Campus protests take place across India, Citizens Act 2019 as police brutality fuels anger
Students have protested in cities across India as part of a massive wave of intensifying violent unrest over a divisive bill granting citizenship to some non-Muslims who entered the country illegally.
During a march on Sunday at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, police entered the campus and detained more than 100 students, beating activists in the street and firing teargas.
Barricades and buses were set alight, and on Monday the university remained closed and nearby schools and offices in south Delhi were shut due to the damage.
Students marching at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh on Sunday were met with a similar level of brutality, with anti-riot police reportedly firing teargas into crowds protesting peacefully and arresting dozens of students.
An internet block was implemented in the area on Sunday night and remained in place on Monday in an attempt to quell the mounting unrest.
By Monday the protests had spread to university campuses in the cities of Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chandigargh and Kolkata, while in Lucknow students pelted police with stones after they fired teargas at demonstrators.
“Violence against peacefully protesting students cannot under any circumstance be justified. Allegations that the police brutally beat up and sexually harassed students in Jamia Millia Islamia University must be investigated,” Amnesty India said in a statement.
Critics of the citizenship amendment bill, which was signed into law on Thursday, say it openly discriminates against Muslims.
Under the legislation, tens of thousands of Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship. The same will not apply for Muslims.
Rahul Gandhi, the former head of the opposition Congress party, tweeted on Monday that the law and a mooted nationwide register of citizens also seen as anti-Muslim were “weapons of mass polarisation unleashed by fascists”.
Nationwide protests against the bill began in the north-eastern state of Assam and show no sign of relenting. The bill is particularly sensitive in the state, not only because of its religiously divisive nature but also because many local people see the granting of citizenship to those from other countries as a threat to their culture.
On Sunday more than 6,000 people took to the streets in the state’s biggest city, Guwahati, where police and military troops were deployed and a night-time curfew imposed. Organisers have vowed to continue their unrest this week, with big protests planned for Wednesday.
The Assam protests have proved to be some of the bloodiest so far, with the death toll reaching six over the weekend. According to officials, four people died after being shot by police, another was killed when a shop in which he was sleeping was set on fire and a sixth died after he was beaten up during a protest.
Protests also escalated in West Bengal. The first of the state-organised marches against the bill took place on Monday, led by the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, who vowed she would never allow the citizenship bill to be implemented.
They follow days of violence across the state, which is home to around 25 million Muslims. Demonstrators set fire to tyres, staged sit-ins on main roads and railway tracks, and torched trains and buses. Riot police were brought in to disperse protesters and a block on the internet was implemented in some parts of the state.
Several hundred protesters also took to the streets in Kerala, another state that has said it will not allow the bill to be introduced.
In his first comments on the unrest, India’s president, Narendra Modi, tweeted: “Violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing. Debate, discussion and dissent are essential parts of democracy but, never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos.”
Modi dismissed allegations that the bill was discriminatory and he said he wanted to “assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion”.
BJP poking old wounds
From Germany to Chile and South Africa, nations have had to endure painful reconciliation processes to heal themselves, put the past behind them, and draw lessons from violent brushes with history to prevent their recurrence. India has chosen to beat a reverse path. Tired of the country’s stable democracy, preserved for seven decades after blood-soaked independence, its muscular new caretakers are urgently poking old wounds in the hope of stirring up India’s demons to take it down the same road to perdition it long ago escaped, writes Debasish Roy Chowdhury in South China Morning Post.
Amid opposition protests and marathon debates, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this week pushed through a bill in parliament that will give Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, which became an act on Thursday with the president’s assent after it was cleared by both Houses of Parliament, allows for the first time in constitutionally secular India a citizenship provision based on religion. Modi himself was conspicuously absent throughout the House debates and let his closest aide and Home Minister Amit Shah lead the government side in piloting the bil
On its own, the CAB can appear to be an innocuous, almost altruistic, piece of legislation. The bill’s diabolical genius lies in what it does not mention. For example, it does not specifically say Muslims need not apply. Instead, it lists all the other communities who stand to gain from its apparently inclusive ambit – the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees and Christians, who are persecuted in those countries. The rationale is, Muslims cannot be persecuted in Islamic states, and hence a Muslim fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan cannot be a refugee.
Apart from the dubious assumption that Muslims are not persecuted in Islamic countries – many groups such as Pakistan’s Ahmadiyyas are, and religion is not the only basis of persecution – this arbitrary list of countries of origin is striking in what it leaves out, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China are also India’s neighbours, but find no mention. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are particularly stark omissions because of the many Tamil refugees who have come to India in the past and the exodus of the Rohingya after massacres in Rakhine. The choice of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan fits the Hindu nationalist narrative of a tolerant Hindu India where Muslims flourish vis-à-vis rogue Islamist neighbours that oppress their Hindu populations. This is not an entirely unsubstantiated claim, but in this telling, there’s no such thing as a Muslim victim. The Muslim is the oppressor. This is why the Rohingya Muslims, some of whom managed to find their way to India from Bangladesh, are demonised by Hindu activists despite the painful circumstances of their arrival in India. India has taken hundreds of thousands of refugees from the region, but the Modi government has been trying to evict the Rohingya from Indian soil.
The government has taken pains to stress that the new law is not discriminatory and is meant only to help refugees, not discriminate against India’s own Muslim population. Not many are buying the assurances. The provision, which clashes with the articles 14 and 15 of the Indian constitution that guarantee the right to equality and non-discrimination, has already been challenged in the Supreme Court by two political parties and is likely to face more legal challenges.
The US government’s Commission for International Religious Freedom calls it “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction” as it runs “counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith”. The US State Department on Thursday said: “Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies. The US urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values.”
THE REAL DANGER
Anxiety over the new law goes far beyond the ideological re-imagination of Indian citizenship along majoritarian lines. Its real, immediate threat is evident when seen in conjunction with another major initiative of the Modi government – a pan-India citizen verification process known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Originally meant only for the northeastern state of Assam, where 1.9 million people have just been left disenfranchised by the process, it will now be extended to all of India.
The decade-long NRC exercise in Assam was marked by the untold misery of people struggling to establish their ancestry. In thousands of families, one or two members failed to make the list while others did. Still others lost their lives’ savings in litigation to prove themselves Indian. More than a thousand people have been rotting away in jail for years merely on suspicion of dubious citizenship, 28 people have died in detention, and many have committed suicide over fear and shame of losing citizenship or ending up in detention.
Replicated across the nation, such an exercise can only scale up the sufferings witnessed in Assam. And, conducted by a Hindu hardline dispensation, which nurses historical grievances against Muslims that it does not even try to hide, a nationwide NRC is justifiably feared for its potential to be weaponised for disenfranchising millions of Indian Muslims. BJP leaders like Shah openly use dehumanising terms like “termites” and “vermin” to describe “illegal migrants”, which they use as a code for Muslims.
Under the NRC, all 1.35 billion Indians would be automatically considered outsiders, the onus being on individuals to prove they are not. But with the new citizenship law, everybody gets a free pass except Muslims. The optics of Muslims having to plead and grovel to prove their Indianness reinforces the Hindu nationalist notion of the Muslims as the outsider. And, to have them thrown into jail is the stuff of extreme right-wing dreams, which now looks tantalisingly within reach. India is building scores of new detention centres. The federal government has asked all states to set up at least one detention centre with “modern amenities”. According to Indian media reports, it has even issued an 11-page “2019 Model Detention Manual” to help state governments with the process.
It’s not for nothing that parallels are being drawn with Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Race Laws on citizenship that would provide the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews leading to the Holocaust. Only people of “German or kindred blood” were decreed to be allowed as citizens of Germany. The Ahnenpass (ancestor pass) issued to those determined to be of “Aryan blood” recorded the “family tree” of individuals, not very different from the way the Assamese have had to establish their lineage to pass the Indian test. A closer and more recent parallel to mass statelessness was the 1982 mass disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Myanmar, before their massacre years later that triggered their exodus in 2017.
The citizenship law has been greeted by protests and calls for civil disobedience. Three states – Punjab, Bengal, and Kerala – have refused to apply the law. Much of northeastern India has erupted in violence. Unlike the BJP, which sees Muslims as the outsider, Assam and the rest of the region fear being overrun by outsiders – both Hindu and Muslim. The new law, it is feared, will legitimise the millions of Bengali speakers who live in the region and open the floodgates for more migration from Bangladesh.
The BJP tried to pass the law once before, in January but had to drop it in the face of similar protests all over the northeast. This time it kept the tribal belts of the region out of the CAB’s ambit but it still didn’t help. Two people have died in police firing on protesters in Assam’s Guwahati, just days before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was scheduled to meet with Modi there. Shillong in neighbouring Meghalaya state is under curfew. The internet has been shut down in three states and the army deployed in much of the region. Paramilitary troops are being moved from Kashmir to Assam in a special train.
The country is facing one of its severest slowdowns in recent decades in the wake of poorly considered policy decisions, especially Modi’s surprise ban of high-denomination notes in 2016 followed by a shoddily implemented nationwide goods and services tax.
Consumer spending has fallen for the first time in more than four decades. The unemployment rate is the highest in 45 years. The economic growth rate has declined for six straight quarters, the longest slowdown in 23 years. From its once-mighty double-digit growth, the Indian economy is currently chugging along at a mere 4.5 per cent. Standard & Poor Global Ratings this week said it would downgrade India’s sovereign rating to junk grade if growth does not pick up. The federal government is so short of cash that it cannot pay states their dues.
Not to mention the chronic problems of agrarian distress, poor health care, hunger and poverty. These are not of Modi’s making, but they have seen no improvement under him either. India saw 31 farmer suicides every day in 2016. The country ranks 102 out of the 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index report, behind Pakistan (94), Bangladesh (88), Sri Lanka (66), Nepal (73) and China (25). It is among the three countries where child wasting – an indicator of malnutrition – is most prevalent, along with Yemen and Djibouti, as more than 90 per cent of Indian children between 6 and 23 months do not get fed a minimum acceptable diet.
In short, the government has far bigger fish to fry than dabble in socially explosive policy changes for which there is no pressing need. Partition and the Bangladesh war took place a long time ago, refugees are not beating down the doors any more. Hindu lawmakers in Pakistan are in fact fuming at the way the BJP government is characterising the state of their community. “By dragging Pakistan’s Hindus into the issue, India has interfered in our internal matters,” one of them, Sachanand Lakhwani, told The Times of India .
It took about US$225 million to conduct the NRC in Assam. The government has now inexplicably scrapped the result of that entire exercise because it says it was a failure, but wants to do it across the country anyway, which will probably cost about US$30 billion. None of which makes any sense, but as the BJP slogan goes, Modi hain to mumkin hain – with Modi, everything is possible, concludes Debasish Roy Chowdhury, who is Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Democracy Network, The University of Sydney.
Two Keralite girls who stood up to policemen
They were not pelting stones. They were merely marching and raising slogans. But though there was no policewoman around, the men in uniform went after them till the girls forced them to retreat.
Faces of three Jamia students from Kerala had gone viral on Sunday evening. A video clip posted on social media showed a group of ‘restrained’ baton-wielding policemen dragging a male student out and pouncing upon him. Four women then rushed to his rescue and confronted the policemen, forcing them eventually to back off.
By Monday morning, their resistance became the image of the protests against police brutality. The women shielded Shaheen, also from Kerala, despite the policemen swinging their batons menacingly and indiscriminately.
While talking to NH on Monday, they said that they escaped by the skin of their teeth only because the policemen realised they were being photographed by a group of bystanders.
The young girl in a maroon hijab is Aysha Renna and just behind her in a grey hijab is Ladeeda Sakhaloon while the young man who is seen desperately trying to close the gate behind them, but who was dragged out by the policemen, is Shaheen Abdullah.
“On Sunday, we were not even at the front. We were the last of the protestors marching through Sarai Jullena. Suddenly we found students marching ahead running back. We didn’t know what was happening. But we saw policemen hurling tear gas shells and we also quickly backed away.”
“We attempted to hide behind a tree, but the policemen came after us. By then Ladeeda, who is asthmatic, was gasping for breath and had begun to choke. So, we ran into a nearby house thinking the police would not chase us, as we are women,” recalled 22-year-old Aysha, a post-graduate history student at the University and a resident of Malappuram.
They were under the facile and false impression that since there were no policewomen around, the men in uniform would not go against the law and manhandle them.
“I am asthmatic, and the tear gas was choking me. There were two other girls with us, who had been beaten up and we wanted them to get first aid. We had gone into the house thinking that we would be safe, but the police followed us there too. And that is when we decided to shout slogans against them,” recalled Ladeeda.
“We were confident that male cops would not raise their hands at us, but instead they saw us as if we were not human beings deserving of any consideration,” exclaimed Ladeeda with a wince. A resident of Kannur and a BA Arabic student, she is pursuing her second undergraduate degree, after completing her first bachelor’s in economics from a college in Kerala.
“Shaheen had come back looking for us as we had strayed away from the main protest. And then when he was helping us get to safety, the policemen attacked,” adds Aysha, who has known Shaheen since they were both students in Farook College in Kozhikode.
Shaheen, a young journalist with Maktoob Media who is pursuing his post-graduation in Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, said he was worried when he found the girls missing. But when he decided to go back and look for them, the policemen decided to beat him up.
“I tried explaining that I am a journalist, but that did not matter. They simply wanted to thrash us. I told them that we were not protestors, but they simply did not want to listen,” added Shaheen.
All of them managed to get to the Holy Family hospital later where Ladeeda was given oxygen and others were allowed to leave after being administered first aid.
Both Ladeeda and Aysha firmly believe that they got away without much harm because there was media recording the incident. “Thank goodness there were a few people there. Even with them, the cops were unrestrained. There was a policeman in plainclothes too. He is not supposed to wield a lathi,” added Ladeeda.
Aysha’s husband Asal Rahman, a freelance journalist, was beaten up at another protest a couple of days ago. “My husband was not there with me on Sunday, but he has been coming for our protests too. Our parents are supportive of our protests. They understand the discrimination which will begin with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. It is to strip us of our rights as citizens,” asserts Aysha. Agreeing with her, Ladeeda added that her parents have always encouraged her to fight against injustice.
These two young girls along with Chanda Yadav were also seen leading protests and shouting slogans atop a wall a few days ago. The photograph of the three girls addressing the protesters had also become an instant hit.
“We will speak up. What is there to fear? If we do not speak up now, when will we be heard?”, they asked defiantly.–Agencies/