For the last few weeks, India has been garnering international attention for being in a state of upheaval amidst a backdrop of violence, brutality and misinformation, but also unity and strength in numbers. It’s been more than a month since the bill approved by the parliament became an official law on December 12, 2019, effectively amending the 1971 Citizenship Act, which earlier stated that only those born on July 1, 1987, or who had parents born in India before that date could be considered legal Indian citizens. What followed the formalising of the Act, though, were social media explainers dissecting why this new act didn’t exactly have the best interests of all Indian communities and religious groups, blood-curdling attacks on university students and a call-to-action that has gathered so much support, many can’t help but compare it to India’s independence struggle.
But the struggle continues to stay real and is swelling with each passing day. Still, given that every other day there’s talk of protesters being detained, while students get beaten with sticks and stones, the kaleidoscopic chaos can leave one feeling more confused than ever about what’s left, right or a squashing of human rights. So, in case you need a refresher course on why millions of Indians across the country are occupying the streets and showing no sign of stopping, here’s a handy guide breaking it all down.
What’s the deal with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act?
The BJP has hailed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) as a saving grace for persecuted minorities, promising Indian citizenship to the marginalised and oppressed communities living in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who entered India before December 31, 2014, but without any clarity given to why this cut-off date was chosen. However, the Act that seeks to fast-track Indian citizenship for refugees from 12 years to six has been called out for blatantly leaving out all Muslims, Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans, prompting critics to call it unconstitutional and unsecular. Many are also concerned about the current ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) track record, including the recent internet shutdown and pellet gun violence in Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state.
Is it really that bad though?
When India’s Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah announced the news that sent shockwaves throughout the nation, he also vowed that the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) would be undertaken, which would effectively require all Indians to prove that either they or their parents historically belonged to India. However, while Shah had previously said that to prove Indian citizenship, even passports and Aadhar cards—documents that would otherwise stand as pictorial proof of one’s Indian roots—would not be accepted, he quickly backtracked on this stance, though no proper details about the required documents were given. While there remains a lack of information and uncertainty around this issue, people are worried that the nationwide NRC will leave out lakhs of citizens as the one applied to Assam recently did since many Indians lose their documents due to floods, relocation or simply just an unorganised system. While the government has put out a statement assuring Indians that they have nothing to fear, many are still convinced that the CAA in tandem with the NRC will allow most citizens who couldn’t prove their citizenship to stay, except all the Muslims.
Why are students so pissed off?
Things took a dark turn after December 15, 2019, when students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) became the prime targets of violent attacks and shocking police brutality. While many were quick to blame the student protesters for turning hostile by setting public property like buses on fire, students maintain that they were staging peaceful protests. Reports have even confirmed that local thugs had been mysteriously hired to incite the violence, but that didn’t put a stop to the flames of fury being lit.
It got even worse on January 6, 2020, after students of India’s iconic Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)—which has a thriving atmosphere of student politics, including one run by BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP)—were attacked by masked assailants who went on to vandalise property and threaten students in the hostels. What left people even more shook was that sources say the police was standing by the gate the entire time, yet did nothing to stop the goons from barging in and even left Aishe Ghosh—the president of the Left-centred student party JNUSU—bleeding profusely with a severe head injury. But even after Pinky Chaudhary, a leader of the Hindu Raksha Dal took responsibility for the remorseful events saying it was an attempt to quell the “anti-national” activities taking place at JNU and an India Today sting operation uncovered evidence that some ABVP members were the masked goons armed with lathis on campus, police officials first pointed fingers at the students and have still made no arrests. This has pissed off pretty much everyone, including mainstream Bollywood celebrities, and prompted a fresh round of nationwide protests in the new decade.
What’s happening in Uttar Pradesh then?
Uttar Pradesh—India’s most populous state that is currently being governed by Yogi Adityanath, a powerful BJP leader often criticised for his bigoted views—has seen some of the deadliest protests in the country. The dangerous protests in the state have left more than 20 people dead, including an eight-year-old boy, and many human rights activists are concerned that Muslims are the main ones being targeted and murdered. However, Shah is keen that the law be jolted into action, despite all the dissent. So, UP has officially become the first state to implement the CAA, identifying so far more than 30,000 people from 21 districts as refugees. But even though the procedure to detail refugees has already begun, the protests continue, despite the state shutting down the internet in several parts to curb the growing movement.
And what about the Northeast?
Just like the rest of India, the Northeast has been gripped by turmoil and protests. But what sets them apart is not only the concern that this new law is unconstitutional, communal and exclusionary, but also that their region—which houses an overwhelming number of indigenous tribes—will be populated by unwelcome migrants in an already uncertain environment. Protests have been on in full-power in Assam, where more than 19 lakh citizens were left out of the NRC. Meanwhile states like Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland are also strongly supporting and propagating protests, despite coming under the government-declared inner line permit (ILP) regime which exempts them from the law, to show their solidarity with the movement that goes beyond any one sentiment, community or issue.
So, what’s next?
60 pleas have been filed against the CAA and NRC and the Supreme Court is slated to hold a hearing on January 22, even as the BJP continues to assert that “no force on earth” could stop the implementation of the controversial law. Today, the Kerala government became the first state to move the Supreme Court over the CAA, saying it went against the basic right to equality.
Many are still hopeful that the Supreme Court ruling could hold back the formidable force of the CAA, even as others voice their concerns over the Supreme Court allowing the Act to come through. Further fuelling these expectations is the refusal by 11 state governments including Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal have straight out refused to implement the CAA. Meanwhile, protests are on in full swing across India, most notably the women-led one in Shaheen Bagh sustaining for more than a month. But perhaps the most hopeful part about this movement is that it is reinvigorating young people with a sense of revolution and a responsibility they feel to fight for their country before it all burns away.
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