On the 4th of December 2019 the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of India introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in parliament. By the 11th of December the bill had been enacted into law after being pushed through parliamentary votes, and signed by the President. The rules of the law are still being written and yet Home Minister Amit Shah announced on the 10th of January 2020 that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is now in operation. By doing so, the BJP has chosen to ignore thousands of citizens who have been gathering on the streets to protest against the Act since the 4th of December, and who continue to do so in defiance of state and police violence across the country.
The protests have been fuelled by the controversial tenets of the act which effectively deny citizenship to Muslims, as well as the knowledge that this is part of a much longer agenda of the BJP to deepen state surveillance and turn India into a Hindu theocracy, or what some call a ‘Hindu Rashtra.’ The Act is complex as it cannot be seen as a stand-alone piece of legislation and the affects on people will be different depending on the state, due to historic migration patterns and the diversity of ethnicities across the country. Nevertheless, three core elements can be seen to directly compromise the democratic and secular Constitution of India, and have been the spark and fuel for protests across the country.
Firstly, the Act directly contradicts the fundamental rights of the Constitution, specifically Article 14 and Article 21. Article 14 guarantees “Equality before the law”, and Article 21 the “Right to Life”.
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Secondly, whilst it claims to grant citizenship to all minorities being persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it outright excludes Muslims from these countries and does not provide citizenship to minority groups from countries such as Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar and Nepal.
Thirdly, the entire exercise will be combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the process will force existing citizens of a country of over 1.3 billion people to prove their citizenship through appropriate certification (birth, marriage, naturalisation), claiming that if you are truly ‘Indian,’ there is no need to worry.
In their disregard for the Constitution, the ethno-nationalism that lies at the root of the CAA and NRC is revealed. The arbitrary classification of citizens and implementation processes they propose will be the beginning of a slow, structural violence targeting the poor, marginalised and Muslim sections of society – a majority of whom are informal workers, the backbone of India’s economy. Indian citizens across the country can see through the claims of ‘humanitarianism’ and argue that the implications of this act bring the BJP a step closer towards making Muslims second-class citizens.
“Citizens Against CAA, Citizens Against Fascism”
The citizen uprising against the CAA, that began in the north-eastern state of Assam (a state already familiar with the violence of the NRC), has spread across the country resulting in the government taking extreme measures to quell the dissent. Internet shutdowns happened in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and the capital of New Delhi, even as Prime Minister Modi called for ‘no violence’ via his twitter account. The Indian Police announced a ban on public gatherings of over five people on the 19th of December in most parts of country. Protests continued, resulting in thousands of arrests and violence against young people, mostly students.
The police have used batons, tear gas and firing arms against protestors. Universities, where many of the protests began, have been violently raided by police and youth groups who appear to be associated with the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a right-wing, Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation that supports, and is supported by, the BJP. BJP-dominated states observed the worst violence with 23 people killed, mostly daily wage young muslim workers, and over 1000 arrested in Uttar Pradesh, whilst states such as Maharashtra remained calm with police supporting the non-violent protests. As protests retain momentum, however, arrests across the country are continuing.
These forms of state oppression are nothing new in India and neither are the acts of dissent. What is different is that the seemingly unstoppable culture of violent Hindu supremacy has come face-to-face with voices, acts and displays of communal unity playing out across the country. This article offers a brief glimpse into that complex reality through the perspectives and embodied acts of the women who are leading the protests, with the aim to tell a larger story of collective Indian dissent against what is potentially becoming an emerging Hindu theocracy.
Solidarity Against State Violence
Across the country, women have been at the forefront of the protests, putting their bodies on the line in the face of state violence and oppression. The anger and fear in their voices and on their faces have echoed in the streets, flashed across TV screens and circulated the internet.
As protests moved into the capital of New Delhi, growing out of university campuses, police cracked down on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMU). A recent report compiled by the Independent Women’s Initiative titled ‘Unafraid: The day young women took the battle to the streets,’ gave voice to the experiences of 18 women who were part of the protests at JMU. The report illuminates the involvement of women across social strata who are coming out in solidarity with students and Muslim groups to oppose the CAA, NRC and the unfolding violence happening on their doorstep. However, their involvement, they said, was not only about the discriminatory Act but about fighting for the future they imagined for themselves, their children and India.
The state violence happening at different sites across India has been captured on video by citizens using mobile phones, with much of the footage going viral. One particular video from the JMU protests and violence shows five women shielding a man from the police, refusing their violence, denying their authority. The video quickly went viral and has become symbolic of the centrality of women in the resistance against police violence. However, their act of embodied protection is not just about bravery or love for another. It is about justice in a fragile democracy. When the police become your attackers, citizens, friends, family, strangers become the protectors of bodies and the rights (enshrined in the constitution) attributed to those bodies. In doing so, the citizens of India are becoming the upholders of the constitution.
In Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in southern India, women activists have appropriated the traditional, everyday decorative and artistic practice of Kolams (Rangolis) as an alternative method of expressing dissent against the CAA. Kolams are associated with Hinduism yet widely practiced and used in both private and public space. A gendered practice, Kolams are emblematic of celebration and community. Its appropriation as a political tool has therefore been impactful in raising awareness about the Act, demonstrable by its continued use as a method of peaceful protest across Chennai and surrounding cities.
In the capital city of New Delhi, the ‘Women of Shaheen Bagh’ have received wide attention, and are creating ripple effects across the country. Since 2014, the BJP government has generated a rhetoric of ‘saving’ the ‘Muslim woman’ through speeches, targeted policies, and by creating a larger public notion of the ‘dangerous Muslim man’ and an oppressive Muslim community. These same, apparently oppressed Muslim women, are now at the forefront of the protests against the BJP’s latest anti-Muslim political move, the CAA.
At Shaheen Bagh, Muslim women from across class and caste backgrounds have come together in protest by holding a continuous sit in, defying patriarchal structures and norms that restrict their bodies, movement and time. Continuing now for over a month, these women have redefined the very idea of a protest in the country. Shaheen Bagh is completely leaderless, free of any NGO-isation, and it is based entirely on a collective, shared solidarity. It has become a space of care, redefining how care is perceived, turning ‘care’ into a form of resistance. Babies and small children join women at the protest, where they have created a designated area for children. There is a community kitchen, art corners, and readings of the Indian Constitution preamble in several languages.
This phenomenon remains unparalleled in the country and in the last week, the idea of a peaceful sit in by mostly Muslim women, has gone viral. Now there is a ‘Shaheen Bagh’ in Allahabad, Kolkata and Hyderabad, amongst others. The police in many of these cities, who have been ordered to take violent action against protestors, have not been able to grasp what is happening. The very women that the upper caste Hindutva leaders wanted to ‘save’, and free from ‘oppression’ – are the very women who will keep India’s Constitution alive in defiance of Hindutva. The strength of this resistance is arguably in its multiplicity, in its resistance against three structures of oppression: patriarchy, Islamophobia, and most of all, Hindutva: Hindu ethno-nationalism.
These acts of resistance to the unconstitutional CAA and NRC only catch a glimpse of the fight for democracy happening across India. Arguably those we see and hear are the voices of the relatively privileged, those who have the possibility (and relative safety) to put their bodies on the line, be vocal against the government and are receiving press coverage because of their social capital and position. Nevertheless, the glimpse illuminates the possibilities of collective public action and civil disobedience in a fragile democracy, suffering fractures from the violence of a government intent on sowing seeds of division and hate. It also sheds light on the centrality of women in the protests, complicating the reductive stereotypes that try to define the reality of ‘Indian women.’ The involvement of women in this fight is not monolithic or romantic. It is as necessary and powerful as the participation of all socially marginalised groups and the privileged, and yet it is ‘India’s angry young women’ whose presence is being most felt. Together citizens across gender, age, class and caste are raising a fierce rallying cry for unity against fascism.