Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

Opinion | Disinformation and lies are fuelling the anti-CAA protests

But why is the government unable to communicate its case for the new law simply and effectively?

Angry people out on the streets all over India, internet shutdowns, Section 144. Protest against the state is essential to democracy. But there is protest, and there is informed protest. Sadly, these agitations—the biggest since the anti-Mandal movement—seem to be driven by poor knowledge, dis- and mis-information, and plain emotion rather than facts and critical thinking. There is enough evidence that protestors don’t know what the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) actually means (even the Jamia Millia univeristy students).

But I am bothered about those who do know, the “influencers"—the politicians, media persons, columnists and public intellectuals, who seem to be deliberately spreading misinformation and lies. A narrowly-focused law with its logic and implications clearly spelt out, and a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), no details of which have been announced yet, are being used to stoke fears that all Muslims are now second-class citizens of India. The fact that India is offering dignity, hope and identity to a large number of people who have been subject to religious persecution is forgotten.

In 2003, Manmohan Singh, as a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, had specifically asked the then deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to amend the law to grant citizenship to Bangladeshis from minority communities who had taken refuge in India due to religious persecution. In 2012, Prakash Karat, as general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had demanded the same from Singh, who was then prime minister. The CAA has done exactly that.

What about Muslims? A former state governor said in a speech last week that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan would have been denied Indian citizenship today under the CAA. That’s a good sound byte, sir, but as you very well know, India has laws on granting citizenship to foreigners, religion no bar—laws which are not affected in any way by the CAA. The Frontier Gandhi would have got Indian citizenship if he wanted, just as the Belgian-born economist Jean Drèze or the Pakistan-born singer Adnan Sami did. Or as the Pakistani widow Hasina Ben did last Wednesday. It was the same law under which Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen applied, and the Manmohan Singh government refused her, almost certainly in fear of a political backlash from a section of Muslim voters. Let’s not mislead people on this.

A popular news anchor, sporting a white armband of protest, has posted a video on social media, in which she explains the CAA, and which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Among other things, she says that under the NRC, we will have to prove that our parents and grandparents were born in India. This is untrue. Then she claims that home minister Amit Shah told a TV interviewer that non-Muslim Indians will not have to produce any documents for NRC. But what Shah actually said was that migrants who become citizens under the CAA will not have to go through the NRC again. This sort of spreading of untruths can have serious consequences, given her public stature.

Film personality Farhan Akhtar tweeted (12.3 million followers) a poster for the 19 December protest at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan and asked everyone to join. This poster is so filled with lies that it beggars belief. Just one example—and I’m not making this up; it claims that, in addition to Muslims, CAA+NRC will render “transgender, atheists, adivasis, Dalits, women" stateless. Then, at the rally, Akhtar tells TV reporters: “There must be some problems in CAA, otherwise why are so many people protesting?" But he influences opinions. People trust him.

How many Indians—concerned, enraged, scared—have taken the trouble to understand what CAA is, and then form an opinion? It is not difficult and it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes. There are enough short videos and text guides available on the net, you just have to look. But what we have is a nation increasingly inept at critical reasoning and no patience with facts, and a young population searching for victimhood with little historical perspective.

But this government is mysteriously unable to communicate its case simply and effectively. Why can’t it explain clearly to Indian Muslims that they are not affected in any way, that their immediate reaction of being seen as second-class citizens is purely emotional, that they are being manipulated, and here are the answers to all their CAA doubts? Why does the government not publicize the dishonesty of anti-CAA politicians? Why does it not tell the stories of those who escaped horrors in our three Muslim-majority neighbours to find a safe haven in India? Why can’t it highlight the shocking rapes, forced conversions and murders of Hindus and Christians going on in Pakistan? Can’t it convey to the Dalits of India that most of the Hindu migrants whom the CAA will rescue are Dalits? And, finally, why didn’t it have its communication strategy in place before passing the law, after which it has had to use Section 144 and shut down mobile data services even in parts of our capital, when anyone could have anticipated the resistance, from the lies to the riots? How could the government allow the CAA discourse to get so easily hijacked?

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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