Citizenship law protests: two months on, India's ideological struggle continues

Demonstrations that began on December 4 continue to call for the roll back of a law protesters say discriminates against Muslims

An Indian Muslim woman speaks during a protest against a new citizenship law that opponents say threatens India's secular identity in Bangalore, India, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Demonstrators across the country have been demanding the revocation of the citizenship law approved last month. The law provides a fast-track to naturalization for persecuted religious minorities from some neighboring Islamic countries, but excludes Muslims. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
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Two months after India passed a contentious law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries, widespread street protests continue to call for it to be roll ed back.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians, mostly Muslims, have been taking to the streets since early-December, to, in their words, defend their secular constitution from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and what they see is an aggressively implemented Hindu-focused agenda.

The citizenship law allows nationals from majority-Muslim Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to take up Indian citizenship if they are not Muslim. It applies to those who entered India, both legally and illegally, before December 31, 2014, and those who entered after will be able to apply for citizenship after seven years, rather than the usual 12.

The law is seen by protesters as part of wider moves to sideline the rights of Muslims in the country, alongside plans to create a national citizen’s registry, which critics say unconstitutionally links faith to citizenship and could risk leaving as many as 200 million Muslims stateless.

The BJP said on Tuesday it was still weighing up whether to roll out the registry.

There are no government figures for how many people will benefit from the citizenship law, with local media estimating it at around 33,000 but ministers claim it is much higher. It is thought, however, that a large population of Bangladeshi Hindus, who have been living in West Bengal for decades, will benefit at a time when the BJP is trying to woo the community ahead of the next year’s state elections. The party is facing stiff competition from local ruling party Trinamool Congress.

An unidentified man brandishes a gun during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India, 2020.
An unidentified man brandishes a gun during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India. Reuters

The law would also naturalise roughly half a million Bangladeshi Hindus in Assam state, where 1.9 million people were identified as illegal immigrants through a national registry in August. The party is working to consolidate its Hindu vote, and expand its influence in the eastern region, where both states lie and where it has traditionally failed to make a mark.

The move has further upset the religious balance in India, where there has been a rise in Islamophobia since Mr Modi's back-to-back landslide electoral victories in 2014 and in 2019. But it has also stirred the country’s large secular constituency into action, including many mainstream political parties that have vowed to defend the constitution of the world’s largest democracy.

Since winning a second term in May last year, the BJP has revoked the autonomy of disputed Muslim-majority region Kashmir, criminalised Muslim "instant divorce" (which allows a man to divorce a woman by repeating the word divorce three times in Arabic) and won a court case over the construction of a temple for Hindu deity Lord Ram on the ruins of a medieval mosque.

Mr Modi has tried to assuage fears that his brand of nationalism has become discriminatory, saying his government believes in the principle of equality and the new citizenship law is a “humanitarian” measure that seeks to help persecuted religious minorities. However, the BJP and its powerful right-wing Hindu allies have often resorted to Hindutva — political Hinduism — rhetoric and have branded the protests against them as “anti-national”.

One of Mr Modi's key ministers recently incited a crowd to chant "shoot the traitors", just two days before a teenage Hindu nationalist shot a protester at a student rally on January 30.
Since then, there have been two more shootings involving Hindu-nationalists shooting into the air near protesters in New Delhi, leaving one student with injuries to their hand.

Analysts say the law has left the country deeply polarised.

“Right-wing ideas have a more natural vocabulary and simplistic ideas … they are transparent and straightforward,” said Aakash Singh Rathore, a scholar at New Delhi-based think-tank the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

“We (the country) are profoundly polarised at this point and I don’t see a way out of it."

He said there is a race between the two camps to prove each other wrong, but both groups listen only to their own ideas.

“This is an ideological struggle,” he said.

In BJP ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh in the north and Karnataka in the south, local governments have crushed dissent with violent protest crackdowns that have killed 27 protesters.

Yet thousands continue to rally across the country, reciting parts of the constitution that enshrine pluralistic, secular values and equality.

Political commentator Manisha Priyam said the country has already been reshaped by the legislation and the protests, but it has also strengthen people's belief in democracy and the importance of the constitution.

“One of the positive outcomes of these protests is the deepening of the people’s constitutionalism,” Ms Priyam said.