India is engulfed in a wave of protests over the controversial religion-based citizenship legislation that has spread to student campuses across the country. Critics have slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government for pushing an “anti-Muslim” agenda akin to Hitler’s Nuremberg laws, enacted in 1935 in Germany, to further marginalise its 200-million strong Muslim minority.
The death toll from days of violent protests against the law rose to six with authorities maintaining internet bans and curfews in many parts of the country and especially in the northeastern state of Assam – the epicentre of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (CAA). Many have linked the new legislation that integrates religious criteria into its naturalisation and refugee policies as incongruous with the nation’s founding as a secular republic, and many have drawn similarities between it and Myanmar’s citizenship law of 1982 – the genesis of the ongoing Rohingya crisis and potential genocide.
Modi has dismissed allegations that the law was discriminatory. He has also assured that the new legislation does not affect any citizens of any religion. “This is the time to maintain peace, unity and brotherhood,” he says. “It is my appeal to everyone to stay away from any sort of rumour-mongering and falsehoods.” But senior leader of the principal opposition Indian National Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, has attacked Modi’s government, asserting that the law and a mooted nationwide register of citizens (NRC) are “weapons of mass polarisation unleashed by fascists”.
While the law has divided public opinion, protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government further intensified after police brutality against students protesting at the two prominent public Muslim universities – Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which is in Aligarh, and has three off-campus centres. Riot police used baton charges and tear gas to dispel hundreds of students protesting against the CAA.
The third day of the countrywide protests against the legislation descended into chaos on the afternoon of 16 December after demonstrations in the capital turned violent. Visuals of bloody washrooms and footage of injured students at Jamia university were posted on social media platforms. Dozens of students were reportedly detained by the police. They were subsequently released, following an intervention by civil rights groups.
It is still unclear who started the violence but stones were allegedly thrown at the police who retaliated with tear gas. Authorities alleged that protesters had torched several vehicles near Jamia university and clashed with police who entered the campus in order to take control of the situation, detaining some of the people who had allegedly been violent.
Jamia university administration claimed that its students were not involved in the violence. The university’s Chief Proctor Waseem Ahmad Khan said the police had entered the campus forcibly and beaten up staff members and students. Similar incidents were reported at AMU, where students gathered at the university gate to protest, and police resorted to disproportionate force. More than 100 students were injured and police blocked ambulances from entering the university to help the injured.
Hours after the news of police brutality at Jamia university spread through the national capital, hundreds of students from Ambedkar University in Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, civil groups and citizens gathered outside the headquarters of Delhi Police to take part in an “emergency” demonstration, and demand stern action against officials. The opposition parties attacked the government for giving the protests a community turn by describing it as an issue of Hindu versus Muslims. Deputy chief minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia tweeted photographs of a uniformed policeman emptying canisters into a damaged bus. “It is clear from the photos that the BJP has done dirty politics and made the police light this fire,” he wrote.
“As far as Left parties are concerned, we have given a call for countrywide protest on 19 December,” says D Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI). “We hope that the protest will be a massive one. We appeal to all secular, democratic forces to join in the protest,” he added. Senior Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra says the voice of the youth cannot be suppressed. “This government is scared of the voice of the public. It wants to stifle the youth of this country with its dictatorship.”
Amnesty India says the violence against peacefully protesting students cannot under any circumstances be justified: “Allegations that the police brutally beat up and sexually harassed students in Jamia Millia Islamia University must be investigated.” In addition, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the matter pertaining to violence at Jamia university and AMU but warns that protests, violence and destruction of public property cannot continue. The National Commission for Women also issued notice to Delhi Police on reports that female students of Jamia university were allegedly beaten and sexually harassed by male police officers.
Students from various universities across India came out to express solidarity with their counterparts in Jamia university and AMU, and to denounce police brutality against the students. Students from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU), both located in Hyderabad; and Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow expressed support to students in the two campuses, as did students from Jadavpur University in Kolkata and IIT Madras.
The students from IIT Bombay carried out a march with candles in their hands, protesting the actions of Delhi Police, while the TISS students boycotted classes and fieldwork and also staged a protest inside their campus. Several Delhi university students boycotted exams and held a protest to express their solidarity. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of CPI(M), also organised a statewide protest to object to the police action on students.
“There is a reason why these universities are in the vanguard of the resistance to the CAA,” argues political commentator and columnist Mukul Kesavan. “They are historically Muslim foundations with large numbers of Muslim students and teachers who are directly affected by the explicit exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the amended law.”
The contentious law
The new legislation, known as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, is an amendment to India’s Citizenship Act of 1955. The CAA entitles non-Muslim immigrants from three neighbouring Muslim-majority countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – to citizenship if they are facing religious persecution and have entered India illegally. Under the legislation, tens of thousands of Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship. The same will not apply for Muslims.
The critics underline that the bill specifically targets Muslims, and unfairly makes religion a condition for applying for citizenship. This, they say, is a violation of Article 14 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees the right to equality. The law is also being challenged in the Supreme Court by rights groups and a Muslim political party, arguing that it is against the constitution and India’s cherished secular traditions.
Protests erupted across the country, in Mumbai, Kolkata, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Patna and Raipur, following the passing of this law in Parliament. Authorities in the north of the state of Uttar Pradesh cut internet access in western parts of the state, following demonstrations in Aligarh, home to a large university and a sizeable Muslim population. Demonstrations also escalated in West Bengal, where the country’s first state-organised marches led by its chief minister Mamata Banerjee, took place. State governments in Bengal, Punjab and Kerala vowed not to allow the implementation of the law in their states.
The main epicentre of the protests has been in India’s far-flung northeastern states, which have long been a seething and violent melting pot of ethnic tensions. To date, as many as 1 500 people have been arrested in Assam, for violence including arson and vandalism; authorities have shut down schools until 22 December. The government has blocked internet service and a curfew was imposed during the night. Foreign journalists are no longer permitted to travel to the region without a permit.
Assam protests have proved to be some of the bloodiest so far, with the death toll reaching six. Demonstrators in Assam fear an influx of outsiders will dilute the political sway and culture of native Assamese, many of whom argue that “foreigners” will take over their land and jobs – eventually dominating their culture and identity. The new law has also reopened old wounds in the state – sandwiched between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, which has long seethed with interethnic tensions and where armed tribal groups are still resisting being a part of India.
The Hindu-nationalist BJP government argues that the law aims to accommodate those who have fled religious persecution, but critics argue that the law is part of the government’s agenda to marginalise Muslims, and violates secular principles enshrined in the Indian constitution. The government denies any religious bias and says Muslims are not covered by the new law because they are not religious minorities, and therefore do not need India’s protection.
The United Nations Human Rights office says it is concerned that the law “would appear to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India’s constitution”, while the United States and the European Union have also expressed concern. A US federal commission on international religious freedom has said that India’s CAA was a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction,” and has sought American sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah.
Kesavan in his article An evil hour lucidly explains why Indian Muslims are hostile to a law that makes it easier for religious minorities from ideologically Muslim states to find refuge in Indian citizenship. He explains that the underlying purpose of the CAA is to reassure non-Muslims that the all-India National Register of Indian Citizens proposed by the home minister will only affect Muslims.
“The BJP’s problem with the working of the NRC in Assam was that the process excluded too many Hindus,” he says. “The CAA is the BJP’s solution to this problem. If the all-India NRIC [National Register of Indian Citizens] comes to pass, every Indian will have to produce documentary proof of citizenship, but non-Muslims will have a get-out-of-jail card: they will be able to invoke the CAA and claim that they are refugees from hostile Muslim countries. Undocumented Muslims, on the other hand, will be excluded from citizenship.”
According to Sameena Khan, an independent political writer and commentator, there is a clear similarity between the Nuremberg Laws that explicitly mentioned all but “Jews” as citizens of the German state just like the CAA, which implicitly excludes “Muslims” from the list of possible recipients of Indian citizenship.
“Coupled with a nationwide National Registry of Citizens, this bill (now a law) threatens to render millions of Indian Muslims stateless in a country where poverty, illiteracy and lack of proper healthcare and government channels make it difficult, if not impossible for people to obtain documentation,” she says, underlining the fact that people prosecuted under the Nuremberg Laws were “imprisoned and ultimately sent to concentration camps.”