Retrieving Our Country
New Delhi—Until just a few weeks back, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed invincible. Bolstered by an overwhelming electoral win in India’s general elections, Modi’s government enacted a series of policies discriminating against India’s Muslim community, which constitutes 15 percent of the country’s population. Modi, the figurehead of the country’s Hindu right wing, is seen by some of his supporters as the harbinger of the Hindu Rashtra—a state dominated by Hindu culture where minorities, especially Muslims, would be reduced to second-class citizenship.
In August, Modi’s government abolished a constitutional provision that gave a degree of autonomy and special rights to the besieged state of Kashmir. The decision is widely seen as the first step in a long-range plan to shift the demography of the Muslim-majority state. Later that month, the final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in the northeastern state of Assam. It left 1.9 million people, many of them Muslim, off of India’s citizenship rolls, declaring them illegal immigrants. In November came the Ayodhya verdict that allowed the construction of a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid, a mosque desecrated by Hindu nationalists in 1992. Following the destruction of the mosque, a spate of riots led to the loss of two thousand lives, most of them Muslim. Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of their revered lord Ram; the landmark judgment from the Supreme Court of India marked a symbolic win for Modi’s Hindu nationalist base. Outside of Kashmir itself, there were no significant protests or remarkable resistance to any of these moves.
Twenty-seven people have been killed, all but one of them residents of states ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Modi may have expected similar docility, and even cheering, as the Citizenship Amendment Bill became law on December 12. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will grant citizenship to Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians belonging to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan—India’s Muslim-majority neighbors. In a region with a long history of sectarian strife, such redrawing of religious fault lines is dangerous. Many legal experts also consider the CAA to be in direct violation of India’s Constitution.
But this time the civilian reaction was different. The decision sparked nationwide unrest that has now continued for more than two weeks. The Modi government’s response has been violent and discriminatory, inviting international censure. Twenty-seven people have been killed, all but one of them residents of states ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The CAA might have been viewed as a benign exercise, offering refuge to at least some religious minorities, had it not been coupled with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The program would leave only Muslims unable to prove their Indian citizenship off the rolls, while bringing in the others through the backdoor provided by the CAA. A nationwide NRC has long been a clarion call of Modi’s party, one that has featured in multiple BJP manifestos.
Anti-CAA protests first escalated in Assam on December 8, even before the bill was tabled in Parliament. The same organizations that had supported the drawn-out NRC process just two months earlier organized statewide resistance, holding up lit torches and bringing the state to a grinding halt. Samujjal Bhattacharya is among the biggest leaders of the movement and an advisor to the All Assam Students Union (AASU). He had been a key BJP ally in bringing the NRC to his state but later soured on Modi’s party for turning the region’s decades-old ethnolinguistic dispute into a solely religious one. “Until 1971 we have accepted Hindu and Muslim immigrants both, beyond ’71 we cannot take both Hindus and Muslims. Clear,” he told me in September, days after the NRC list that excluded 1.9 million immigrants was released. “Now, through CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) the BJP government is trying to protect their illegal Hindu Bangladeshi vote banks,” he added.
The people of Assam and other northeastern states, where some had welcomed the NRC to their region, have rejected the citizenship overhaul. The latter policy would give those they deem to be “illegal Bengali Hindus” a pathway to citizenship. Section 144—also called the “curfew” law, barring public assembly—has been enforced in the region, where the BJP had opened a nascent but significant electoral account, along with widespread internet shutdowns.
Videos from Uttar Pradesh show cops firing live rounds, barging into homes, destroying property, beating children, and detaining people.
Anti-CAA resistance wasn’t limited to border-lying areas. It spread initially on university campuses, beginning with Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, and later caught on elsewhere. On December 15, the Jamia protest spilled outside of the university’s campus. Delhi Police, under the authority of the BJP-led government, responded with disproportionate might, firing tear gas canisters in the university library, brutalizing some students, and parading them for the television cameras outside the university gate with their hands raised in the air like criminals. This sparked a series of marathon protests in the capital that were in turn suppressed with batons, water cannons, mass detentions, and yet more tear gas.
Demonstrations around Delhi were organized by different student, political, and civil society groups, but the most consistent has been the resistance inside Jamia Millia and the nearby residential colony of Shaheen Bagh, where Muslim women continue to sit outside in biting cold weather to protest the crackdown on Jamia students and press for the revocation of the NRC. I visited the area a week after the protests began. Here, posters of Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Nehru adorned the walls. Graffiti that said “this country is mine, too,” “withdraw CAA and NRC,” and “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians are united in opposing CAA” were splashed across residential walls. In other parts of the city, I saw young protestors forming a circle, lighting the torches of their mobile phones in the dark to recite the preamble of the Constitution, reminding the government that they are citizens of a “secular, democratic, republic.” Barricades, checkpoints, diversions, closed subway stops, internet shutdowns, and innumerable arrests could not bar people from protesting in the capital.
Supporters of the government have demonized the student protestors, categorizing them as vicious and violent. The Prime Minister, campaigning in the eastern state of Jharkhand, claimed that “the miscreants could be identified by their clothes” (a dog whistle directed at the Muslim community).
“We (Muslims) are the usual suspects when it comes in violence. You saw in Jamia how the students were being peaceful and the state sponsored violence on them,” Saud Amin Khan, twenty-six, a poverty and development researcher, said at a protest held outside the iconic India Gate in the capital on December 16. “We see it in the media every day, if there are three criminals who have committed the same crime, the Muslim name will be highlighted first.”
Leading the world in cutting off the internet this year, Modi has switched off Indians’ internet in many states since the protests began, inviting adulation from the world’s biggest internet-freedom violator, China. Opposition leaders from West Bengal, Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh led protests in their respective regions. However, some of the largest gatherings, like one in Aurangabad in the state of Maharashtra, saw no politicians, no party flags, only the tricolor and swathes of protestors from all faiths.
Policing is a state matter in India. All but one state where police have opened fire or have violently detained or abused protestors are ruled by the BJP. Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Yogi Adityanath, a radical Hindu nationalist monk, has seen the worst crackdown, especially in towns and cities that are known to have dense Muslim populations. At least twenty-seven lives have been lost in the past two weeks, nineteen of them in UP, including that of an eight-year-old boy.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has witnessed repeated sectarian violence. 20 percent of its 200 million residents are Muslim. It is often said that the road to New Delhi goes through Lucknow, the capital of UP. In Indian politics, winning UP is a definitive step toward power in New Delhi. The BJP has hotly contested this region and the victory of Adityanath, known for his venomous anti-Muslim speeches, was a sign of the possible communalization of the state, and his brutal crackdown on Muslim protestors in his state is another step in that direction.
In the district of Muzaffarnagar, where sectarian riots broke out in 2013, the administration has sealed sixty-seven shops, mainly owned by Muslims, to recover losses that they claim were caused by rioters residing nearby. There are also plans to book around 250 protesters, who the government claims instigated violence, under the National Security Act (NSA), which empowers the state to detain someone for up to a year based on the belief that they threaten national security. All of this leaves Muslim residents at the mercy of a government already hostile to them and a police force that has traditionally discriminated against them.
An internet and communications blockade in many districts of UP. Thousands of protestors—including Sadaf Jafar, an actress and social activist—have been arrested. Many Muslims are booked under charges of attempted murder. Videos from Uttar Pradesh show cops firing live rounds, barging into homes, destroying property, beating children, and detaining people. Many of those detained and abused are minors. The Indian Civil Liberties Union, a collective of lawyers and activists working on the ground, estimate that nearly fifty-five hundred people have been detained and over sixteen hundred arrested from UP alone.
The BJP’s hopes for their Hindu nationalist project seem to be threatened by the secular, multicultural gatherings across the country where demonstrators recite the preamble of the Constitution, wave the national flag, and fight for India’s pluralistic values. In Muslim-dominated areas like Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, protestors are pressing for the preservation of secular, constitutional values. In recent heartening scenes from the capital, Hindus and Sikhs formed human chains around Muslims praying in between protests. Used to claiming votes and consent on sectarian lines, Modi seems to be caught off-guard.
Many of the protestors I spoke to around Delhi were resolute that they would not give up until the NRC has been rolled back.
Simultaneously, BJP poll numbers are beginning to decline in the party’s bastions like Jharkhand in the east and Maharashtra in the west. Even some key members of the BJP’s current political alliance have declared they won’t implement the NRC. International censure is mounting.
On December 22, Modi took to the stage in the capital to address BJP supporters waving the party’s saffron flag. He contradicted his Home Minister, Amit Shah, and claimed that there are no plans for a nationwide NRC. Meanwhile, the government has rolled out a thinly veiled copy of the program, the National Population Register—a national registry of “usual residents,” or those who have resided in a particular place for more than six months—which, in its current form, is nothing more than a preparation for a national version of the NRC.
Even though the future of the NRC and the CAA remains unclear after weeks of violent crackdowns, many of the protestors I spoke to around Delhi were resolute that they would not give up until the NRC has been rolled back. The new year began with almost one hundred organizations coming together to form a joint forum towards coordinating the protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR triple assault of Modi’s government. It is called “We, the People of India” after the opening line of the preamble of the constitution, which has become a rallying cry for protestors around the country.