The urgent need is not to alienate anyone further. The country is perplexed as to why it is urgent to solve the refugee citizenship issue now.
Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the UK in the late 1950s, was known as SuperMac because of his ability to win elections and be an effective leader. He was asked by a younger politician what worried him most. “Events, dear boy, events,” he said.
The Modi-Shah government is experiencing what Macmillan was talking about. Without any warning, a tsunami of protests has spread across India within half a week. India has developed a student rebellion much like the 1968 revolutions in USA, France, and the UK. A student revolt starts with a stray incident in some campus and then spreads like a virus across the world through a sense of solidarity. Students have not yet had time to be disillusioned and corrupted by reality. They are innocent enough to be idealistic. They take risks. (I know someone who gave up college and became a Naxal at the first call by Charu Mazumdar. He is now high up advising the government.)
Only once before, in the early 1970s, have we had a similar sudden and widespread protest movement. Jayaprakash Narayan led the Navanirman movement with thousands of students. It shook the Indira Gandhi government. We all know what happened next. That movement brought into politics Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh. The Emergency that followed saw a young RSS pracharak, Narendra Modi, in an active underground role.
The BJP surprised everyone this past summer by achieving a single-party majority for a second time. It had no opposition to speak of in Parliament. It had every opportunity to implement its vision of India. The question was whether it would complete the growth story of the first term, concentrate on the target of a $5-trillion GDP, or finish the health programme promised by Ayushman Bharat or realise the Make in India vision. None of the above. India was in for a surprise.
The government was decisively on the front foot soon after May. First came Article 370. The target was Pakistan, and the arena of combat the UN Security Council. India won that hands down. But, the trouble remains—the Kashmir Valley itself, which refuses to be calm or joyous about the new prospect the government is offering. When Farooq Abdullah is the biggest threat to the government, we know that Pakistan never was the problem.
Now, we have the CAA. Once again, the government saw the two Houses of Parliament as the battleground. That was the predictably easy bit. New battlegrounds have come up in Assam and Bengal. How could the government not see it coming? Assam had been in turmoil over the NCR; the state is not worried about just the Bangladesh Muslims, the Assamese have been agitating against all Bengalis and Biharis from before the Partition. For them, the Assamese Nation is under threat. Be they Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims from India or Bangladesh, for the Assamese, they are all outsiders, and unwelcome. The extension of the deadline for entering India has been moved from 1971 in the Assam Accord to 2014 in the CAA. Assamese are angry about the CAA’s inclusiveness; the rest of the country is worried about the exclusion of Muslims.
It is beyond the comprehension of those whose central ideological framework is built around the Two Nation theory. There are at least as many cultural nations in India as there are languages. Remember, Bangladesh is a country today because it was Bengali—this, and not Islam, defined its nationhood. Tamil Muslims will be Tamils first and Muslims second on the issue of Hindi.
Then, there are the campuses. Each is a microcosm of the political nation. These students are also wired into the world at large. Expect student solidarity with Jamia across the world, not just across India. There will be allegations of police brutality, and sooner than not, the accidental mortality of a student bystander. Authorities will blame outside agitators, and overreact. That will inflame matters further. Repression is the wrong response as it inflames emotions further. It is predictable. I saw it in 1968. General Charles de Gaulle, the Great War hero, had rescued France from chaos, but he was out of his depth when Paris erupted in student revolt. Hard police attacks did not work. Uncomprehending, he resigned.
The urgent need is not to alienate anyone further. The country is perplexed as to why it is urgent to solve the refugee citizenship issue now, in this way. We need a nationwide conversation to explain why and how the fears of the Muslim minority are misplaced.
Prominent economist and Labour peer. Views are personal