“If we all get together, there won’t be a detention centre big enough for us. Maybe there will be a day when this government will be in a detention centre, and all of us azad (free). We won’t back down,” shouts Arundhati Roy, Booker prize-winning author, outside of Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University.
For months, protests have erupted across India over a new citizenship law: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The act, which allows the expedited citizenship of migrants who have fled from neighbouring countries, has brought scores of people to the streets to challenge its prejudice against Muslims. Protestors reciting the preambles of the Indian constitution across the country contend the CAA works to demote Muslims to second class citizens, contrary to India’s promise of justice, equality and fraternity. Demonstrations have been met with harsh police crackdowns and resulted in international outcry; it appears to all that the sanctity of human rights has been cast aside in the world’s largest democracy.
On the eve of India’s May Election, the Oxford Union held a No Confidence debate on the Indian Government. The overwhelming ruling was that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inspires little confidence for the fate for civil liberties in India. I was asked to speak in defense of Modi – a young, Pakistani student (though the Internet insists I am a 29 year old British-Pakistani diplomat) finding a new perspective from which to defend Pakistan’s number one enemy.
The response to my debate was inconceivable: Sound-bites of my speech reached Indian media channels , omitting any criticism of this political pariah’s human rights record. I still receive messages today from young BJP supporters who thank me for telling the world that Modi is not an evil-Muslim hating villain, but instead a Hindu hero. The most uncomfortable element from these floods messages, above personal comments on my appearance and mannerisms, was undoubtedly the sheer commitment and belief that Modi was ‘doing the right thing’.
As the months have rolled by, it seems the Indian nation has been glaringly confronted with the realties of Narendra Modi – behind populist rhetoric remains a real challenge to the secular, democratic nation India has always aimed to be.
So who is the the man behind this transformation? Narendra Modi’s BJP was re-elected with a landslide victory in May. However, entering their second term in office, Modi’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) policies continue to sow the seeds of division within Indian politics. Antithetical to Nehru and Gandhi’s wish for secularism in the state of India, the BJP asserts the importance of a superior, Hindu identity.
Grown out of the ranks of the right-wing, nationalist, paramilitary organisation of the RSS, Modi gained notoriety as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002. During his tenure, Modi presided over a mass communal bloodletting that left two-thousand people dead and the demography of the province irrevocably changed. Reports saw mobs of Hindus yelling ‘Take revenge and slaughter the muslims!’, as eyewitness accounts testify to mass-rape, the dismemberment of pregnant Muslim women, and one elderly member of the opposition party – the Indian Congress – paraded naked and set on fire. Many of the surviving Muslims were corralled into slums and remain in ghettoes, such as the Ahmedabad dump, today. As Chief Minister, Modi was accused of turning a blind eye to the religiously-motivated riots, resulting in a nearly decade long ban on travel to the US and UK.
Yet, apologies from Modi were far and few between, as he expanded his Hindu nationalist base whilst simultaneously taking on more palatable policies for the West and the average Indian. Modi’s bravery in confronting previously un-confronted policies such as public defection and male responsibility for gang-rape allowed his party to soar to the top – winning his first national election in 2014. Elected on a platform of economic stability (as his term in Gujarat was under relative prosperity) and sectarianism, Modi has actively worked to change the secular ethos of India. The controversial CAA and its equally worrying relative, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are the latest of many policies to do so.
The NRC is a register maintained by the Indian government containing the identification of citizens residing in the state of Assam. Beginning as a project to identify illegal immigrants within the state, the NRC requires residents to procure land deeds, birth certificates, and other documents to prove their lineage within the country. India’s Home Minister, and Modi’s righthand man, Amit Shah, declared in November that the NRC will be implemented across the country. In Assam, around 2 million individuals failed these citizenship tests – many of them Muslim.
Documents of this sort prove hard to supply, particularly in rural, impoverished areas. For women, the task is made even more difficult. In the region of Goroimari, none of the twelve required documents were available to large numbers of local women. Birth by midwives in rural areas complicates the prospects of having a viable birth certificate. Likewise, marriage registration is infrequent due to large numbers of underage marriages, and women often do not possess property under their own name. As one woman told The Wire in November, “My father’s name is in the 1951 NRC. My brother used the same legacy data of my father and is in the final NRC but I am out…My name was also not in the final draft. When I was called for re-verification, I gave my paternal family’s ration card where I am mentioned as my father’s daughter. Yet, I am out of the NRC.”
The fate of those deemed stateless is dire. Reports say there are destined to be sent to detention camps such as one in Karnataka. Though government officials stress the construction of these detention centres is unrelated to the NRC, anxiety over Assam’s citizenship tests has driven many, including a Muslim veteran of the Indian army, to suicide.
Hindus were not excluded from the NRC, a large number of immigrant Bengali Hindus (a large BJP voter faction) were deemed illegal as well. This was almost a strong defensive to Modi’s assertion that his policies are entirely above-the-line, yet, for those originally unlucky Hindus, fate has taken a different course with the passing of the CAA. The CAA and the NRC taken in tandem highlight the calculated and systemic destruction of Muslim rights. At face value, the CAA seems to take on humanitarian form: it allows for migrants who fled religious persecution in neighbouring states a fast-track to citizenship in the haven that could be India. In reality, underneath the noble façade lies a corruption of the very ideal: all religions are welcome, ‘all’ except followers of Islam.
The Modi government’s defence is simple: the neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh etc.) are Muslim majority countries, so those fleeing from persecution will enviably be non-Muslim. However, Modi’s government conveniently casts aside the existence of Uighurs fleeing China, Rohyingas trekking across Bangladesh, and Ahmadis leaving Pakistan. All are Muslims sects that are continuously being persecuted and in need of asylum abroad, all are denied sympathy in the CAA. The CAA seen intertwined with the NRC paints an even more insidious picture: those excluded from the citizenship registry can seek recourse to stay in India through the CAA – unless they are Muslim.
At the face of criticism and the eruption of protests, Modi tweeted: “We in India are deeply motivated by Gandhi Ji’s emphasis on duties in addition to rights.” Through this, he attempts to take the focus away from the blatant destruction of civil liberties. He stressed to the protestors that duty to the state is more important, but he fails to realise that the protestors are demonstrating precisely out of this duty. Recitations of the constitution, chants of the national anthem and millions of raised Indian flags signal that this is a question of patriotism for the Indian people. But the question remains, will Modi be able to enforce his ‘duty’ over the Indian nation’s rights?
Students at Indian universities appear to be the standard bearers against the BJP’s Hindutva policies. Nightmarish clashes in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), and the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), have turned these bastions for the protection of civil liberties into battlefields.
Peaceful protests have been met with harsh counter-measures, many of which, including police brutality are entirely extraconstitutional. At an encounter at JMI, five brave women were recorded on a widely disseminated video defending an unarmed male student against police officers beating him with wooden sticks. A history professor at the institute writes: “in the middle of December, Delhi police tried to shut down protests against the religiously discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act by canning Muslim students into submission.”
In January, an attack on JNU saw the failure of the Delhi police, not through action, but inaction. Masked men carrying sticks, rods and glass bottles entered the building in the early evening injuring 18 students and a professor. The students believe these men belonged to the ABVP, a right-wing student organisation linked to the aforementioned Hindunationalist RSS. Aishe Ghosh, JNU’s student union leader, suffered serious injuries to her head, while the police remained absent. India Today reported that Ghosh alerted the police of the masked men at 3.00 p.m. but they did not send reinforcement until 7.45 p.m.
Cross currents of information, insults slung across the aisle, and denial of the victim’s trauma by the BJP has marked the event in the Subcontinent’s psyche. To make matters worse, following the events, the police identified a multitude of suspects: one of which is Ghosh, whom ABVP members claim organised the entire occasion. Ghosh, who still sustains injuries from the attack, refutes the charges and states that the Delhi police should make public whatever proof they claim to have.
Students across the world stand in solidarity with those in India fighting for their freedoms. Protests spanning the world from Los Angeles to Karachi show that the South Asian diaspora and beyond are committed to make the world see the atrocities occurring in Modi’s India. Right here in Oxford, on the 26th of January students will convene to celebrate India’s Republic Day with a demonstration against the CAA, NRC and its extension. When asked what drove the organisation of the protest, Gurmehar Kaur answered: “Imagine if the police were to walk in our campus here at Oxford and start manhandling students, throwing teargas shells in the libraries, breaking down windows and physically assaulting students – how abnormal would that be? We organised the protest to register our dissent so this kind of assault by the state on its university students is not normalised back in our countries. As students here, most of us have previously been students in the same spaces in India that are now under threat by the Modi government, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with our student fraternity.” Evidently, there are strong forces fighting for safety of civil liberties in India across the globe.
With that said, violent encounters in Assam have taken on a different, more brutal expression. The Northeast provinces presents a bleak reality of true division underneath those fighting for unity. In Assam, the issue of illegal immigrants fuelled protests for years in the early 1980s, partially dirven by citizens realised a swing in voting was in direct accordance with the large numbers of Bangladesh immigrants, who fled from oppression in East Pakistan.
Much of Assam welcomed the NRC, and saw it as a chance to rid the state of illegal immigrants who had come in within that period. The CAA, on the other hand, is seen as a betrayal of the governments commitment to shed the burden of the ‘illegals’: they worry it, instead, opens the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi immigrants burdening the resources and threatening Assamese language, culture and recourses. Assam appears to care less about the exclusion of Muslims: they simply want no one else to enter, be it Hindus, Muslims or otherwise. Nativist sentiments ride high in the loudest protests against the CAA – a worrying dimension of the patriotic backlash against the BJP.
In this vein, human rights seem to be in an expedited decay. Protests are still met with police brutality, internet shutdowns (India is the world’s leader in number of internet shutdowns last year) and the enforcement of colonial-era Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The antiquated Section 144 makes it illegal for more than four people to gather in one place, and has been instated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, to crush dissent.
India is torn in between true democracy and exclusionary rhetoric. Communalist weeds, alongside a heightened drawbridge approach to immigration, continue to spawn and challenge the secular, liberal framework Nehru-era Indians aspired to.
Not all hope is lost: Modi has attempted to suggest that the protestors are aggravated seditionist Muslims, but there are many beaming examples of inter-religious solidarity. Protests at the heart of Delhi in Shahida Bagh illustrate a multi-faith consensus, where ”Sikhs did their kirtan, Muslims offered namaz and Hindus performed a havan, all at the same time, to say that the protest against the CAA and the impending National Register of Citizens is not a religious one at all”, as The Wire reports.
The Indian Supreme Court is set to rule on the legitimacy of the CAA later in January, but as it stands, some lower courts reflect the sentiment of a secular, democratic India. In the bail hearing for one protest organiser, Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad, this sentiment shone through. At the face of the prosecutor denying the permission of the defendant to protest, the Tis Hazari Sessions Judge Kamini La stated:“What permission? The Supreme Court has said repeated use of Section 144 is abuse. I have seen many people, many such cases, where protests happened even outside Parliament. Some of those people are now senior politicians, chief ministers.”
Moreover, some evidence shows the BJP appears to be losing its hold over the Indian public, as trouble over the CAA and a sinking economy shows a supposed reversal in the popularity that won them the landslide in May. The loss over state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand signal a challenge for the BJP and their sectarian policies.
The constitution-chanting protestors, many of them young, working class, some female, show an India that is slowing pulling together the canyons created by the BJP and their divisive politics. Glimmers of hope underneath the overwhelming sense of despair at the state of India’s democracy do shine through, but the fact remains that this may not be enough. Every second day, another message from an Indian man fascinated by the Oxford Union’s politics forces me to doubt that India is close to the reckoning required. As we wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on the CAA, Modi and the BJP reside over a humanitarian crisis. India – one of the most populous nations and the largest democracy in the world – is set to enter the later half of the century as a superpower. Yet, as it moves from developing to developed, the necessities of true democracy cannot be ignored. All of the Indian people must commit to patriotism and love for their country in a unifying, not divisive, manner.