The most significant—and horrifying—accomplishment of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five years in power has been the mass normalization and institutionalization of Islamophobia on a level hitherto unseen. Having stoked historic anti-Islam animus during their election campaigns, organized social media trolling campaigns against Muslim critics, harassed Rohingya refugees, and set up detention camps for newly displaced noncitizens, Modi and his Hindu nationalist devotees in the Bharatiya Janata Party have carried out their supremacist agenda with ruthless efficiency (and this doesn’t even get into the street violence, the rising hate crimes and lynchings that their supporters are enacting at the municipal level). What the government is doing here isn’t totally new: Tensions between Hindus and Muslims date back centuries in the country, and despite founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of a secular India, there has always been an undercurrent of Islamophobia in the nation’s politics.
But today, thanks to relentless demonization by the Hindu right, more of India’s Muslims are more afraid, and adrift, than ever before. And following another governmental measure meant to further stifle Muslims’ rights, many of India’s college students are finally fighting back against this ostracism at an undeniable scale.
The country’s latest unrest started with the Citizenship Amendment Act, which passed both houses of Parliament and was signed by President Ram Nath Kovind on Dec. 12, though it has yet to be officially enacted. The law grants citizenship to members of religious minorities who have fled from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians—but conspicuously leaves out Muslims. The cutoff for citizenship eligibility is Dec. 31, 2014: Anyone who is deemed eligible by the aforementioned rules but entered the country after that date is subject to deportation.
Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah claim the intention of the bill is not to target Muslims, despite the fact that the law will exclude many currently residing Muslim residents from the democratic process. Shah has also claimed that no one in the country should worry about “losing” their nationality, which a somewhat moot point considering that millions of residents of the state of Assam have already lost citizenship due to this year’s implementation of the state’s National Register of Citizens, a bureaucratic means of weeding out “illegal” immigrants, and this new measure will effectively block the landless Muslim Assamese from reclaiming their status. (The Modi government also aims to establish a nationwide version of the NRC, known as the National Population Register, by 2024, surveilling the identities of all Indian residents and targeting all supposedly illegitimate settlers.) Another talking point from the bill’s supporters claims that special protections for Muslims are not needed since all the nations noted in the act are Muslim-majority. But to argue thus is to negate the sectarian violence within these same Muslim communities: the attacks on minority Shi’ite communities in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the persecution of the Hazara population in Afghanistan.
The severe consequences of this new law should not be understated. With this legislation, it has become clear that, for the BJP, it is not enough that laws are already keeping out Muslim refugees, that its feeder Hindu nationalist RSS organization now runs multiple schools in which it can indoctrinate young students to its ideology, and that Muslims have already been disenfranchised from the political process in several significant ways—Muslims now must be excluded from any political power, and from the country, altogether.
Many young Indians recognize the sinister connotations of the citizenship bill, and many have made their displeasure known. The resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act began in earnest at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi last week. Right when the bill passed, the predominantly Muslim attendees of the university rallied to show their opposition, and a photo of three female students speaking on campus near a statue of the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib went viral. A solidarity protest soon sparked at Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, over the weekend—in retaliation, authorities ordered the school closed until Jan. 5, with internet services cut off for the region as well. Though these schools became the main flashpoints of the bill’s debate, solidarity protests arose at universities all around the country, arranged by students in Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, and other major cities. Now, beyond students, citizens of all religions and nationalities are marching in India’s streets.
A map charted by news outlet Scroll.in shows just how widely the resistance movement has grown:
In addition, the measure is being defied by some local governments: The chief ministers of at least six Indian states, most of them members of the opposition Congress Party, are saying they will refuse to ratify the act because it is “unconstitutional” (even though government workers and legal experts say they cannot just choose to not implement the law). One of them, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has even joined her constituents’ marches.
It’s added up to the largest popular movement in India in years, at a scale that was likely unexpected by Modi and his allies, considering the massive electoral victory they won earlier this year, not to mention how brutally they were able to quash the resistance in the region of Jammu and Kashmir after controversially revoking the region’s autonomous status. Author and activist Arundhati Roy has referred to the stakes of this moment as India’s “biggest challenge since independence.” What Roy and the opponents of this measure seem to understand is that if this law is enacted and the resistance is effectively tamed, it will be well past time for the world to stop referring to India as the world’s largest democracy.
To counter this mass uprising, the state has come out in full militant force: Police are beating participants, arbitrarily using tear gas and water cannons, relentlessly pursuing rallygoers, arresting and detaining citizens in high numbers, damaging personal property, and even firing at protesters. Internet and metro shutdowns have become commonplace in areas where organizing is occurring. Photos that have spread on social media show how especially brutal this retaliation has been: Hundreds of students have been sent to hospital, some with severe injuries, and at least six have died so far; some victims have even been treated cruelly by their doctors. And the law is already on the cops’ side: 10 nonstudent Delhi residents linked to the protests have been held and sent to judicial custody by a local court until the end of the month. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, both overseen by BJP chief ministers, have imposed Section 144 of the 1973 Criminal Procedure Code, which forbids the assembly of four or more people at any area in their jurisdiction—and the protestors are already denying the order, massing in large numbers throughout Delhi and other cities and subsequently getting detained by police.
Naturally, the government is doing all it can to downplay the significance of the movement, decrying the supposed influence of “vested interest groups,” “jihadists,” and “Maoists.” Both Modi and Shah have attempted to assuage concerns about the law’s effects on Indian residents, to little avail, and claiming the opposition is uselessly misleading the people. Modi has also condemned “damage to public property” some of the rallygoers are causing, conveniently leaving out the fact that the Delhi Police are torching buses and cars and damaging public university buildings like the Jamia Millia Islamia library (something they have denied despite video evidence to the contrary). And even though he has said Muslims need not fear, the prime minister has been screeching the BJP’s dog whistles just a little bit louder lately, claiming you can identify the most dangerous protesters by their garb. Others are even less subtle: A high-ranking minister has said police should just shoot protesters who tarnish any public property. Moreover, the digital spin machine is in full force. As seen during the elections, fake news and disinformation about the protesters are spreading through social media platforms and WhatsApp.
The world is taking notice. The U.S. State Department issued a statement, asking authorities “to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly” and protesters “to refrain from violence.” The United Nations’ human rights body condemned the law as “fundamentally discriminatory.” Multiple nations, including the U.S., the U.K., Singapore, and Australia, have warned their citizens to avoid travel to certain parts of India. More than 100 Harvard University students signed an open letter to the Indian government in support of the protesters. And Pakistani Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi is urging India to nullify the act, stating that Pakistan will oppose it at every turn.
But will all this have an effect? Amit Shah, the home minister, is likely right that probably nothing, at this point, can stop the law from being enforced. The Supreme Court refused to issue a stay on the law since it isn’t in effect yet, although the judicial body has set a date in January to hear 59 petitions filed in opposition to the act. But the ostensibly independent court, which has been more likely to support Modi as of late, shouldn’t be counted on to oppose him now. Barring a highly unlikely sudden withdrawal, which would probably only result in chaos at the legislative level, it looks as though there is nothing that can stop yet another attack on Muslims from being enshrined in legal doctrine.
At the very least, what the rallies show Modi, and the world at large, is that no matter how much he whittles away the country’s democratic institutions, the spirit of Indian democracy itself cannot die so easily.