Citizenship Protests in India: Possibilities and Challenges of Opposition to Hindu Nationalism

By: Tanika Sarkar

March 9, 2020

Religion and Citizenship in India

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act has already caused massive ethnic violence in large parts of North India. It has also embittered inter-community relations with fake news, circulated through media and rumors, about Muslim aggression. The national government under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) subscribes to the ideology of Hindu Rashtra or Hindu nationhood for India. As early as 1938, M. S. Golwalkar, one of its ideological gurus, had asked Hindus to emulate Nazi policies towards Jews and render non-Hindus into non-citizens, stripped of all rights.

On the other hand, protests against the act have been exceptionally strong and enduring despite the most tremendous repression. They have happened on a scale and with an intensity that India has not seen since our anti-colonial mass movements. In fact, even that history is now outstripped as Hindu and Muslim protesters have come together with a degree of mutual intimacy, understanding, and solidarity, never seen before. Students, especially, have been on the forefront of anti-CAA struggles with amazing courage and organizational skills. 

Yet another extraordinary feature has been the political role of Muslim women, visible in protests with their powerful words, songs, and messages. At Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, they have sat in protest, day and night, braving the coldest winter in Delhi’s history. The grannies (dadis) of Shaheen Bagh are now legendary global icons. 

The moment, therefore, is shot through with exhilarating possibilities and also with great danger. The new act, especially when read with the threatened National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), promises to achieve two goals simultaneously. For the first time, Indian citizenship in specific cases will depend on religious affiliation because the act offers it to Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist minorities from the three Islamic countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Muslims, however persecuted, are significantly omitted from its scope, as are persecuted Hindus of non-Muslim countries, even though sanctuary against persecution is its proclaimed goal. 

Quite obviously, the act is motivated by Islamophobia, seeking to further enhance the Hindu majority. Simultaneously, the NRC will expel large numbers of Indian Muslims, especially in the eastern states bordering Bangladesh, on the pretext of their lack of the complicated paperwork necessary to prove citizenship. Large numbers of Indians do not possess birth-certificates—their own or those of their parents—to show that they were residents on this country. Thousands of Indians are already in detention camps—concentration camps would really be the precise nomenclature—bereft of adequate food or medical supplies. 

Indian Islamophobia is exceptionally well-organized in ideological and organizational terms. It has been taught methodically by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from 1925, through a gigantic cadre base that works in innumerable mass fronts, penetrating all possible manner of civil society activities and spaces. The BJP is its electoral front. Interconnected grassroots institutions work daily, providing a steady drip-drip-drip of visceral anti-Muslim hatred. The campaigns also target Christians and have already produced numerous pogroms and massacres, especially since the 1990s. 

While all kinds of bizarre myths are disseminated about non-Hindus, a popular political commonsense has also consolidated: that those whose religions were born outside the present Indian territories are not Indians. They harbor terroristic intentions; they want to break up the country and undermine its Hindu majority. Politics and faith have smoothly merged, producing a toxic religious nationalism. 

This gave the BJP an absolute majority in two successive national elections, enabling it to coopt or coerce most governmental institutions and to silence criticism with charges of sedition, terrorism, or anti-state insurrection, better-known as “Urban Naxalism.” Many activists have faced atrocious custodial torture that violates democratic and civil rights. Protests against the new law are crushed with a liberal use of lethal weaponry, some of which are forbidden under international law, except in warfare. Muslims and students have lost lives and limbs during protests: some of them mere accidental bystanders at protest marches and very often poor people. Little children were picked up for sedition and sent to prison to be tortured. Muslim homes in several towns of Uttar Pradesh (UP), ruled by a notorious BJP monk, were reduced to rubble; hospitals denied treatment to bullet victims; and many were buried—sometimes naked—without religious rites and under police guard, at the dead of night. University campuses have been raided by masked men and students beaten up, in UP and Delhi, while the police watched. Elsewhere the police have rioted. 

All this is well-documented, although systematic efforts are afoot to destroy evidence and to put activists behind bars, while BJP leaders, openly inciting Hindus to shoot down Muslims and protesters “like dogs” have been let off without a scratch. Anti-government protests are routinely translated as sedition or as hate speech. Unless checked, this will spell the end of Indian democracy.

All this is bound to create anti-Hindu sentiments in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and even, perhaps, foment terrorism. If that happens, it will seal the fate of Muslims and secularists in India.

Islamophobia and narrow, exclusionary nationalism, based on populist rhetoric, have steadily gained purchase in many parts of the world. Almost everywhere it is accompanied by a weakness of opposition parties and their failure to create a counter-rhetoric and vision that can powerfully stir popular imagination and emotions. Nor do they have an adequate organizational apparatus to reach their message of peace, social justice, and democracy to ordinary people. The failure of “actually existing socialist states” to produce a credible democratic alternative has left the global scene largely to right-wing initiatives that are gaining in strength. In the process, genuine material needs of the people remain unaddressed, and their frustrations are skillfully turned against imagined enemies who are even more vulnerable than themselves.

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