India: widespread resistance to racist laws

Protest at Shaheen Bagh, on India's Constitution Day, 26 January

On 26 January 2020 India celebrated 70 years of its Constitution. There was a mighty display of its power at the Republic Day Parade, with Jair Bolsonaro, far-right President of Brazil, as Guest of Honour. But 2020 did not get off to a peaceful start for many Indians. On 11 December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This racist act grants amnesty to anyone except Muslims who entered India as refugees from religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The CAA, when read with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second plan, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), will leave millions stateless.

NRC requires all residents of India to prove their citizenship through specific documentary evidence. Government-issued IDs, such as a voter card, Aadhar card (a unique identification number saving biometric and bank details of the individual) or even a passport, will not be considered sufficient evidence of citizenship. Instead, citizenship needs to be proven through historical documents, such as birth certificates proving parentage and property registration to prove continuous residence in the country since 1970. There are millions of people who have been living in India for generations and have no such documentary evidence. NRC has already been applied in the state of Assam, where 1.9 million people are excluded from the register. Unregistered people will be sent to 16 detention camps, ten of which are new camps that the government plans to construct in Assam – what will happen there is not clear, as the government has not released any proper plan. Construction of one camp at Matia is almost complete and is the size of seven football fields with a capacity of 3,000. According to Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, this model will be applied all over India from 2021. This has created a fear in minority communities who feel targeted and further pushed to the margins of society.

Students and members of minority groups are protesting against CAA and NRC across the country. Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia University (Jamia) have been the centre of these protests. On 15 December 2019, police entered the campuses of these universities and attacked students with batons and tear gas. Many were injured, while others were detained and tortured in jail. The police recorded videos of protests for facial recognition to identify and file complaints against the protesters. At Jamia, police entered the campus and attacked students studying in the library. They also gassed the library with expired tear gas shells (which makes them toxic), the use of which is prohibited in closed spaces. Police detained hundreds of protesters inside and outside university campuses, including minors.

On 5 January in New Delhi, approximately 50 masked men and women, armed with iron rods, sticks, acid, glass, etc entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), assaulted students and staff who had opposed CAA and NRC, injured student union president Aishe Ghosh and vandalised the campus. These attackers were later identified as members of the All Indian Student Council (ABVP), a right-wing student organisation affiliated with the RSS Hindu nationalist group, which is the mouthpiece of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the attackers caused havoc, the police simply watched. Later when students marched peacefully towards the President of India’s residence, the police attacked with water cannon and batons. Many were detained again.

In addition to CAA and NRC, the BJP government has also passed other draconian laws which were highlighted by protests:

  • 24 July 2019, The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill: allows central and state governments to declare any individual as a ‘terrorist’ and seize their personal property. The burden of proof lies on the person to prove otherwise, while the government can make such declaration without any court order or police complaint, and can even delay trial, which violates the fundamental right to free and fair trial provided by the Constitution.
  •  1 August, Right to Information (RTI) Amendment Bill: the principle of the RTI Act (2005) lies in the independence of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). The Amendment allows the central government to decide the tenure and salary of the CIC, effectively nullifying the independence of the office.
  •  5 August, abrogation of Article 370, which gave Kashmir its special status (see FRFI 272). Since the abrogation of this article, Kashmir has been in complete communication lockdown and curfewed. Human rights violations in Kashmir continue to increase with each passing day.
  •  5 December, Transgender Persons Bill: According to this bill, a person needs to go through a screening process to get certified as a trans person and the said certificate can only be obtained if the person undergoes surgery to confirm their gender.
  •  Personal Data Protection Bill: tabled on 11 December, this would give the government unrestrained access beyond all privacy safeguards into the personal profile of a user on any social media platform.

While students, academics and activists have been expressing their dissent, many other communities have joined in the resistance movement. Since the first week of December 2019, there have been continuous protests in many cities. Lawyers and human rights defenders are working pro-bono day and night to get illegally detained protesters released. Medical practitioners were outside police stations to treat the wounded and provide assistance to detainees. Students of Indian origin have been organising protests across the world and many groups have joined in solidarity against Modi’s government.

Women in the Shaheen Bagh locality in Delhi have been blocking a major road 24/7 since 15 December, with the sit-in protest attracting approximately half a million people on some days and diverting some 100,000 vehicles per day, allowing only ambulances to use the road. Despite threats by the government, these women have not moved. There have been defamation attempts by the news media and the BJP’s IT cell circulating online propaganda accusing protesters of being sponsored by Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party, but the sit-in grows stronger every day. They are fighting back against CAA, NRC, police brutality and the BJP government.

Parvaz Lamba