India’s traitor-talk fires up the resistance

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The women protestors at Shaheen Bagh have come to epitomise the opposition to CAA (©Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India has long enjoyed a reputation as an extremely vibrant democracy, where people of all religions cohabit peacefully. That was the India I grew up in. Today, the country is providing a home for masculine nationalism and religious intolerance, which are becoming a serious threat to democracy. I have lived through Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots after Mrs Gandhi was killed, seen the effects of caste divisions, poverty and illiteracy—but I have never before feared for the country’s democracy.

I have also never witnessed a more vitriolic and divisive campaign in the run-up to the New Delhi elections, unleashed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when even senior ministers were calling the sitting Chief Minister of New Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, a “terrorist”. The voters pushed back, giving the BJP a drubbing at the hustings while re-electing Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party (AAP) with a thumping majority. Most Delhi voters I spoke to were delighted with the result. They said they have been worn out by the religious divisions the BJP is causing. And the capital, a microcosm of the country, has shown that Indians do not want religious divisiveness.

Republic Day, January 26, brought home Indians’ growing unease with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his controversial new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which makes faith a condition of citizenship and thus violates the secular principles enshrined in our Constitution. Unlike in my youth, when everyone across the country turned out to watch the glorious celebratory Republic Day parades, millions of protesters gathered together across villages and towns. They read the Preamble of the Constitution, carried placards of “Save the Constitution”, and—reclaiming the symbol that the BJP has been using as a tool of divisiveness—waved the tricolour.

‘I had never before feared for Indias democracy. I have also never witnessed a more vitriolic and divisive campaign in the run-up to the New Delhi elections, unleashed by the ruling BJP’

Prime Minister Modi’s controversial Act has meant that, in the 70th year of its Republic, India’s Constitution is finally accorded the reverence it deserves—as an absolute assurance of equality and democracy.

Beyond India, Prime Minister Modi’s second term is giving cause for concern. The country has dropped 10 places to 51st position in the Democracy Index’s global ranking. The primary cause given for this democratic regression is an erosion of civil liberties. The consensus at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos was that India was in worse shape than ever before, economically and politically. “The biggest and most frightening setback,” George Soros said, “occurred in India where Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.”

The people’s opposition to CAA has led to thousands of protests across the country. Many of these, unusually, are being led by women and young people. The women’s sit-down protest in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood has come to epitomise this new movement. During a recent visit to India, I spoke to a Hindu woman who had travelled from the small town of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh to add her voice to the protesting women of the mostly Muslim neighbourhood. She told me: “The ministers keep calling for traitors to be shot. I’d like to ask them who’s a traitor? Those who sit peacefully in protests, or those who incite violence?” There have already been two incidents of Hindu zealots attacking protests with guns, after a junior cabinet minister railed against the peaceful protestors as “traitors who should be shot”.

The government is yet to make any visible effort to hold an open discussion with the dissenting voices. However, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, agreed that there is a need to reach out to India’s young people: “If we are talking about reaching out to students then I agree because it will ensure that our universities are centres for ideas and education and it should be respected,” he said.

He explained, “CAA is only an amendment to an Act, it has got a very limited purpose to give legitimacy to those who came in and were persecuted minorities from three theocratic and Islamic Republics . . . India already gave sanctuary to Muslims from other countries.

“The National Population Register (NPR) has nothing to do with CAA, it only wants to know how many people live in a sub-division because it will help in development projects. Government is not even asking for names in NPR. Prime Minister Modi is on record to say that there has been no discussion on National Register of Citizens (NRC) throughout the country. We should accept it.”

In Delhi, Kannan Gopinath a young former civil servant turned social activist, argues that: “The politicians say that Indian Muslims have nothing to worry about. But the Act does not clarify how the government proposes to use the National Population Register. That’s why people come out in large numbers to protest.” He added: “The Register in its rules states very clearly that it is the preliminary to the National Register of Citizens . . . NPR is effectively NRC, as that is where the government will get all its data. Already, West Bengal and several other states have decided not to carry out the NPR. If more states object to the NPR, then NRC cannot be undertaken due to the lack of data.”

When the Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the CAA in Parliament in January he told the House that it would be followed by the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens “to flush out infiltrators from our country”. But the prime minister maintains there has been no discussion on NRC. Shah said that Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were persecuted for their faith in majority-Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, will be given citizenship. But this clearly excludes Muslims (India’s Muslim population is one of the largest in the world). Yogendra Yadav, president of Swaraj India, said: “The CAA is a signalling device . . . based on religion. It hits the very idea and soul of India. Instead of equal citizenship we are moving towards categories of citizenship. This violates the principle of our freedom struggle.” 

The NRC experiment in BJP-ruled Assam failed, resulting in the exclusion of 1.9 million of its 33 million people, both Hindus and Muslims. There are threats of the excluded being sent to detention centres—despite the premier’s denial that these centres exist, local news reports have exposed the construction of one so large that it covers the area of seven soccer fields.

The news is fanning the flames of resistance. Modi has complained that the protests, led by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are a “conspiracy to malign the country around the world” and “have an illicit intention of destroying the country”. The protesting women of Shaheen Bagh, who have been sitting peacefully for over two months, hardly match that description. 

Kajori Sen, a young university professor who visited Shaheen Bagh, told me that: “The first thing that any newcomer to the Shaheen Bagh protests will notice is the presence of two very different demographics. At the heart of the protest were a group of ladies sitting under makeshift tents, threadbare mats as their only protection against the ground. They were dressed in saris, salwar kameezes and in some cases burkhas, heads covered, both as a sign of identity and as a protection against Delhi’s winter air.

“Many of them had children with them, some running around, others occupied with little games and colouring books. They ranged in age from the mid 20s to the mid 70s. On the outskirts of the protest were more women, but they were different. Dressed in jeans, sweaters and bundled in overcoats, mostly between 18 and 35, rushing around to make posters, helping in distributing food and medicines, trying to help wherever they could. I knew these women. I was these women.”

The protestors’ example is being copied in 13 neighbourhoods across Delhi—and replicated throughout India. A woman at Shaheen Bagh told me, “It’s about the very existence of Indians and the Constitution. It’s a battle for Indianness”. They have inspired students, singers and poets who have come to speak, sing and recite for them. Sikh organisations distribute food and drinks. A newlywed couple in Kolkata explained that they have decided to join couples in Kerala in the new “wedding protest”: they have replaced their “I do” vows with “no CAA” banners: “Wedding pictures are often shared on social media and liked. So a protest and an awareness campaign would make it count even more,” the bridegroom told me.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia head of Human Rights Watch, who went to Shaheen Bagh, sees the protest as a turning point in Indian politics: “a civil society protest  . . . not just against the citizenship law amendments and discriminatory policies of the Modi government, but also a broader push against divisive politics. On the one hand are women sitting in peaceful protest, and on the other, are leaders who not only have refused to address their concerns, but have instead attempted to discredit and vilify protesters, even incited hate and violence against them.”   

The government has taken a heavy-handed approach to the dissenters, shutting down internet access, closing streets and using brutal police force. But lashing out in this manner is merely undermining India’s democracy. With a majority-BJP Parliament, protesters face a tough battle in their aim to save India from this current “authoritarian democracy”. If Modi manages to get the economy back on track, the Hindu extremist agenda will be pursued with even greater fervour. The danger to secularism is not over yet. But like the recent Delhi voters, I stand by the secular fabric of the country and refuse to envisage a theocracy.