By Betwa Sharma
Indian police brutality against protesters opposing the country’s controversial “anti-Muslim” Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) has sparked a fresh wave of demonstrations.
The weekend saw protests across India, including in Aligarh, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kozhikode, Ludhiana, Mumbai, Patna and Shillong, and more are planned, including one in New York City called Grill the Bill.
The demonstrators included student groups, social movements, opposition parties, and ordinary citizens concerned by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assault on India’s constitutionally-guaranteed secularism. The CAA offers a path to citizenship to all religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims.
While the eastern states of Assam and Bengal remained on the boil last week, the death toll in Assam rose to a total of six, according to news agency Agence France Presse (AFP).
And the weekend saw an increase in demonstrations as police violence against students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, the national capital, sparked more protests across the country.
On Sunday evening, social media and television channels were flooded with images of burning buses and violent police officers attacking unarmed demonstrators with tear gas, and wooden and fibre-glass batons. HuffPost India is still verifying much of the footage, but the clips include a library in Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University that was teargassed, and profusely bleeding students. The university has confirmed that the Delhi police stormed the campus.
Following the clashes, a statement issued by the “student community of JMI,” said, “the students of Jamia Millia Islamia dissociate themselves from the violence that has erupted today. […] Violence by certain elements is an attempt to vilify and discredit genuine protests.”
Raghav Chadha, the national spokesperson of the Aam Admi Party, which leads the Delhi government, claimed some of the violence was orchestrated at the behest of the BJP to discredit peaceful opposition to the bill. Meanwhile, prime minister Narendra Modi put the blame on the opposition, at an election rally in Jharkhand.
Police violence in Jamia sparked a series of midnight demonstrations as students in Aligarh, Hyderabad, Jadavpur, Patna, Mumbai, Varanasi and Pondicherry marched in solidarity with their fellow students. In Delhi, a hastily issued call for solidarity drew thousands of protestors to demonstrate outside the Delhi police headquarters.
Government schools in parts of South Delhi will remain shut on Monday, Delhi’s education minister Manish Sisodia said
दिल्ली में साउथ ईस्ट जिले में ओखला, जामिया, न्यू फ्रैंड्स कालोनी, मदनपुर खादर क्षेत्र के सभी सरकारी और प्राइवेट स्कूल कल बंद रहेंगे.
वर्तमान हालात को देखते हुए दिल्ली सरकार ने स्कूल बंद रखने का निर्णय लिया है.
— Manish Sisodia (@msisodia) December 15, 2019
In Delhi, where a couple of hundred people had gathered to protest the CAA before it was tabled in parliament last weekend, the gathering at Jantar Mantar had swelled considerably on Saturday, with many more coming out to condemn the new law.
They carried placards with slogans like “Who will remain a citizen?”, “No detention centres, not in our name,” and “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” a quote widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States.
On Friday, the JMI students had clashed with the Delhi Police during a demonstration, with 50 of them being detained. The police came at them batons and tear gas to stop the march towards Parliament. Following the clash, the University has cancelled exams for the semester and declared a winter break from December 16 to January 5.
Opposition political parties have added momentum to the protests.
Speaking at a rally called “Bharat Bachao” in Delhi on Saturday, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi said, the CAA would “shred the soul of India,” but this did not bother prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Shah.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M K Stalinsaid the new law was an “abomination” that “discriminates against Muslims and betrays the interests of Eelam Tamils”. His son, Udhayanidhi Stalin, was detained by the local police while protesting the CAA in Chennai.
Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) voted in favour of the CAA in parliament, but Bihar’s chief minister said the NRC would not be implemented in Bihar after the party’s vice president Prashant Kishor threatened to resign.
Assam and Bengal
In Assam, where six people have reportedly been killed as a result of violent clashes last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government has shut the internet down and sent in the Indian army to restore public order in the northeastern state.
In Assam, the only state in India to have undergone the NRC’s flawed citizenship verification exercise, BJP leaders have claimed the citizenship amendment act will mean that the 12 lakh Hindus of the 19 lakh people left off the citizenship rolls can stay on in India, but the Muslims who were living without papers will be deported.
Legal experts have questioned this claim.
“How can this same group of people who once claimed to be Indian now claim that they are from a foreign country?” constitutional expert Faizan Mustafa told HuffPost India, referring to the Assamese Hindus left off the NRC rolls. “How will they be able to prove that they are citizens of those countries now?”
People in the north-eastern state have not taken to the streets out of concern for secularism, but rather the undoing of their long standing demand that people from Bangladesh living without papers in Assam need to go irrespective of whether they are Hindu or Muslim.
Other states in the north-east with indigenous communities have similar concerns. To allay these fears, the Modi government has excluded Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, and almost all of Meghalaya and Tripura, from the amendment. The act also excludes tribal areas in Assam from the amendment, but this did not stop people from coming out to protest its passage.
Rahul Gandhi called the new law “an attempt by Modi-Shah government to ethnically cleanse the north-east”. The NRC in Assam was put in place by successive Congress governments at the centre over four decades.
The BJP’s key ally in the state, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which was supporting the amendment, changed its mind over the weekend, and is now planning to move the Supreme Court against it.
Others, including the Congress Party, and Lok Sabha lawmakers Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) have moved the Supreme Court against the Act.
The estimated 24m Muslims of West Bengal, which shares a border with Bangladesh, are seen as particularly vulnerable to this citizenship verification exercise.
Chief minister Banerjee has opposed the law.
The BJP, which did extraordinarily well in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, is hoping to win the state assembly election in 2021.
It was in West Bengal, while addressing an election rally in Raiganj, that home minister Shah described people living without documents as “termites” that had to be thrown out.
The office of the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, headed by former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet said: “We understand the new law will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of India and hope it will consider carefully the compatibility of the law with India’s international human rights obligations.”
The act has also raised eyebrows in the United States.
Andre Carson, a Muslim American Congressman from Indiana, said: “This move is yet another attempt to effectively reduce Muslims in India to second-class citizens.”
The US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for foreign policy legislation and oversight, tweeted: “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet.”
In a statement to The Hindu, a spokesperson for the US State Department said: “Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies. The United States urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values.”