Driving India protests, a sense that ‘we will lose everything’

Why We Wrote This

Citizenship laws might appear dry and academic on paper, but as protests in India show, they are anything but. They cut to the core of an individual’s sense of self and security, and a country’s core principles.

Anupam Nath/AP
Protesters shout slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Gauhati, India, Dec. 17, 2019. Student protests that turned into violent clashes with police galvanized opposition nationwide to a new law that provides a path to citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants.

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India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act was hailed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a lifeline to refugees from neighboring countries who have faced religious persecution. It fast-tracks citizenship for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and others from majority-Muslim Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

But it excludes Muslims, and taken together with other actions pursued by India’s Hindu nationalist government, it has fed a sense of dark foreboding among India’s Muslim minority. The moves also have sparked sharp opposition from constitutional scholars, and from proponents of India’s foundational secularism, who say the new law sets the country on a dangerous path of religious discrimination.

“Many are seeing this new law as India’s version of a Muslim ban,” says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“What it is for sure is part of a series of actions that reflect the BJP’s very specific and well-articulated worldview, the objective of which is to remodel India as a state that hews closely to pro-Hindu policies, norms, and principles,” he adds. “This is Hindu nationalists declaring, ‘We want to make India great again.’”

Even though Shazia Sheikh says her heart was broken by India’s new citizenship law favoring non-Muslim immigrants, the young instructor at a New Delhi child education nonprofit had not joined the massive protests that have rocked India.

Until now.

After security forces stormed a university campus near her south Delhi home Sunday in pursuit of student marchers, and especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech to Hindu nationalists in which he said the demonstrators could be identified by their clothing – a veiled reference to many of the marchers’ Muslim faith – she says she knew she had to turn her sadness into action.

The new law “is the first time a government of India approves legislation based on religion, and that is against our constitution, it is against our secularism, and it is a threat to our democracy,” says Ms. Sheikh, who is Muslim and asked that her real name not be used so she could speak freely.

She asked for and received her father’s blessing to start taking part in the protests.

“He said, ‘Yes, you should go, because if we don’t stop this now we will lose everything,’” she says. “And he didn’t mean just Muslims, but all Indians will lose our secular society,” she adds, “and without that we are not sure if India can survive.”

At first glance, India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act, approved by Parliament this month and signed into law, might not seem worth all the fuss. Hailed by the Modi government as a lifeline to refugees from neighboring countries who have faced religious persecution, the new law essentially fast-tracks citizenship for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and other faithful from minority religions in majority-Muslim Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

But the law excludes Muslims – who at nearly 200 million strong constitute India’s largest minority – and neighboring countries such as Myanmar with significant Muslim minorities.

And taken together with a number of other actions pursued by India’s Hindu nationalist government – including, for example, the termination of autonomy for India’s only Muslim-majority region, Jammu and Kashmir, in August – the new law has fed a sense of dark foreboding among India’s Muslims, who make up 14% of the population.

Moreover, the citizenship law and other actions have sparked sharp opposition from the political opposition, from constitutional scholars, and from proponents of India’s foundational secularism, who say the new law sets a country comprising dozens of religious, ethnic, and linguistic communities on a dangerous path of religious discrimination.

“Many are seeing this new law as India’s version of a Muslim ban,” says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“What it is for sure is part of a series of actions that reflect the BJP’s [or Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's] very specific and well-articulated worldview, the objective of which is to remodel India as a state that hews closely to pro-Hindu policies, norms, and principles,” he adds. “This is Hindu nationalists declaring, ‘We want to make India great again.’”

A global phenomenon

For some, the unrest in India is reflective of protest movements that have popped up around the world over the last six months in response to unpopular government actions.

“We can connect this with other ‘season of discontent’ movements around the world, from Ecuador and Turkey to Lebanon and of course Hong Kong, where the people are spontaneously rising up and marching in the streets to reject a decision or a direction taken by the government,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, an expert in India’s role as an emerging power at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “India is the latest to join in.”

The spark that ignited each case is different, he says, adding that in India’s case “we’re seeing a rebellion against a weakening of the principles of the Indian Constitution – really quite far-reaching for its time – which underscored the rights of minorities and established all Indians to be equal citizens.”

In the protests that have spanned India, marchers have held aloft the image of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s founding father, who espoused secularism and religious tolerance. University students have held public readings of the preamble to India’s constitution.

In response to the demonstrations, the government, whether at the national or at state and local levels, has sent out police forces that have in some cases resorted to harsh repressive measures, even firing on and killing some protesters. Beyond that, authorities have also resorted to shutting down the internet in some states and localities – a tactic used in Kashmir after the abrogation of autonomy was announced.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Demonstrators throw stones toward police during a protest against a new citizenship law in Seelampur, an area of Delhi, India, Dec. 17, 2019.

Government officials say the internet shutdowns are necessary to halt the spread of “false information” and agitating rumors. But free-speech advocates say the move is a classic tactic used by authoritarian regimes to limit protest leaders’ ability to organize and publicize marches and to sustain their movement.

Citizenship registry

Most experts and many ordinary Indians insist the new citizenship law would not have caused the same outpouring of public ire were it not for the BJP’s long-stated intention to carry out a national citizenship registry, known by the acronym NRC. The project calls for denying rights, including the right to vote, to those who cannot prove with documentation their Indian citizenship.

Muslims fear the aim of the NRC would be to disenfranchise them and many of India’s poor and illiterate, who would not have the means or the documentation (such as deeds proving land ownership) to establish citizenship.

The NRC got something of a test run this summer in the northeastern state of Assam, along the border with Bangladesh, where residents were required to prove they or their ancestors had lived in India since 1971. About 2 million of the state’s 33 million residents failed to prove longtime residency.

Critics note that about 1.4 million of the 2 million who could not prove citizenship are either Hindu or of some other non-Muslim religious minority – and so will be protected by the new citizenship act. But the half-million Assamese Muslims who could not prove citizenship may be out of luck.

The one-two punch of the citizenship act following on the heels of the summer’s citizenship registry explains why Assam has witnessed some of the most violent protests of the past week, some Indians say.

“The whole of the northeast is burning, because people now understand that these citizenship projects from the government are really about making India a Hindu supremacist nation,” says Ajmal Khan (not his real name) a Muslim social welfare academic at a New Delhi university.

“Not just Muslims,” he adds, “but Indians of all types are reacting so forcefully because they are realizing that what is under threat is the constitution and the very foundations of our country.”

“Hindu First” agenda?

The uproar over the citizenship act is taking place against a backdrop of poor economic results for Mr. Modi’s government – leading some to suggest a desire to divert public attention from stagnant job growth and weak results in sectors like manufacturing and agriculture.

“The economic picture is so lackluster that one must wonder if this is happening now as a kind of distraction,” says NYU’s Professor Sidhu.

But Carnegie’s Mr. Vaishnav has a different explanation. He suspects the government is moving forward on the citizenship measures, even when the priority would seem to be to address a weak economy, because the BJP is united behind the “Hindu First” agenda.

“The government’s critics keep asking, ‘Is this really the priority, when growth is slumping?’ but the reality is that there is a clear consensus within the party on the social and cultural agenda,” he says, “whereas when it comes to the economy, there is no such consensus.”

Professor Sidhu says he believes the government could still back down on the citizenship act if mass demonstrations continue, or he says the Supreme Court might come to the rescue by ruling the act unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will hear challenges to the new law in late January, but it declined to suspend implementation of the act in the meantime.

Ms. Sheikh in New Delhi says the government could end the unrest simply by applying the citizenship act to all persecuted religious minorities seeking refuge in India – including, for example, Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya.

But in the meantime, she says she will now join the protests – not so much to battle against something, but to stand up for something. “I will be marching for our secular constitution,” she says, “and for our democracy.”

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