and a modified National Population Register (NPR), across all states. Large numbers of students, social organisations and political parties have staged protests, most of the time independently of each other. Most protests have remained peaceful, and violence, in most cases where it occurred, was provoked by outsiders or resorted to by the police. But the students have not only been blamed for violence committed by others but have had to face violence perpetrated by others, including the police. Protests by other sections of people have also been met with violence by the police, especially in UP, where chief minister Yogi Adityanath has directed that the protests be put down most harshly. All these raise questions about the value and role of peaceful protests in a democracy. Peaceful protests are tolerated and accepted as a part of the democratic culture. The right to protest is inherent in a democracy, and is legal and legitimate. The norm, and the bargain, at the heart of a democracy is that the government, or administrations at any level, will be sensitive to and respond to protests, which basically arise from disagreements that some sections of people may have over policies, decisions or actions. The bargain on the part of the protesters is to keep the protest peaceful and lawful, and the government’s obligation is to enter into a conversation on the matter with the protesters.
It isn’t the CAA by itself that causes this panic, but the combination of the CAA with the NRC. The NRC requires you to produce documentation to prove that your ancestors were citizens of the country. Most people in India may not have historical documentation. So, it is believed that the CAA will naturalise Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others without documents as citizens, and exclude Muslims without documents. There is an implied agreement to consider the other side’s point of view and a readiness for mutual accommodation. That is how democracy works, with many sides accepting and accommodating one another. But this has not happened in the case of the anti-CAA protests and with the protesters. The government demands that the protesters maintain peace but has not shown an indication or inclination to have a conversation with them. No protesting group, political or non-political, has been called for a discussion on the issues of disagreement. Instead, the government has stuck to its position, declaring that it will not give an inch, and describing the students as a bunch of misguided and misled by the opposition parties.
The government and its top leaders even call the protesters, students and others, ‘anti-nationals’ who are out to divide the country. There are also attempts to communalise the protests though the protesters are from all sections of society. By being insensitive and unresponsive to the sentiments and views of the students, and by even unleashing state-backed violence on them, the government may lead them to question their own faith in democracy. The democratic bargain, which is the underlying social and political contract between the people and the government, should not be endangered.