India, Secularism and Citizenship
The ostensible cause and common focus of the remarkable popular upsurge throughout India---the biggest and most sustained mass agitations since Modi was elected in 2014 (and re-elected in 2019)---is the opposition to the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA) and its associated National Citizens Register (NRC) that is to follow in due course.
Insofar as these struggles have been spearheaded by huge turnouts in various Muslim localities and by students and youth, and joined by large numbers of ordinary citizens across all religious faiths, it makes clear that this was also an unexpected rupture in the pent-up anger that had hitherto been contained. This anger is on many counts. Through the last six years of Modi rule, students and youth in various public universities, especially in the socials sciences and humanities, have opposed BJP efforts to communalise and privatise tertiary education as well as its more general anti-democratic and Hindu chauvinist politics. Many of them have been declared ‘anti-national’, their freedom to speak and be politically active curtailed; legally harassed with some facing charges of sedition no less, even assaulted by other youth and students aligned with this government.
The trigger for the latest protests came when students peacefully protesting in two universities (one in Delhi and the other in the most populated state of the country, Uttar Pradesh or UP) having a large proportion of Muslim students were assaulted by Police within the university spaces using stun guns, tear gas, rubber bullets even invading libraries and hostels to wreak havoc and injuries to male and female students on a mass scale.
Solidarity actions arose spontaneously in over 22 universities across the country. Popular marches and demos followed and have continued. The other target for police brutality was the localities with large numbers of Muslim residents who have also come out in strength---their anger also having been built up over the last six years. The escalation in micro-level violence against ordinary Muslims going about their business through lynchings, beatings and killings has created a much greater fear than the previous history of large scale communal riots which though larger-scale are episodic and require some public act as a trigger and justification. Now such anti-Muslim violence (mostly in BJP ruled states) has become banal and normalised with the assailants invariably getting away with what they have done as the police and local authorities look the other way.
To understand why Muslims on such a large scale, youth and students, as well as other secular and democratic minded Indians, have now participated in these protests, one must understand what the CAA and NRC are all about.
The CAA for the first time gives legislative sanction to the idea that India is the “natural” home of Hindus and that Muslims in particular (but not only them) are here on sufferance. This new law sets a precedent for future changes in law that can similarly be based on unjustified religious discrimination. The CAA states that there will be fast-track naturalisation as Indian citizens on the grounds of religious persecution for non-Muslim minorities that came to India before December 31, 2014 from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Deliberately excluded are Muslims sects suffering persecution such as Balochis, Hazaras, Shias, Ahmadiyyas. Rohingyas (40,000 plus are in India) from Myanmar are, among others, excluded. This is violative of international refugee law and of the Indian constitution regarding equality of citizenship rights regardless of religious affiliation.
But the main purpose of the CAA lies elsewhere. This government is going ahead to carry out a national enumeration of all households through a National Population Register (NPR). This will be a new much more invasive and comprehensive process of personal data collection than the decennial census and will provide the basis on which the proposed NCR will decide (by its own as yet unstated criteria) who qualifies as Indian citizens and those who don’t. Hindus caught in the net can claim they were persecuted in one of the three neighbouring Islamic states, lost their documentation there, and can then apply for naturalised Indian citizenship. Muslims and perhaps many very poor Indians (not to be bothered about anyway) not having the required documentation proof, if not expelled because neighbouring countries will not accept them, will be put in detention camps and certainly deprived of basic rights to vote, own property, access to certain welfare services, etc., becoming a pool of easily exploitable people for the worst kind of jobs.
There is also another much wider purpose affecting the whole population. Such collection of personal data, once certain proposed laws (already being prepared) are passed to enable access for various government agencies, will help create a strong surveillance state making a mockery of the recently established ‘fundamental right to privacy’!
Among the protestors there is the growing recognition that secularism is the necessary though not sufficient condition for sustaining an Indian democracy. Muslims have come out not in the name of Islam but demanding that they be recognised as equal Indian citizens. The aim of the BJP and its associated bodies that together make up the main bulwark of the forces of Hindutva is to create a Hindu state in all but name. This requires the further terrorisation, inferiorisation and ghettoisation of Muslims so as to render them obedient to the new dispensation in-the-making.
Liberal-minded Indians recognise that the democratic institutions and laws of India are under threat as never before. Leftist-minded Indians recognise the clearly fascist characteristics of this far right force and government. The CAA has been passed. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court has the courage and integrity to reject it as unconstitutional. Given its record to date this is far from certain. The NPR is the crucial prelude to the NCR but cannot be carried out if not just two or three, but many state governments (whose local and district personnel are required for such house-by-house enumeration) refuse to carry out the NPR. This will dramatically up the stakes for the central government which would then have to risk an Emergency like declaration to further proceed; or else back down.
So far, this government has expressed its continuing determination to go its own way making the state of UP something of a ‘war-zone’ with mass arrests and detentions (over 6000), deaths of civilians by firing (19 so far), charge-sheeting over 30,000 people, and imposing laws to prevent any assembly of more than five people throughout the state. Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah are spreading lies that the NRC is not on the current agenda when its first step – the NPR is already declared to be started from April 1, 2020 and the huge funds for this exercise recently sanctioned. The popular upsurge against this is at one and the same time a struggle for democracy and against an exclusivist and Islamophobic authoritarian nationalism.
It must and will continue.