Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been constantly trying to paint the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now an Act, having the President’s assent) as a humanitarian gesture, and Home Minister Amit Shah has been claiming that no Muslim needs to be afraid of the same. But the very Muslims in question are far from convinced, especially so in the light of the horrific incidents that unfolded at Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi) and Aligarh Muslim University (Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh).
Mohammad Amir, an ex-student of the faculty of management at AMU fears that religious biases could become a precedent for any future bill or law, if the Citizenship Act becomes a practical implementation.
“Whether it is AMU or Jamia, they are viewing the CAA through the lens of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). There is a prevailing threat that our citizenship will be snatched away just because we follow a certain religion”, he said.
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill by both the Houses of the Parliament sparked a number of protests and demonstrations across various parts of the country. The North East, and particularly Assam flared up in protests, leading to a deployment of troops in the regions, an internet crackdown and an indefinite Rail strike in many areas. This was followed by Bengal, witnessing similar violent demonstrations and subsequent internet suspension in a few districts. Then, the two Universities having a predominant Muslim population were attacked.
Iqra Raza, a student of literature at St. Stephens in Delhi feels that Muslims have already become a target, as she was attacked by a few ABVP goons on her way back from an anti-CAA protest at the North Campus of Delhi University.
“I was targeted for my Hijab, and cornered and beaten up. I was outnumbered seven to one and there was nothing I could have done. This was within a 100 miles of police deployment, and even the University guards simply looked on as I was crying and shouting for help”, she said, adding that the incident has traumatised her to a great extent. Another second year student had come out with a similar story, of having been attacked due to her Hijab on the very same day. It must be remembered that only a few days ago, the Prime Minister had made a very obvious and dog whistle comment targeting Muslims, and how those creating violence can be identified by their ‘clothes’.
While the Bill does not play a direct role by itself in the exclusionary policy of Muslims, it is the most pivotal if and when Amit Shah sticks to his promise and implements a nationwide NRC (National Register of Citizens). As a result, if a non-Muslim cannot prove their nationality owing to lack of documents, they can apply for and receive an Indian Citizenship nonetheless, through the Bill. But if any Muslim fails to provide the same, they will be automatically stripped of their citizenship and rights, and in turn, will not even be able to move out of the country as they would cease to be a legal citizen of the country without a passport.
In this context, it has been brought to attention by many that the Bill did not mention the word ‘persecuted’ or ‘persecution’ anywhere in its full text. This might mean that the whole talk by Home Minister Amit Shah about giving a new hope to those under “persecution” could be just an eyewash. The real intent of the Bill, which is fundamentally discriminatory in nature, as pointed out by the UN Human Rights office, may indeed solely be about the exclusion of Muslims in the country.
Kristi Kar, a Masters student of English at Jadavpur University (Kolkata) shared how some of her Muslim friends told her they were scared of what might happen to them once the Bill got passed.
“I’m not sure how to console them. It’s a feeling of rage, disillusionment and betrayal,” she said. “When there’s a legal criteria for citizenship and it leaves out a religion we share so much of our lives with on an equal and daily basis, it changes everything between us”.
A number of students at various Universities thus came out in protest, demanding for complete withdrawal of this nefarious Act that goes completely against the ethos of the Constitution. Jamia Millia Islamia was one of the first ones to have raised their voice, and in response, they were met with lathi charge, thrashing, stone pelting and multiple tear gas attacks one after the other by the Delhi police.
They were stopped by police barricades when they had organised a march from the campus to the Parliament House, on 13th December. According to the testimony of a student who wishes to remain anonymous, the police threatened them saying that all of them should protest quietly in their homes, for the streets do not belong to them to do such things. As the students refused to comply, the police began assaulting them.
“They first started throwing mud or chappals or bottles at us that they picked up from the road, and then they started pelting stones”, he said, and also mentioned that those who tried to resist the police and attempted to break through the barricades were detained.
Some of the students tried to save the ones who were being beaten up by the police by throwing stones in return, which led to the police reportedly using about 30-40 tear gas shells against the students, injuring many of them. Owing to the police barricade, the students then took to the University lawn to continue with their protests, but the police remained outside the whole time.
On 15th December, the police started firing inside the campus, at unarmed students who were peacefully protesting.
“They (police) went completely berserk once they broke the gates and came inside the campus”, said Alhayyat Pasha, a student of Journalism and Mass Communication at Jamia, and shared what he described as one of the most terrible experiences of his life.
“We were just studying by ourselves in the library reading hall, when the police started coming in numbers. I don’t think I have ever been so scared, I was just constantly shaking,” he said.
While the students took shelter in the library and bolted the doors, the police constantly fired inside and threw tear gas shells. This shattered the glasses on the doors and windows, through which the students managed to escape, although some were dragged and beaten up, with their phones being taken away.
“I was lucky enough to have escaped, as I went straight to the gates before the police started rounding up the others”, Pasha confessed. “I didn’t even feel hungry for once, and neither did I eat anything till I left Delhi the next morning, I was so scared”, he said.
A research scholar at the Sociology Department of Jamia Millia has alleged how she feels that what the Police did was a complete violation of human rights and that it also goes against the law as they are not allowed to enter a campus without permission, or at least without female cops in the first place.
Being an Assamese by birth, she says that she was deeply affected by the CAA, although the NRC is acceptable to her. Most people in Assam, she explains, are protesting against the CAA for very different reasons, instead of the exclusion of Muslims as is the reason for other parts of the country. The NRC, which could have brought an end to the problem of illegal immigrants and border issues plaguing the state for long, will be completely nullified if the CAA comes into action. They feel that with the fresh intake of Bangladeshi immigrants obtaining legal citizenship, it will drastically affect the demography, resources, employment rate, poverty issues and even crime rates, with the Assamese people ultimately becoming a minority in their own state.
“I wasn’t very involved in the protests led by the Jamia students in any way because I don’t agree with them on their reasons for the protests. But then the course of horrific incidents that took place has left a spine chilling disturbance and I was forced to change my mind”, she said.
Shamik Banerjee, being a masters student of media governance, however, feels that condemning the police assault will not bring about any difference and similar incidents might still occur in future.
“Delhi police has already set a precedent when it comes to dealing with student protests, and since this is a University with a Muslim name, we don’t really expect anything better from them”, he said, while asserting that being an upper caste Hindu, he was never made conscious of his religion as a student in a Muslim majority campus space in all the time that he has been there.
Meanwhile, similar horrors were unfolding at Aligarh Muslim University. It had started with a hunger strike against the CAA and NRC on 12th December, at the Bab-e-Syed masjid. Then it escalated to an FIR being filed against 700 students for protesting and violating Section 144 — although the students later claimed that Section 144 was not even imposed in the area then. The Rapid Action Force (RAF) was immediately deployed at the entrance gates. In the early hours of dawn, the internet was suspended in the area, which has made it increasingly difficult for people to reach out to them and for news from their end to reach us.
“It was like any other normal day, until we received a message that the Gate has been broken and students were being choked with tear gas”, said a student who wished to remain anonymous, and added that Aligarh had become a battleground, where people were being thrashed inside the campus, tear gas and stun grenades were being thrown at the students, and bikes were being smashed with lathis. Room number 46 of the Morrison Court was set on fire by the RAF who had entered the campus by then, and students were locked inside their own residential halls and washrooms.
A student at the faculty of Law at Aligarh Muslim University explained that that it takes 5 years of blood and sweat to complete a law degree, understand a single section or amendments, and a whole lifetime to fight for and practice it.
“A law like this that makes students evacuate the prestigious institutions whose admission tests took months of preparation to crack cannot be implemented or accepted”, she said, and added how she still harbours a hope that the Supreme Court might scrap the Act as it has persistently maintained it to be patently unconstitutional.
“This is exactly what the government wants, and it is extremely saddening”, said Zeeshan Abdullah Shaikh, a student at the medical faculty of Aligarh Muslim University. “They will not let us study, and by making us evacuate our hostels they are already making us feel like refugees running for our lives”.
“The way they came at us, in both Jamia and Aligarh, it was like they had no regard for our lives — neither as students nor as Muslims,” alleged another student. “There have been student protests and demonstrations in other Universities a lot of times, but never has there been open firing and assault of this degree. It’s clear that our Muslim names are a marker”.
A couple of posts have been doing the rounds on social media regarding how some of the detained students were being forcefully fed liquor and had been beaten up naked — to the extent that they had broken bones and fractures. In another case, amputated arms and slit fingers were found in some of the University guest houses. Although there isn’t any media coverage or medical reports to confirm any of these, the internet blackout coupled with the evacuation of hostels is making it all the more difficult to ascertain the facts stated.
Mohammad Assaduzzaman, who is currently pursuing his Masters in material chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Bremen in Germany said that he feels very scared to return to India in light of all that is happening.
“What is going on in certain places can in no way make any student feel safe, regardless of nationality or religion”, he said, although he added that a huge number of non Muslims taking part in these protests gives him a lot of hope regarding the situation.
Michael Kugelman is the Deputy Director of the Asia Program (specialising in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and their relations with the US) at the Wilson Center in DC, which is a non partisan policy forum that tackles global issues through independent research and open dialogue. According to him, Universities in many places and not just in India, can be a hotbed of activism as it encourages different and individualist thoughts.
“This is also why universities with large Muslim student populations will be particularly concerning to the government, based on the assumption that those students would be particularly inclined to protest and oppose the law. They would try to suppress any opposition in such cases, even if they have been largely non violent”, he said over a short interview.
Kugelman considers it an even more difficult scenario for the Muslims in India given the fact that there still isn’t enough mass opposition to the Citizenship Act to sustain such a widespread movement. More broadly, there isn’t a strong enough opposition to the Modi government itself to make a difference.
“But Indian Muslims do have a surprising ally in this cause”, he said. “It is the far-right Indian Hindus that oppose the citizenship law. The BJP doesn’t want to alienate Indian Hindus, and if it sees them protesting with Indian Muslims in a show of unity, then that could be a very powerful thing that unsettles the ruling party in a big way”, he said.
Modi and Shah have devised the perfect plan to implement their extremist Hindutva doctrine. The CAA and NRC provides a legal route for them to begin cleansing the land of Muslims — and ultimately, of all non Hindus if they have their way. The onus is now upon every Indian, regardless of belonging to any religion, to reclaim the idea of India back from this dark precipice that it has been plunged into.