The Modi government’s new citizenship law puts India at...

  0 comments   |     by Barkha Dutt

The Modi government’s new citizenship law puts India at war with itself

“It’s 1947 all over again,” wrote my aunt on the family WhatsApp group as protests erupted across India against the Modi government’s divisive new citizenship law. She was talking about the year India was partitioned by British colonialists to create Pakistan, setting off a period of horrific communal strife between Hindus and Muslims. The comment may sound hyperbolic, but it accurately captures the sense of dread millions of Indians are feeling today. A bigoted new citizenship law that privileges non-Muslims over Muslim migrants — coupled with the government’s proposal to create a national register of citizens (NRC) — has unleashed a set of forces over which the government may no longer have much control. The political motive behind the law was evidently to settle millions of Hindus who originally came into India from Bangladesh, leaving only Muslim refugees to “prove” their Indian-ness.

In 2021, there are elections in the eastern state of West Bengal — home to a large number of Bangladeshi migrants — and this polarization could bring direct electoral benefit to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) there. But with the “citizenship” genie out of the bottle, the country may be looking at a turbulent and dangerous new phase of civil strife and social unrest. Scabs from decades ago are being picked. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have used an incredibly strong electoral mandate to fix the country’s collapsing economy. (Experts are forecasting a “great slowdown.”) Instead, the government’s dangerous new experiment — a population register to verify who is Indian is scheduled to be implemented — has lit a fire of rage across large swaths of the country. From Delhi in the north to Guwahati in the east, India’s university campuses are aflame. The youth-led mass movement against the twin citizenship projects of the BJP has pitched students against the police, with lethal consequences. Among the four killed by police forces in the eastern state of Assam were two teenage boys. The epicenter of the most recent turmoil is Jamia Millia Islamia University, a Muslim minority central university and my alma mater. At first, it seemed as though the student protest had spun out of control and slipped into the hands of arsonists. Buses were torched, stones were hurled at police officers, and metro stations had to be shut down. At least two policemen remain hospitalized in intensive care after sustaining head injuries. The students, however, insist that outsiders infiltrated their movement to engineer violence.

Subsequently, the most horrific videos surfaced showing police excesses on campus. Cops stormed the university grounds without the consent of the administration and fired tear gas shells, forcing students to take cover inside the college library. Police have denied firing live rounds, but eyewitnesses I met say at least two students suffered bullet wounds. There are reports of a third, a passerby who is being treated for bullet wounds.

I have seen chilling footage of students pushed by police aggression into hiding in bathrooms. In the video, you can see shattered glass and at least two students lying almost lifeless on the floor just under the urinals, their bodies hunched over, their hands outstretched for help. In another viral video, police officers march into the driveway of a residential home, pull out a male student named Shaheen, drag him by the collar and start beating him until two female students run out and form a protective shield around him. When I met the two young women, Ladeeda Farzana and Ayesha Renna, who have become symbols of the student protests against the Modi government, I asked them whether they were afraid as the police came lunging at them. The young man they saved had bandages across his nose and arm. The girls, both 22, laughed. “I am not scared because I am fighting for what is right,” Farzana told me. “We kept quiet when the special status was abrogated in Kashmir. We kept quiet when the Ayodhya temple verdict came. This is about us all. This is about our country. We want our words to travel miles.” They seemed unaware of how iconic the images of their intervention had become. “You know how men they tell women, 'Stay inside, keep quiet, keep your voice low'?” asked Renna with a twinkle in her eye. “We must never do that. You have a voice, use it. No one can ever take your voice.” The Modi government has discovered that while it can tame the media, co-opt big business and intimidate India’s celebrities and athletes into syrupy submission, it cannot control the idealism or outrage of the country’s young. After the police crackdown at Jamia, student campuses across India have joined the protests in solidarity. What began as student demonstrations is now a nationwide movement.

Yes, the causes driving youth rage are not uniform. In the east of India, where there are more than 200 indigenous tribes, the citizenship law is reviled for allowing migrants in at all, whether Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. In the north, the student movement is calling out the law for being blatantly tilted against Muslims. Once the NRC is implemented, the fear is that it will be primarily Muslims, especially the poorer among them, who will be asked to prove their citizenship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these twin projects of prejudice could see only Muslims end up in deportation centers or before so-called foreigners tribunals. The government appears to have belatedly realized that the situation could spiral out of control. The prime minister went on social media to call for calm. A series of tweets by Modi sought to assure Indian citizens that they would be unscathed by the new citizenship law. But just days ago, speaking at an election rally, the prime minister blamed the opposition for engineering the protests and said you could identify “arsonists by their clothes,” in what was interpreted as a not-so-veiled reference to Muslim migrants. This crisis could have been avoided, but Modi and his lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, have always thrived on disruption, often for its own sake and to prove that they can get away with counterintuitive decisions. Remember demonetization in 2016, when overnight 86 percent of India’s cash was taken out of circulation? Then, too, no one knew precisely why such a risk would be taken. The economy is still recovering from that hit. The stakes this time are much higher. In Kashmir, the lockdown of leaders continues, as well as the curtailment of the Internet. Two additional border states — Assam and Tripura — have also had Internet data lines snapped, supposedly to maintain law and order amid the mass protests. The Internet was also shut down in the north Indian university campus of Aligarh as students began demonstrating.

As old fault-lines widen and new fissures develop, the ruling BJP could yet emerge the political winner. But at what cost? India is standing at a precipice. Could her students pull her back from the brink?

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