191216 India
Passenger buses go up in flames during a protest against Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Anna Akhmatova, whose face I can’t but help associate with the violent cubist portraits by Picasso, is one of the former Soviet Union’s finest poets from the Stalinist period. She once famously said of her tragic and heroic life that all that could happen to a human has happened to her.

One of her poems, Poem Without A Hero, is dedicated to her friends and lovers who died all around her in war (particularly the Battle of Stalingrad) and from political persecution. Poem Without A Hero seems rather appropriate to a theme emerging stronger by the day in contemporary India, since last week’s developments, following the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to bestow Indian citizenship to religious minorities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian) in the neighbouring Islamic republics of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan on the basis of religious persecution — provided the victims are already in India by December 31, 2014.

In the days following what was seen to be a discriminatory law against the Muslims of India, people in Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, and students from universities in Delhi protested. Rather violently. Five trains were torched. Some 25 buses set on fire.

The Bill served to splinter even further the monolithic cause of Hindu India so dear to the heart of the Modi government, a self-defeating move. All through it, Muslims who count nearly 20 million in India, kept their peace, in a disciplined exercise in defensive silence

- C.P. Surendran

At least three people were killed. In Assam and Tripura and Meghalaya an internet shutdown came into play, mimicking the condition of the ‘hostile’ union territory of Kashmir. While it is not completely clear if the West Bengal unrest is at least partly engineered by the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, a great if slightly hysterical, opponent of the Modi regime, in Assam and Tripura the protests were led by natives who believe the influx of immigrants will swamp over their tribal and cultural identities.

The Opposition, led by Rahul, Sonia, and Priyanka Gandhi in public rallies attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Home Minister Amit Shah, who had introduced the bill, as Muslim baiters. States like Punjab and Kerala said they will not enforce the bill, though such defiance appears to be mostly hot air: if the Indian government grants citizenship to a person, there is little that the states can do to prevent from him/her settling anywhere in India.

Meanwhile, the US, Britain, and France issued advisories cautioning their citizens on travelling to India. The Japanese cancelled a visit by their prime minister, Shinzo Abe; he was scheduled to have a summit with Modi in Guwahati, capital of Assam. Everybody’s (except Donald Trump) favourite talking shop, the UN, declared the bill to be ‘discriminatory.’ Generally, the world thought India was going nuts — and racist.

Copy of 2019-12-16T000049Z_1321413406_RC20WD9ZSXD3_RTRMADP_3_INDIA-CITIZENSHIP-PROTESTS-1576472393801
Demonstrations against India's new citizenship law, outside the police headquarters in New Delhi Image Credit: Reuters

The English speaking social media revolutionaries of the Indian cities ran virtuous hashtags that said they were disowning the Constitution as it was no longer a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’ Never mind, that the Indian Constitution, despite its best intentions, has always been a bit of a misleading document. It has never been socialist (the top 10 per cent of the Indian population now holds 77 per cent of the total national wealth. 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017, for example, went to the richest 1 per cent, according to Oxfam International), nor truly speaking secular; sectarian vote banks yes, and because of the last, not truly democratic either.

Still, Amit Shah and his government underestimated the repercussions of the Bill. Last week, in parliament, former home minister and a Congress leader, P. Chidambaram, asked Amit Shah as to who advised him in the matter. Shah, a surprisingly adept parliamentarian himself and usually quick to answer his enemies, remained silent on the point. Most likely, the agenda was set by the home minister and his friends in the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, as part of the Hindutva agenda. It hardly matters now. The damage has been severe. And wholly unnecessary.

Consider this. If Assam and Tripura are any indications, it’s Hindus who are going against the Hindus from abroad, who might benefit from the Bill. At least one photograph in a mainstream newspaper showed a young leader, chest bared to potential police bullets, wearing the sacred thread of the Brahmins. If not essentially upper caste, then indigenous tribes, like the Ahom, led the fight.

That simply means that the Bill served to splinter even further the monolithic cause of Hindu India so dear to the heart of the Modi government, a self-defeating move. All through it, Muslims who count nearly 20 million in India, kept their peace, in a disciplined exercise in defensive silence.

To go back to Poem Without a Hero. There are no heroes just now in India. The greatest hero India has recently produced, whether you like him or not, is Narendra Modi. On Saturday, in Kanpur, at a public function, he stumbled and fell. It is an indication perhaps of the fast, furious, and faltering decisions of this government led by Modi

As for Congress, its leaders keep talking about Gandhi in the present-day context. They believe, rightly, if Gandhi were around he would go on a fast unto death to restrain the Modi government from institutionalising bigotry. They talk; but not one from the Congress or assorted Opposition parties has the stature or the strength of conviction to go on, say, an indefinite hunger strike and bring this government to its knees.

And, as for those protesting in Assam or in Bengal or Tripura, the new crop of popular heroes this Bill has caused to mushroom, the idea of the heroic is twisted: after all, they are waging a war against Indians from abroad, fleeing persecution? Rhetorically speaking, who else will welcome them back if not their mother country?

Brecht said sad is the country that has a need for heroes. Well, sadder is the one without it. Here is a bit from Akhmatova’s poem, on the hero who will not come: ‘All the mirrors on the wall show a man not yet appeared/who could not enter this white hall./He is no better and no worse,/but he is free of Lethe’s curse:/his warm hand makes a human pledge./Strayed from the future, can it be that he will really come to me,/turning left from the bridge?/ ‘

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India

More on Jamia protests against Citizenship Bill