Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India

Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India
Comment: India's new citizenship law brings home the existential threat that Indian Muslims face under a Hindu-supremacist government, writes Umar Lateef Misgar.
7 min read
20 Dec, 2019
The government imposed a colonial-era law preventing public gatherings of five or more [Hindustan Times]
At a cursory glance, India's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) appears to be a benign law granting citizenship rights to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. 

But for all practical purposes, the act lays the groundwork for the exclusion, disenfranchisement and possible mass-internment of Muslims in India, a longstanding dream of Hindu-nationalist ideologues.

The actual intent of this act becomes clear when coupled with the imminent exercise of National Register of Citizens (NRC), a country-wide process through which Indians will have to prove their legal status by providing a litany of documents. 

After this Kafkaesque nationwide exercise, people who would have been left out from the NRC can find relief through CAA, except one community; the Muslims. In simpler terms, the Indian government has rolled out a process that has Muslim discrimination written all over it, apart from being an exhaustive bureaucratic nightmare for other marginalised populations in the country. 

The government is already operating and building new, sprawling detention centres across India, to detain "illegal immigrants", which, by the time NRC and CAA are implemented, will mostly constitute Muslims.

Ramachandra Guha, one of India's most prominent historians and Gandhi's biographer, called the law a strike at the heart of the country's supposedly secular constitution.

In an interview at a protest site, Arundhati Roy, perhaps India's most well-known dissenter and public intellectual, outrightly compared the act with Nuremberg laws of the Nazi era. In a statement, the UNHRC called the CAA "fundamentally discriminatory".

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed office in 2014, hate-crimes against Muslims have been on the rise. Muslims accused of eating or transporting beef, have been lynched in broad daylight and the perpetrators feel so emboldened that they do not hesitate to upload the videos of these horrendous crimes on social media websites.

The Indian government has rolled out a process that has Muslim discrimination written all over it

The founding ideologues of BJP's parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), were inspired by the Nazis pogroms against Jews and openly called for the removal of Muslims from India.

The RSS runs paramilitary training camps across the country wherein the volunteer recruits are drip-fed on constant
doses of Hindu-supremacism and anti-Muslim bigotry. Through BJP, the RSS, of which the current Indian Prime Minister is a life-long member, is, effectively, ruling the country. Amit Shah, India's home minister, in a recent speech, compared illegal immigrants with termites.

The passing of CAA by the BJP-dominated legislature earlier this month may, however, have finally brought home the existential threat that the Indian Muslims face under a Hindu-supremacist government. 

Spontaneous, and eventually very-well organised, protests broke out across the country, particularly inside university and college campuses, demanding the roll-back of this law. The government, perhaps caught unawares of the popular reaction, has responded with a brutal crackdown. Heavily armed police rampaged through university campuses, brutalizing and detaining students, in addition to ransacking libraries and hostels. 

At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), one of the country's oldest public universities, the police resorted to indiscriminate teargas shelling and critically injured multiple students. One student was so grievously injured that his hand had to be amputated. The whereabouts of numerous students remains unknown, and reports of police personnel sexually abusing female students have also emerged. Across the country, at least 14 protestors have been killed so far.

Both AMU and Jamia universities have predominantly Muslim student populations, and are considered bastions of country's Muslim intelligentsia. Their abrupt shutdown until January gives a clear idea about the anti-Muslim intent of this new law. These institutions, which openly embrace students across ideological, religious and class divides, apparently uphold an idea antithetical to the exclusionary vision of the RSS.

As an undergrad in political science, it is at AMU that I, a Kashmiri Muslim, started my journey into higher education.

Unlike the regular 
humiliation that Kashmiri Muslims have to face in India,  during my three years of living and studying in the campus, I was never made to feel unwelcome.

Moreover, India's public universities are surprisingly affordable. But since it rose to power, the BJP-led government has unleashed a sustained attack on university campuses, labelling all forms of student dissent as 'anti-national' and raising the fees to unaffordable levels.

Incensed by the treatment meted out to students during the anti-CAA protests, this week, thousands of ordinary Indians hit the streets to voice their opposition against the new citizenship law.

India's largest urban centres including Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore saw protestors chanting anti-government slogans, some even comparing Amit Shah to Hitler. The government immediately deployed armed police forces to scuttle the protests and imposed Section 144, a colonial-era law that prevents five of more people from gathering in a public space, across various states.

In a bid to prevent protestors from organising, public transport in the capital Delhi was throttled and the internet barred. Amid all this violent muzzling of dissent, protesters still managed to gather in large, perhaps unprecedented numbers in recent times. Many regional heads of government have vowed to boycott the implementation of NRC in their respective states. 

As I write this, protests across India continue and so does the violent state crackdown

As I write this, protests across India continue and so does the violent state crackdown. On Twitter, one senior member of the BJP, while hailing the CAA as the "right medicine", called the protestors "scattering insects". In an interview, while threatening mass violence, another member of the party asked Muslims to not test the patience of the Hindu majority. 

Discounting the questioning of this genocidal rhetoric, India's TV media, largely compliant towards the government, has aggressively focused on the few instances of violence that have erupted during the anti-CAA protests.

Reports have emerged pointing out that BJP party-workers, dressed up in skullcaps - in a bid to project themselves as Muslims - were arrested while throwing stones at a train. While the origins of this violence remain in doubt, the structural violence of disenfranchisement, virtual apartheid and mass-detention that the CAA and NRC represent for Indian Muslims has been relegated to a backburner. 

Also, in what sounds like a diktat from some tinpot dictator, the Information and Broadcasting ministry that regulates the country's digital media, has issued an advisory calling for channels to desist from relaying content that slanders "the moral life of the country". 

On Twitter, one senior member of the BJP, while hailing the CAA as the 'right medicine', called the protestors 'scattering insects'

As this battle for India's democratic credentials unfolds, many have compared the ongoing situation with Kashmir, the country's very own imperial dominion that remains under a military lockdown since the region was stripped of its nominal autonomy on August 5. 

But Kashmir has mounted a decades-long struggle for self-determination and faced brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the Indian military and paramilitary forces, making this a lazy, if not wholly inconsiderate, comparison.

Kashmiris have been subject to a litany of crimes by the Indian state, from torture on an industrial scale to enforced disappearance, rapes and extrajudicial executions. The region is the only place in the world that I know of, which, despite remaining littered with mass and unmarked graves, does not have even a nominal agency for their forensic investigation.

On top of that, Kashmir still remains the most densely militarized zone in the world. For the past four months, under a communication ban, Kashmiris remain cut-off from the outside world and the economy has suffered crippling losses. Teenagers and young men have been detained without charge, tortured and at least one subject to enforced disappearance. Journalists have been detained, threatened and assaulted while doing their job.

After stripping the region of its land-rights, senior Indian diplomats have 
openly called for implementing an Israeli model of settler-colonialism in Kashmir. All public assemblies, including religious gatherings, remain banned.

When it comes to Kashmir, however, most Indians, including Indian Muslims, remain indifferent to their plight. Many, in fact cheered as successive governments which doubled down on dehumanising Kashmiris, and dealt with all manifestations of dissent in the region with deadly force.

In contrast, Kashmiris have already come out in solidarity with the protesters in India, braving teargas and batons. As India's long war against Kashmiris has begun to creep home in its softest manifestations, what remains to be seen is whether ordinary Indians will replicate this solidarity and urge its government to recognise the Kashmiris' right to self-determination, or if they wait for full 'Kashmirization' of India.

Umar Lateef Misgar is a political analyst focusing on Kashmir and the Middle East. His work has appeared in The Independent,, London School of Economics Human Rights Centre blog, and elsewhere.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.