The onslaught on JNU marked the middle of a season of nationwide protest, provoked by a new law. The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by parliament on 11 December 2019, provides a fast track to citizenship for refugees fleeing into India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Refugees of every south Asian faith are eligible – every faith, that is, except Islam. It is a policy that fits neatly with the RSS and the BJP’s demonisation of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority. To votaries of Hindutva, the country is best served if it is expunged of Islam. The act was both a loud signal of that ambition and a handy tool to help achieve it.
Since December, millions of Indians have turned out on to the streets to object to this vision of their country. The government has fought them by banning gatherings, shutting off mobile internet services, detaining people arbitrarily, or worse. After protests flared at Jamia Millia Islamia, an Islamic university in Delhi, cops fired teargas and live rounds, assaulted students and trashed the library. As demonstrations spread across the state of Uttar Pradesh, police raided and vandalised Muslim homes by way of reprisal. Detainees in custody were beaten; one man reported hearing screams in a police station all night long. (In various statements, the police claimed to be acting in self defence, or to prevent violence, or to root out conspiracy.) At least 20 protesters died of bullet wounds. Police officials denied firing at the crowds, even though the police carried the only visible guns at these rallies.
Still, the protests have persisted well into February. At Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in south-eastern Delhi, hundreds of thousands of people have turned up over nine weeks to take part in an indefinite sit-in. The BJP has taken a ruthless view of all this dissent. On one occasion, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu cleric who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said: “If they won’t understand words, they’ll understand bullets.” One of Modi’s ministers used “Shoot the traitors to the nation!” as a call-and-response at a rally – the same slogan the ABVP had raised in JNU.
In its 72 years as a free country, India has never faced a more serious crisis. Already its institutions – its courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its election commission – have been pressured to fall in line with Modi’s policies. The political opposition is withered and infirm. More is in the offing: the idea of Hindutva, in its fullest expression, will ultimately involve undoing the constitution and unravelling the fabric of liberal democracy. It will have to; constitutional niceties aren’t compatible with the BJP’s blueprint for a country in which people are graded and assessed according to their faith. The ferment gripping India since the passage of the citizenship act – the fever of the protests, the brutality of the police, the viciousness of the politics – has only reflected how existentially high the stakes have become.
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