Thousands Rally Against Discriminatory Law As Indian Government Clamps Down On Dissent

Several hundred students were injured recently after police stormed the Jamia Millia Campus in New Delhi and assaulted residents there. Police reportedly entered the campus by force, using batons and tear gas once inside. This comes as part of a wider series of clashes across India as citizens protest the newly-passed Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that has been heavily criticized as discriminatory toward the country’s Muslim population. The government’s violent response has resulted in thousands of injuries and 24 deaths since the protests began on December 4th.

M.S. Randhawa, a spokesperson for the police, reported that “maximum restraint” and “minimal force” were employed in the storming of the campus. However, around 200 of the school’s primarily Muslim students were injured according to the university’s Vice-Chancellor, Najma Akhtar. Doctors speaking to the Washington Post also claimed that two protestors were brought to the hospital suffering from bullet wounds. Both the law and the violent reaction of the police have been widely condemned by the International Community. The United Nations Human Rights office described the act as being “fundamentally discriminatory in nature” and advised the government to respect citizens’ rights to assemble peacefully. Writing for the Wire, constitutional lawyer Markandey Katju decried it as a violation of the rights to equality, life, and liberty as laid out in the Indian constitution under Articles 14 and 21.

The Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA grants citizenship to any Christian, Hindu, and Sikh refugee that came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan before 2014. However, the law makes no provisions for Muslim refugees from those countries. This has, in turn, sparked furor and unrest that began in cities such as New Delhi and Assam but then spread nationwide. The Government’s use of force to crack down on protests has put further strain on relations with Muslims and exacerbated the situation to the point of civil upheaval. To clamp down on dissent, emergency resolutions severing internet access and restricting the right to assemble in affected areas have also been enacted. However, the Indian Government’s continued violation of its own citizens’ basic human rights complicates any chance of resolving this issue through peaceful dialogue or transparent legal processes. The CAA comes as another notch in the belt for an administration that has long attempted to erode secularism in the country.

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and his party, the BJP, rode into office in 2014 on promises of reform and a desire to curb the prevalence of Hindu nationalism. Yet six years of his administration have seen hate crimes against Muslims rise steadily. These cases of religiously motivated violence often go unpunished as well. A report by the Human Rights Watch found that the authorities frequently failed to protect minorities against Hindu vigilantes or in some cases even attempted to cover-up crimes. There are greater fears that Modi is consolidating efforts in order to further disenfranchise Muslims. In August, the government revoked the special autonomous status of the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region and went so far as to cut off internet access there. In 2021 there are plans to roll out the National Register of Citizens throughout the country, the implementation of which is purported to fight illegal immigration but critics fear will be used to render countless Muslims stateless as they are unprotected by the CAA. Despite its claims to the contrary, the Modi administration has implicitly encouraged Hindu nationalism and consistently shown them favor over the Muslim minority. The CAA serves to further cement the second-class citizenship status of Muslim migrants and the community as a whole.

If the government continues to embrace the use of force as its first solution, then the current violence in India is only likely to increase over time. Since the protests began, 24 people have lost their lives and the ranks of the protesters have swelled by the thousands. The violent response of the government marks another step in a disturbing move towards authoritarianism as the BJP attempts to stifle civil opposition. The problem is not exclusive to India either. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, expressed fears to a forum on refugees in Geneva that the government crackdown could result in a migration crisis and strain relations between the two countries, saying, “We are worried there could not only be a refugee crisis, we are worried it could lead to a conflict between two nuclear-armed countries.” The consequences for the country and region as a whole stand to become much graver unless drastic steps are taken on the part of the Indian government to deescalate the situation.