Tens of thousands take to the streets against the Modi government’s Muslim-exclusionary new Citizenship Act, reports Susan Ram
Protests are currently sweeping India, gathering force with every passing day.
In every part of this giant canvas, from Assam in the north east to Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the deep South, from Gujarat in the west through the massive heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to India’s eastern flanks, people in their hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets. Facing down police violence and draconian, colonial-era banning orders, protestors are staging a nationwide fightback against the latest outrage perpetrated by far right, Hindu majoritarian government of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The proximate target of popular fury is the government’s revised Citizenship Act, which passed its final stage of parliamentary approval on December 11. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this new law, which strikes at the roots of Indian citizenship as it has been understood and practised since Independence in 1947.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, embodies one prong of the Modi regime’s project to curtail and cut away at the citizenship rights of India’s 200 million or so Muslim citizens: nearly 15% of the population. It can be seen as preparatory to the second prong: the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in which every Indian will be required to provide documentary proof of citizenship, potentially reaching back to their grandparents’ era.
The NRC – the brainchild of Modi and his thuggish sidekick, Home Minister Amit Shah – has already been tested out in the multi-ethnic border state of Assam, a third of whose 32 million residents are Muslim. Over the decades, Assam has received substantial flows of refugees and migrants from neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh and Myanmar; it has also experienced separatist movements involving its intricate mosaic of tribal peoples. In such a context, providing documentary proof of residence was always going to be problematic. In the event, the trialling of the NRC in Assam resulted in the exclusion of nearly 2 million applicants, among them a number of non-Muslim migrants and refugees.
Hence the urgency to ‘amend’ (more accurately, rig) the existing parameters of citizenship before rolling out the NRC nationwide. This is what the new citizenship Act is all about. In essence, it fast-tracks applications for citizenship by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians (that is, exclusively non-Muslims) who entered India before the cut-off date of January 1, 2015 and who suffered “religious persecution” or fear thereof in their country of origin. Only three such countries are specified in the Act: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, the CAA relaxes the residence requirement for naturalisation of these migrants from 11 years to 5 years.
If one thing can be said about this new Act, it’s that it makes no attempt to hide its vicious, discriminatory intent. Only non-Muslim migrants are to be speeded on their way to Indian citizenship. On top of that, only non-Muslim migrants originating from specified Muslim-majority nations. Religious minorities seeking sanctuary from persecution at the hands of other regional players, whether Tibet, Myanmar or Sri Lanka, need not apply.
The brazenness of this legislative fix, and wrecking-ball threat it poses to what millions of Indians regard as foundational features of their nation and recent history, help explain the raw fury that is currently gripping India.
To begin with, the CAA is accurately perceived as contravening both the letter and spirit of India’s Constitution, with its premise of common citizenship regardless of differences of caste, creed, sex, ethnicity and culture. Article 14 of the Constitution, which applies to “all persons within the territory of India”, not just citizens, lays down that the State “shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”
For many people across India, their Constitution embodies, and is expressive of, a great deal more than lofty sentiment inscribed in legalese. As Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of the left-ruled state of Kerala and a particularly outspoken and effective mobiliser against the Modi regime, put it recently, “it was the heroism of millions of unsung freedom fighters that made our Constitution a reality. These men and women, who came from the working class, peasantry, and socially marginalised groups – whatever their religious persuasion – challenged the colonial authorities in their struggle for human rights and economic justice. This struggle had broader aims than the overthrow of colonial rule.”
Against this background, the divisive, deeply discriminatory character of the CAA finds ready recognition among broad sections of Indians, as does its explicit violation of human rights. A further factor amplifying the scale of the resistance is the Act’s obvious connection to the larger goal of Modi, Shah and the other would-be realisers of the Hindutva project: that of establishing a “Hindu nation” in which religious minorities will be stripped of citizenship.
The landslide victory of Modi and the BJP in the general election held earlier this year has puffed additional wind into the sails of this reactionary project. In August, the regime swooped suddenly to blast away the special constitutional status of Kashmir, the only state in India with a majority Muslim population, in the process imposing a military-enforced lock-down and a mass incarceration of political opponents.
Then, in early November, a further giant stride along the road to transforming India into a garish, majoritarian ‘Hindu’ pseudo-state: the verdict of India’s Supreme Court on the Ayodhya dispute. Rather than defend the constitution and the law, the leading luminaries of the Indian judiciary buckled, opening the way for the construction of a gargantuan temple to the god Ram on the very spot where, in 1992, Hindutva fanatics razed an ancient mosque to the ground.
But now, it seems, Modi and his multiple enablers -- from the various components of the ‘Hindutva’ project to the corporate media, the security state and beyond – may have overreached themselves. All the available evidence suggests that no one in New Delhi’s murky corridors of power anticipated resistance on the scale that has been building since early December.
Inspired by the students who poured out of their campuses onto the streets of scores of towns and cities, spontaneous mass demonstrations have been erupting everywhere over the past week. The impetus of the uprising has been intensified by the extreme violence shown by the police and security forces. University campuses, particularly those with substantial numbers of Muslim students, have found themselves invaded by baton-wielding police intent on belabouring everyone, women included. Elsewhere, police have resorted to firing; the current death toll stands at 9.
The Modi government has other weapons at its disposal, including Section 144, a colonial-era provision that outlaws assemblies of four people or more: in effect, a ban on demonstrations. Over the past few days, these banning orders have been slapped on a range of planned gatherings and on entire swathes of the country states, including the populous and politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.
Thousands have been arrested, among them journalists, academics and other public figures. On December 19, the historian Ramachandra Guha found himself grabbed by police and dragged away mid-way through an interview he was giving during protests at Bengaluru (Bangalore); he was eventually released after hours in detention.
The government is also suspending mobile internet services in an effort to regain control. Service providers such as Vodafone have been ‘ordered’ to fall into line, while whole chunks of territory are currently without internet access.
At the time of writing, there are indications that the movement is moving beyond the spontaneity that characterised its opening phase, with political parties and trade unions joining the action. In Kerala, where the Left Front government has already pledged not to implement the new Citizenship Act, a number of small parties organised a state-wide hartal (strike or shut-down) on December 17. In Bihar, rail services and road traffic were disrupted by blockades across the state on December 19; a repetition of the action has been called for December 21. A great deal hinges on the ability of such initiatives to give organised, sustainable form to the fury now blazing across India.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.