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Notes on events that shook a nation

Nagesh Prabhu | Updated on January 12, 2021

In the forefront: Shaheen Bagh was the epicentre of the anti-CAA movement, largely led by Muslim women and children   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

‘Now It’s Come to Distances’ examines the defining moments of the past year — the Shaheen Bagh protests, Covid-19 and its management by the Central government

* The author traces the history of citizenship — from ancient Greece and Rome, the French Revolution and the Constituent Assembly proceedings in India between 1947 and 1950 to the articulate views of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and other scholars

* Soumyabrata Choudhury questions the role of the State and handling of power by the Modi government

* The book also focuses on the several public interest litigations filed in courts on behalf of migrants

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Riding on a bigger electoral mandate in 2019, the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw a flurry of activity with reforms and amendments to existing laws. The Modi government enacted a law to ban triple talaq, abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution which led to the scrapping of the special status to Jammu and Kashmir, amended the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 1955 and laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya to fulfil a long-pending agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A new book — Now It’s Come to Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation — authored by Soumyabrata Choudhury, teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, discusses the major issues related to the protest at Shaheen Bagh in the Capital following the enactment of the CAA; the spread of Covid-19, and management of the pandemic by the NDA government led by the BJP.

Now It’s Come to Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation / Soumyabrata Choudhury / Navayana / Non-fiction /₹399

 

The CAA envisages granting of citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and aims at providing Indian citizenship to six communities — Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis. The BJP leaders and the Modi government argued that minorities in the three neighbouring theocratic countries had been subjected to continuous persecution, which forced them to seek asylum in India. Hence, the government enacted the new law, which attracted both criticisms and applause.

The Opposition parties, including the Congress, opposed the CAA. Intellectuals who sympathised with the Congress and Left have questioned the rationale behind the CAA enacted by the government which has been advocating ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas aur Sabka Vishwas’ since the last general election. Different parts of the country had seen protests against the CAA but the protest at Shaheen Bagh attracted the attention of the media, the top court of the country as well as the general public.

A considerable section of the book deals with developments from December 2019 till the period before the enforcement of the nationwide lockdown, when hundreds of thousands of Indians had taken to the streets to protest against the changes to the Citizenship Act that were seen as discriminating against Muslims.

Shaheen Bagh, a stretch of land in Delhi, was the epicentre of the anti-CAA movement as protesters, largely led by Muslim women and children, gathered there. The protests soon spread to campuses of universities, including Aligarh Muslim University, which celebrated its centenary last year. These protests largely embrace the ideas of constitutional values, citizenship rights, and inclusivity. Calling the Shaheen Bagh protest “immortal”, the author traces the challenges faced by protestors in the face of a “dictatorship of mortals” that rose with the pandemic.

Terming the law as “unconstitutional and discriminatory”, Choudhury says “the Muslim minority and everyone else who disagreed with the new version of the citizenship law, demanded in public assembly that the government intervene to correct this unjust state of affairs and restore constitutional values or principles”. Just like the farmers who are now opposing three new agricultural laws and their repeal, Muslims demanded the repeal of the newly-enacted CAA.

In this context, Choudhury questions the role of the State and handling of the State’s powers by the Modi government. The State, in fact, is one of the most difficult concepts in politics. For some scholars/intellectuals, the discipline politics fully deals with the State; for others politics exists in a social environment outside the jurisdiction of the State. The State constituted by the legitimate instruments has the power to intervene in the socio-economic and political affairs of the people and the country.

Defending the Shaheen Bagh protest, the author argues against “unjust CAA and communal manipulation of law by the government” .

“The just, constitutional and moral ‘citizenship’ seemed to be the superior conceptual posture adopted by the protestors,” he writes.

Choudhury also traces the history of citizenship in the book — from ancient Greece and Rome, the French Revolution and the Constituent Assembly proceedings in India between 1947 and 1950 to the articulate views of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and other scholars.

Another major issue the book deals with is the Covid-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus and subsequent nationwide lockdowns adversely impacted the sources of livelihood of migrant workers. Though the middle class, too, suffered in this period owing to the pandemic and job loss, particularly those in tourism, media, airlines, hotel, transport and related industries in the private sector, the author largely focuses on the plight of the migrant workers.

Criticising the Modi government’s timing of the lockdown, the author says that there are “widespread complaints” that the government did not plan the lockdown and curfew. “It didn’t plan for the consequences of its act. This has led to both terrible human misery and defeated the cause of social distancing at the heart of the lockdown/curfew.”

The book also focuses on the several public interest litigations filed in courts on behalf of the migrants to protect their constitutional rights. The government both at the Central and state levels have provided packages, though not sufficient, to mitigate the sufferings of the workers and the poor during the lockdown.

With the pandemic forcing the closure of schools, colleges and universities not just in India but across the globe, the virtual world has become the new normal for students. It has dramatically altered the process of imparting education.

“Digital teaching is said to be the teaching of ‘content’,” the JNU professor says and argues, “this content, bearing each time the well-known disciplinary names broadly classified under physical and social sciences, is characterized by being ready, prefabricated and pre-packaged”.

This digital teaching had resulted in a loss of jobs and cut in salaries for many teachers across the country.

Now It’s Come to Distances throws insights into the reasons for protests against the CAA and drawbacks in handling of the pandemic by the Central government. However, for better understanding, the book could have been written in a simple language avoiding jargon. The book, which is critical of the Modi government, does not trace many policy announcements made for handling the pandemic or the financial support extended to unorganised sectors.

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Published on January 12, 2021
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