An image — sometimes more powerful than words — defines the mood and momentum of a nation in crisis. The pictures of a group of intrepid female students, defiantly standing up to aggressive policemen seen thrashing their male friend for being part of a demonstration in a viral video, have become a symbol of a resistance being witnessed in India over the past few weeks.
The acts of bravery demonstrated by the students of Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) not only scared the baton-wielding uniformed men but also sent a stern and clear message to the ruling party in Delhi: no matter how powerful you are, the will to resist is stronger than it has ever been before. In his chequered political career, Narendra Modi has never had to face this kind of contention and resistance.
Police brutalities on the students of Jamia and other universities have stirred campuses across India and the streets have been reverberating with protestors; India remains agitated and angry.
Institutionalising religious fault lines through the garb of citizenship
As unprecedented as the current resistance and protests are, for many they are a reminder of the 1970s when a nationwide uprising of students and common people took place against the imposition of a general emergency in the country.
While the protests from five decades ago were to save democracy, this time the agitation is to protect the very idea of India — an idea where all religions exist with a constitutional guarantee of equality and where there is no discrimination in the name of religion.
Yet, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) promises to grant religious groups — that includes Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains — from the three neighbouring countries Indian citizenship. The act bars Muslims from the same privilege.
By defining and framing citizenship in terms of religion and excluding the Muslim community from the list of the persecuted minorities to be considered for citizenship in India, the Modi-led government is making a very blatant attempt to legalise and institutionalise religious fault lines by altering the very foundation of the Indian constitution and the fabric of its secular society.
Not only this but with Delhi’s declared intent to bring in a National Register of Citizens (NRC) — an exercise to identify the genuine citizens of India — the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is making it more obvious that its political goal is to 'otherise' the Muslim community. Once the NRC rolls out, the only religious community who will not have any protection of law are Muslims. Other communities have the protection of the CAA to grant them an official status of citizenship.
It is this divisive design of the government that has upset India.
Responding to protests with state-sponsored violence
No doubt Muslims are on the streets everywhere in India, but so are people of other faiths who strongly feel that Modi is going too far in the pursuit of his divisive agenda.
Be it students, civil society members, academics or the common man — a sizable mass of India is standing together against what they call a discriminatory and exclusionary policy of the Indian regime. This secular opposition is upsetting the ruling dispensation and going against their political calculation of polarising people in the name of religion.
The BJP has been trying hard to discredit the campaign and make it Muslim-centric. Surpassing all democratic standards, the government has been very harsh on protesters — particularly in the BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi.
In the national capital, the government imposed section 144, not allowing more than four people to gather at one place. Despite this, people have been gathering in large numbers and expressing their anger.
The worst violence has taken place in UP where various media reports are claiming protesters were targeted with harsh measures. At least 25 people have been killed in clashes with police since early December, out of which 22 deaths were from the Muslim community. A New York Times article documents mistreatment of Muslims and harsh tactics employed by the police and state officials to vandalise their homes.
The reports of violence by the law enforcement agency have exposed the mindset of a regime that not only wants to curb democratic dissent but also treat the largest minority of India as a pariah.
Is challenging the authoritarian regime of Modi enough?
The continuing protests have gathered speed with opposition ruled states announcing that they would not implement the NRC.
Additionally, allies of BJP are now saying that the CAA is discriminatory. Akali Dal, a Panjab based regional party and the oldest ally of the BJP, declared that excluding Muslims from the CAA is not a good decision. The vice president of the BJP in West Bengal Chandra Kumar Bose, who also happens to be the grandnephew of the celebrated freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, said that if the CAA is not related to religion, then why does it exclude Muslims.
Meanwhile, the government itself has come out with a series of conflicting clarifications, muddying the water further. Modi says there is no cabinet decision to implement NRC. Home Minister Amit Shah claims that there is no link between CAA and the NRC, a claim which is not substantiated by his past utterances that the CAA is a precursor to the NRC.
In the midst of the ongoing protests and the government’s denial of implementing the NRC, Delhi announced that it is going to roll out a National Population Register (NPR) that would prepare a comprehensive demographic database of the country’s population. Shah says that this exercise has nothing to do with the future NRC and that the NPR is a continuation of the policy of the old Congress government.
However, the words of the sovereign government today are not inspiring trust among its citizens.
Questions are being asked that if the government’s intent is honest, then why is it not declaring in clear terms that there would be no NRC? Why is the government launching a counter-protest in support of the CAA and NRC?
This duplicity on the part of the ruling party is making people all the more anxious and further pushing them into revolt.
But is that enough to challenge the unbridled majoritarianism and authoritarian regime of Modi?
In truth, the Modi brand of politics remains popular in large swathes of India. A sizable section of media continues to play second fiddle to the ruling party and act against the larger interests of democracy. The very fact that the government looks defensive demonstrates that the resistance has shaken BJP's confidence. But its hold on power remains as firm as before. It will, however, have to work extra hard to polarise the electorates and create a wider Hindu-Muslim divide in the time to come so that it can pave the way for its continued hold on power.
And despite the widespread crackdown by the ruling party, an all-India uprising is also not expected to abate soon.
The anger of the new generation against the divisive politics of a leader who promised the moon to them is not an ordinary protest; it’s a revolt against the powers in Delhi. It’s an uprising of secular India against a majoritarian state.
People are finally saying enough is enough.
Header image: Demonstrators take part in a musical concert to protest against the Citizen Amendment Act in Guhawati. — AFP