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Othering Processes and Hopeful Horizons

Hope, confidence, solidarity and resilience outshine anger and fear as the youth of India, accompanied by several other concerned members, want to embrace and reclaim for themselves a vision of the nation that is fundamentally different from the one that is being imposed. Not in the recent memory do people remember such large sections of youth marching, through the length and breadth of the nation, into the streets to protest and have their voices heard. Since 12th December, daily, hundreds of thousands of youth participate in them, braving cold weather and brutality -allegedly unleashed by police and unruly elements that try to sabotage the otherwise largely peaceful movement. Universities are the epicenters of this people’s protest march and, as days turn into weeks, MILLIONS ARE MARCHING! They are everywhere, in the cities and towns, plains and the hills!

At the heart of the controversy and anger are two recent legal processes initiated by the central government: 1) National Registry of Citizens (NRC) a plan to initiate a process of verifying the documents of all Indians and re-register them as ‘citizens,’ and 2) Citizen Amendment Act that proposes to offer citizenship to ‘select’ immigrants whether they are already in India or will eventually seek citizenship. The Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs and Christians (note, no Muslims) who face persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can seek citizenship in India. Presumption is that the Muslims are safe in these Islamic countries and non-Muslims face persecution and where do they go if not turn to India for shelter. There is no mention of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who have been here for decades or those from Myanmar, Tibet or China or others in neighborhood.

In both the cases all those living in the land would be required–the details are unclear and many official and unofficial interpretations are in the air–to prove, by documentary evidence, that they are Indian citizens. Those who fail may be expelled from the land or sent to detention centers that are being built at several places. Ironically, as it is pointed out, some of those constructing these centers might end up staying in them. And, why this exercise at all when we already have in the country a variety of formal documents including Aadhar card, Voter ID card, Ration card, Driving License, PAN card, Passport, etc., to find out who is who.

Obviously, the entire process discriminates against the Muslims (and, it will not be long before the Christians are explicitly included into this category). Socially, the Hindus would feel ‘reassured’ and ‘privileged’ and the Muslims feel excluded. The social process of polarization institutionalizes discrimination, and also, inequality. The socio-economic, religious and cultural minorities, the most vulnerable in this context, are vilified and exposed. While it is frightening, the process synchronizes very well with the goals of Hindutva, i.e. of establishing a Hindu nation. The ‘othering’ process historically began in 1920s and flourished in last three decades, but having political power since in 2014, it gained momentum. In the grand Hindutva scheme, Muslims and Christians are identified as the ‘others,’ and if they desire to live in this Hindu holy land, they should be willing to live as second-class citizens without seeking any privileges or rights.

The protest movements squarely oppose these ‘othering’ processes, clearly stating that these initiatives are against the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India which assures and guarantees justice, liberty, equality, fraternity, dignity etc., to all, without any discrimination whatsoever. The movements are going on in a Gandhian non-violent spirit and they draw increasing number of people from all walks of life. It is not a ‘Muslim issue’ but a question of what people want India to be.

There have been very touching scenes: a group of women students boldly safeguard and protect a male student from being beaten up by the police, Hindus and Sikhs joining hands to shield Muslims offer prayers during the protest, a Sikh providing tea and snacks to the protesters, a courageous female student forgoes receiving a gold medal at the awarding ceremony because she was forced to remove her head-dress, etc. While a majority of the mainline media units oppose or denigrate the people’s movements, alternative and social media are doing a commendable job in standing for justice, fairness and truth.

From an ethical point of view, I see four takeaways in these Indian versions of the protest movements (as we are aware, protests have been going on in many parts of the world, and there is much to reflect on them):

First, there has been a palpable and growing sense of solidarity among the people across the country. Instead of ignoring the issue or imagining that it is not my/our concern, people of diverse cultures and castes, languages and regions are coming forward boldly to talk and discuss and take a stand. In the process they are ready even to suffer for the cause they espouse. Such public discourse and stand not only illustrate the activation of collective moral agency but also assuredly strengthen the democratic processes.

Second, the Constitution of India continues to remain in focus all through the movement. Generations of people who only knew that there is a Constitution finally began to recognize it as a fundamental resource, an ethical compass to measure by and apply for ourselves. It has emerged as common national Scriptures, and at every meeting people are reading the Preamble of the Constitution, meaningfully and devotedly. Often at the meetings that resemble religious services, attentively and faithfully people are making promises to uphold the Constitution. The fact that the nation’s youth began to discover who they are and what they aspire to be in light of the principles and ethos of the Constitution is remarkable.

Third, spontaneously or intentionally, the gatherings are interreligious, modelled after the Gandhian protests. Though the victims–those who suffer discrimination and violence–are largely Muslims, people of all religions are coming forward in support. Without hiding religious identities, people begin to recognize that their strength is in respecting and upholding each other’s religious identity. Taking risk, some non-Muslims even wear skullcaps in protest marches, to be in solidarity with the discriminated and the victimized.

Fourth, the role of women in the entire protest movement is extremely remarkable. For instance, when most of the men-politicians hesitate to confront powerful persons or structures, it is some women who kept the protest (Mamata Benerjee and Mahua Moitra have been incredible leaders and speakers). Even among the students, women have shown extraordinary courage. Some of the ordinary Muslim women (not to mention women with other religious backgrounds) who never left their homes or spoke in public came forward to register injustices they themselves or their neighbors had to face. In sum, across the country and in among all sections, the protest movements empowered women to find their voice.

The voice of the Catholic Church, given its vulnerable position, has been largely mute. Except for a few, Catholic leaders hardly participated in the protests or spoke in public. Of course, there have been individual Catholics who have been participating in the protests. Eventually the Catholic Church has to reflect and see how it can learn to accompany fellow Indians in upholding the Constitution, foster interreligious dialogue, and help people find their prophetic courage in their spiritual resources.