Muslims face existential threat in India

31st Jan 2020
Muslims face existential threat in India

Students of Cotton University taking out a torch light procession in protest against Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati, Assam, India on January 11
(Credit: Hafiz Ahmed/Anadolu Agency)

The anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act coupled with the National Register of Citizens can potentially strip 200 million Indian Muslims of their citizenship

Sajeda Haider

For over a month, Indians have taken to the streets to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a new law pushed through Parliament by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by the strength of their majority.

To date, twenty-eight people – all Muslims – have been killed and hundreds more injured in savage state repression of protests that show no signs of abating.

Since December 15, 2019, daily mass demonstrations, marches and rallies have taken place across every state in India demanding that the CAA be withdrawn along with the dreaded National Register of Citizens (NRC) which the country’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, promised in Parliament would be rolled out after the CAA.

In a blatant violation of India’s secular constitution, the CAA ostensibly secures citizenship to all persecuted religious refugees, except Muslims from neighbouring Muslim countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) . This flagrantly anti-Muslim law coupled with the NRC which demands proof of birth and residence on Indian soil dating back generations can potentially strip 200 million Indian Muslims of their citizenship. For most poor people – of any religion – submitting such documents is impossible as births, deaths, marriages etc. remain unregistered.

Jamia Millia Islamia students and locals protesting against CAA NRC on December 2019 (Credit: DiplomatTesterMan/WikiCommons)

The BJP oversaw an NRC, in the state of Assam, bordering Bangladesh. The expectation was that all the undocumented inhabitants would be Muslims (ready to be cast as Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’).

However, inconveniently for the authorities, 1.2 million of the 1.9 million of those undocumented residents turned out to be Hindu, and so this time-consuming and expensive NRC was scrapped. Instead, the CAA was introduced, and residents informed Assam’s NRC would be re-done when it is conducted in the rest of the country.

The BJP’s message is clear, all Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who fail to find a place in the NRC would be considered refugees under the new citizenship law, but Muslims in the same position would be categorized as ‘foreigners’ and be sent to detention camps.

The significance of this discrimination has not been lost on hundreds of thousands of Indians who have come out on to the streets all across the country not just in opposition to the CAA and NRC, but to protest against rising fascism driven by the ruling party’s right-wing politics.

While protesters cutting across all religious communities see the CAA as an assault on India’s secular constitution, for Muslims it has sparked a primordial fear from nothing short of an existential threat.

The CAA became law on December 11, 2019, and students were the first to protest the combined dangers of the CAA and NRC marching on December 15. That evening the Delhi police who are directly controlled by Shah, the Union Home Minister, were told to teach students a lesson for daring to protest.

In the cover of darkness, the police entered Jamia Millia Islamia University, a Muslim educational institution founded in 1920 which has students of all religions, went on the rampage assaulting students, dragging girls out of their hostels, vandalizing and firing tear gas inside the library.

The same night another similar institution, Aligarh Muslim University, was attacked in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) by the state’s police. Here the police went one step further and lobbed stun grenades at the unarmed students.

Protests erupted in more than 60 university campuses across India. when scenes of police violence and videos of the moving testimonies of students, both Hindus and Muslim went viral.

Instead of subduing divisions Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, chose to stoke it, saying the “violent protesters can be identified by their clothes”, very obviously alluding to Muslims. This angered people further and the protests spread, became larger and more broad-based. There were daily protest marches, signature campaigns and candle-light vigils in all major cities of the country with people of all faith and no faiths participating.

While all the demonstrations were massive and peaceful, in BJP-ruled states there were stray incidents of violence which the protesters argue were orchestrated by the agent provocateurs affiliated to the BJP to tarnish the image of the protesters.

The manner in which the BJP state governments clamped down on the protests using the violence as the excuse certainly gives credence to their arguments. So far five people have been killed in Assam, two in Karnataka and 21 in UP. All three states have BJP governments.

State repression has been the harshest in UP where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu monk whose entire politics is to fuel hostility against Muslims, has openly promised to take ‘revenge’ on the protesters. When crowds in the state led by students and civil society activists gathered peacefully, they were disrupted by police beating them with sticks, using tear gas and eventually firing guns, which they continue to deny.

“Protesters must have fired on each other”, is how the police explained the gunshot deaths of 21 Muslim protestors. More than a thousand people have been arrested and nearly 6,000 were illegally detained for days.

Human rights organisations quickly condiment the Prime Minister and the UP. Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India confirmed that, “Permissions for peaceful protests have been denied, protestors have been arrested, the state police have used excessive force, and state officials openly threaten and intimidate protestors.”

He called on, the Modi to “lead the way and set an example by showing that peaceful dissent in his constituency is not being crushed. The Prime Minister must ensure that the Uttar Pradesh government sets up an independent investigation into all cases of police brutality. Those responsible must be prosecuted.”

In addition to employing excessive force, police also denied medical aid to the injured protestors. After the protests, the police went on the rampage in Muslim neighbourhoods, ransacking homes, looting cash, assaulting women and the elderly and randomly detaining men and boys.

Even minors were not spared. There have been several accounts of minor boys being picked up by UP police, taken to police stations, beaten, deprived of sleep, subjected to torture and at the time of release told “don’t you dare protest again.” A Shia cleric who runs an orphanage for boys in UP who had nothing to do with any protest was detained along with the orphans, stripped, molested, tortured and then released as a deterrent to others.

Adding insult to injury, the UP government fined 500 Muslims hundreds of thousands of rupees within hours of the so-called violence, to cover damage to public property. The UP government was able to determine the cost of the damage and identify perpetrators within hours of the protest.

Even as the police deny that they have killed any of the protesters, Dilip Ghosh, President of the West Bengal unit of the BJP bragged at a pro-CAA meeting that “in Assam, UP and Karnataka, these shoitans (devils) were shot like dogs by our governments”, and rued that not a bullet had been fired in Bengal during the anti-CAA protests.

Despite the fact the protests are now entering their second month, neither Modi nor Shah, whose brainchild the CAA and NRC are, have reached out for a dialogue with the dissenters. They aim to crush the dissent completely and push ahead with their agenda as scheduled.

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