At its peak, around 150 protesters gathered outside the Clarendon Building on Broad Street Sunday, 26 January to protest India’s recent passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Oxford students organized the event to express solidarity with protesting Indian students and educating the public about the discriminatory implications of the CAA and NRC. Though there was no formal organization behind the protest, it was coordinated by a group of students and academics who communicate primarily through social media and messaging platforms to share related news. Meeting weekly, this group plans for protests, creates flyers and other educational materials, and organizes panels and articles that will assist them in spreading their message.
Students and academics delivered several speeches at Sunday’s protest, informing the public about their concerns regarding the CAA and NRC, calling for solidarity, alleging the unconstitutionality of the initiatives, and expressing concern for the loss of Indian national secularism. Protesters chanted phrases like “We Shall Overcome” and “Azadi [Free- dom]” in a variety of languages.
Aiding these informative aspects of the protest were culturally enriching performances and cuisine. Indian culture was celebrated through the recitation of poetry written by famed Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and participants were invited to indulge in Indian masala tea, cookies, and assorted Indian snacks.
Kushal Sohal, an MSc student at St Antony’s College and one of the organizers for the protest, shared the goals he envisioned when assisting with the coordination and organization of the protest. Above all, the protest’s driving purpose was to demonstrate discontent with the CAA and the NRC.
“In this vein, the protest aimed to: show solidarity with students who have links to the universities and institutions under attack, whose families are subject to discriminatory behavior, and with those who could potentially be made stateless; send a message that it is a student’s democratic right to engage in peaceful dissent without fear of violence, especially police brutality; and high- light the ‘fundamentally discriminatory in nature’ (as described by the UN) of the said legislation/initiatives of Government of India and support the drive to champion the promises of inclusivity that are enshrined in the Constitution of India.” Sohal said.
Sohal remarked that turnout for this protest was significantly larger than it had been for protests regarding the same issue in months past in Oxford. Furthermore, the public engaged effectively with the protesters, with several passersby joining in on the chants and asking for flyers.
On Wednesday 22 January, a motion was passed – with 98% in favour – at the Oxford University Student Union Council to release a statement condemning violence against Indian student protesters. Following Sunday’s protest, the Oxford Student Union released the statement expressing their sup- port of and solidarity with India’s leading universities, which stand in opposition of the CAA and NRC and condemn the violence used against peaceful student protesters.
In 2019, the Indian government passed the CAA, a policy that enables Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, and Parsi migrants from the Muslim-majority nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who illegally entered India before 2015 and stayed for over five years, to apply for citizenship.
Notably, this Act excludes one major religious group: Muslims. Immediately following the passage of the CAA, people began to react negatively to the perceivably discriminatory implications of the Act and voiced concerns about the future of India’s secular identity. Others opposed the Act out of fear that the expansion of citizenship could corrupt national, linguistic, and cultural identity.
The Union government responded by claiming that the specific religious groups named in the CAA had faced persecution in their home nations while Muslims had not, meaning the government found no moral imperative to extend a pathway to citizenship for Muslims from these countries.
Furthermore, the government intends to enact the NRC, an official count of Indian citizens. This inaugural census of citizens, scheduled to take place before 2024, would serve the purpose of detecting illegal migrants.
Similarly, the public raised concerns that the NRC could serve as the basis for discrimination against certain groups.
In response to both the CAA and the NRC, Indian student groups have organized protests both in India and around the world in order to express their distaste for these political developments, citing discrimination and unconstitutionality as the primary reasons the initiatives should be stopped. Some student groups, despite protesting peacefully, have been met with brutality by the hands of police.