MUMBAI, India — I follow the low hum of voices to the historic Gateway of India, a massive archway built in honor of Britain’s monarchs over a century ago. Protesters have been camping out here for the past two nights.
A man stands on a pole, waving India’s tricolor flag against the backdrop of a near-full moon. Across the street, tourists staying at the iconic five-star Taj Bengal hotel observe the peaceful crowd from a distance. “Hum ek hai” — we are one — it chants to a tabla beat. A little girl, clutching her father’s side, erupts: “Azadi! Azadi!,” she calls — freedom, freedom.
Her father wears a traditional taqiya cap, identifying him as Muslim. But it’s not just Muslims here. There are Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, university students, mothers, grandmothers and working professionals who have just clocked out.
By midnight, the crowd grows to about 2,000. Voices harmonize folk poetry, speak about freedom. All markers of diverse backgrounds blend into a singular desire for justice. There is hope in the crowd. In the unusual winter heat, volunteers pass out boxes of rice, fruit and energy drinks to campers.
My friend remarks on the friendly disposition of the cops. A volunteer who overhears us cautions that the police are not our friends: “They just haven’t received orders from up top yet.”
The new citizenship strikes at the heart of India’s 69-year-old secular constitution and what it means to be an Indian.
He isn’t wrong. By the morning, the demonstrators are cleared out. Those who refuse to leave are taken to Azad Maidan, a public park about a mile away. Its name translates to Freedom Ground. Protesters camping out opposite the luxury hotel in a tourism center is a bad look for the government. But things don’t turn violent like they have in other parts of the country. The demonstrators are detained and released the following evening.
India is increasingly becoming an authoritarian state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came into power in 2014 with an overwhelming majority, promising neo-liberal economic policies and, much like Donald Trump, an “India first” policy. In 2019, he won again with barely any opposition, emphasizing the fight against terrorism, pledging to establish peace in Kashmir by lifting Article 370, which grants the region autonomy, and to introduce the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The new law, which was approved by both branches of parliament in December, grants citizenship rights to those fleeing persecution in three surrounding countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But it also strikes at the heart of India’s 69-year-old secular constitution and thereby what it means to be an Indian. Under the measure, Muslim migrants are excluded from citizenship.
Across the country and abroad, Indians are protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a nascent government bureau charged with enforcing it, the National Registry of Indians (NRC). The fundamental fear of the students and activists leading the demonstrations is that the CAA is exclusionary in nature.
The law “provides a path to Indian citizenship for members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities” who fled persecution from the country’s Muslim-majority neighbors before December 2014. The government’s logic in excluding Muslims in the clause is that it is seeking to support persecuted minorities from the region.
“We are not taking anyone’s citizenship,” Modi told the Hindu. “A person, irrespective of his or her religion, whether he [or] she believes in God or not but has faith in the Constitution of India, can seek citizenship under already laid down procedure.”
But the law’s opponents charge that it is unconstitutional and discriminatory and that it will be used to displace Muslims, as well as Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Buddhists from Tibet who are also excluded under the CAA. The law declares them illegal foreigners, “guilty until proven innocent,” as Ibad Mustaq, an attorney and critic of the law, puts it. Labeled “illegal,” they can be picked up and detained until they show proof of Indian birth.
Advocacy and civil society groups, even the European Parliament, have filed close to 200 petitions with India’s Supreme Court, urging it to overturn the law, but so far it has only asked the government to respond to their criticisms.
The violent retaliation of the government against those protesting the act, along with a six-month internet shutdown in Kashmir that only partially ended in January, has further fueled concerns over the encroachment of proto-fascism. So far, 30 people have been killed in demonstrations nationwide, many of them in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to an impoverished Muslim minority and numerous right-wing Hindutva groups.
Prior to plans for national implementation, a registry of citizens was undertaken in Assam and monitored by the Supreme Court beginning in 2013 as a way of addressing a continuous influx of immigrants from Bangladesh into the northeastern state. The government now plans on implementing the NRC nationally under a new name, the NPR or National Population Register.
If the registry is implemented as it was in Assam, Mustaq, who has sat in on hundreds of citizenship hearings, says there is grave reason for concern.
So far there are six detention camps in Assam that are quickly filling up. Over 1,000 people have reportedly been detained so far. The national implementation of this model will lead to “widespread statelessness” and the devastation for India’s poor, Mustaq fears. It will lead to the displacement not just of Muslims but of India’s tribal communities.
“Out of 1.9 million people who have been declared illegal in Assam, not all are Muslim,” Ibad says.“But they are all poor.”
The issue lies in documentation. India’s tribal and nomadic minorities have historically faced the threat of persecution and many lack legal documentation, like a birth certificate to prove they were born on Indian soil. Common and accessible documents like a passport and aadhar card (India’s version of a social security card) are “not enough” to prove citizenship under NRC.
Protests in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have been exceedingly violent, with police detaining peaceful crowds and beating them with batons. Internet shutdowns, the first of which was instituted when Modi’s government revoked Kashmiri autonomy in August, are becoming common in multiple states, including Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
Unrest in Assam has only grown, despite Modi’s promise to “protect the linguistic, cultural and social identity of the people of Northeast.”
Meanwhile, in New Delhi, masked men attacked protesting students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, clubbing them and splattering them with acid while police looked on. Nearly 40 people were injured. Ironically, the Delhi Police used the outrage the incident sparked across India to obtain special detention powers that allow it to hold protesters without cause and deny them the right to an attorney.
To many observers, the government’s authoritarian, defensive reaction to the demonstrations confirms their fear of losing India’s pluralistic democracy.
Indian media is riddled with fake news that circulates on WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter, including claims that anti-CAA protesters have attacked authorities and saffron-clad squads of Modi supporters who have launched counter-demonstrations. BJP’s IT cell is notoriously effective at monitoring anti-BJP hashtags and overshadowing them with pro-government messaging on social media platforms. Journalists are being prosecuted. Without the support of international media and the opposition’s endangered online presence, the truth would die with the voices of the buried and jailed.
But there is reason to hope. Jan. 8 saw 250 million Indian workers launch a one-day strike, against Modi, his economic policies that favor the wealthy and the citizenship law. If this momentum grows it could pose a future threat to his power.
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