NEW DELHI — Nineteen-year-old Aditya Chaudhary spent Thursday morning shouting slogans and dodging policemen at Mandi House, one of Delhi’s main thoroughfares where people were gathering to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act, a discriminatory law championed by the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“We guys were in the crowd and raising slogans. The cops were running after people,” said Chaudhary. “They were coming at us from all sides.”
“This is not about Hindus and Muslims but all of us finally coming together for the first time in the past six years,” said the theater artist. “I feel like this is our final chance to fight back against an unconstitutional decision.”
Chaudhary was one of the lucky few who did not get dragged into a van and hauled to a police station. Hundreds of people across cities in India, who are trying to raise their voice against the law that makes religion the basis of obtaining citizenship, are currently being detained.
Governments in states run by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have put in force Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits more than four people from assembling in one place. In Delhi, where the Modi government is in charge of law and order, the internet on mobile phones was blocked and metro train services were suspended to prevent people from mobilizing.
The internet shutdown in the national capital, a tactic long practiced in Kashmir and India’s northeastern states, has accentuated the feeling of a nation in crisis.
Two people in the southern city of Mangaluru and one in northern Lucknow were killed during clashes between the police and protesters on Monday. PS Harsha, the police commissioner Mangaluru city, said at least 20 police personnel were injured. One policeman in Lucknow was also injured.
The protests against the new law gathered steam after the state police entered two college campuses with mostly Muslim students, attacking them with tear gas and batons. According to reports, a student in Delhi lost sight in one eye as a result of the attack, and doctors in the northern city of Aligarh had to amputate the hand of a student who was hit by a tear gas shell.
Doctoral student Imran Chaudhury, the first person from his village in Haryana to graduate college, described how the police broke into the Jamia Millia Islamia University library, fired tear gas and beat the students. Hundreds of students were then marched off campus with their arms raised, a humiliation, Imran said, that made mockery of everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
“I don’t know why I was made to feel small, as if I did not matter, my dignity did not matter,” he said.
Modi has responded to the protests by saying, “You can easily make out who is spreading violence by the clothes they wear.” His comments were widely perceived as a communal dog whistle aimed at India’s Muslim community.
This time, however, Modi may have misjudged how people and opposition parties, who have learned to look away more often than not, would react to the new citizenship law.
The Citizenship Amendment Act offers a path to Indian citizenship to “persecuted religious minorities” — Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, but not Muslims — from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, for instance, described as the most persecuted community in the world by the United Nations, would not be eligible for sanctuary under the new law.
For many Indians, this law violates the secular principles on which India was founded. The law’s critics argue that under India’s proposed National Register of Citizens, which would push 1.3 billion Indians to prove they are legal citizens, non-Muslims left out of the register could presumably apply for sanctuary, but Muslims would suffer.
Opposition parties, which were at a loss in the face of Modi’s popularity and his push for Hindu majoritarianism, have added momentum to the protests.
“What binds all the students protesting is that we stand in solidarity with all those facing violence in the nation today, be those students in campuses or citizens facing internet shutdowns or imposition of Section 144,” said Paras Hiten Gala, a 27-year-old doctoral student from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta Campus.
Badri Raina, a retired English literature professor, said, “Where the opposition failed to find an issue to bring everyone together, this regime has succeeded. This is not a pro-Muslim movement. This is a pro-republic movement.”
The violence against Muslim students has spurred protests not only in India, but in college campuses in Bangladesh, the U.K. and the United States.
Shagufta Bushra Mishma, who studies accounting and information systems at Dhaka University in Bangladesh, was shocked by the Delhi police’s attack on female students of Jamia Millia Islamia University.
“It was unbelievable because India is the biggest democratic country in the world,” she said. “The Indian police, the police of any country, cannot enter a university like that and torture students who were demonstrating peacefully. It was a sheer condemnable act.”
Despite the Modi government’s efforts to shut down the protests, people in cities across India are taking to the streets, even courting arrest.
Aditi, a young woman who had traveled from a suburb of Delhi called Gurgaon to Mandi House, where people were dragged off by the police an hour earlier, said she would protest alone if she had to.
“It’s been four months since Kashmir is locked,” said Aditi, who declined to share her last name, referring to the unprecedented internet blockade in the Kashmir Valley since Aug. 5.
“Now, it is happening to us. Now, we will understand,” she said.
Hundreds of people who were forced to flee from places where the Delhi police were cracking down descended on Jantar Mantar, a designated spot for protests in the national capital.
For several hours, with songs and slogans, they called for the repeal of the new law and the specter of a National Register of Citizens.
Those opposing the new law are hoping the Supreme Court of India intervenes and declares it unconstitutional.
Deepanshu Sahu, a lawyer who traveled over 500 miles to join the protests in Delhi, stood in the cold wearing only a vinyl sheet and his shoes.
“PM Modi is judging people by their clothes … so, I want to ask Modi, who am I?” he said.
Raina, the retired professor, said, “For five years, this country has been totally acquiescent, with people following their small agenda. This is a movement that has brought people together.”
A middle-aged woman from the Hindu community, who was traveling in an auto rickshaw because her metro station was closed due to the unrest, said that she knew the protests had something to do with the citizenship law.
This reporter failed to get her name, but what the woman said suggests that people are still confused about the implications of the new law and why, when read with the National Register of Citizens, it is discriminatory.
“I don’t know what exactly the law is. I’ve heard that it keeps foreigners out. That’s good, I think, from a job perspective. India has no jobs rights now,” she said.
Home Minister Amit Shah had made a similar point about India being a poor country with a lot of people who need jobs during an interview on a Hindi-language news channel this week. His other point about India being the natural homeland for Hindus also resonates with people especially in North India’s Hindi-speaking cow belt, which is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral stronghold. “Where will Hindus go?” he thundered in an interview with television journalist Rahul Kanwal.
Shah has previously referred to people living without documents as “termites.”
Responding to a question about the police using tear gas and firing live ammunition to disperse people, Shah said the state was tasked with maintaining law and order when the demonstrations become violent.