On December 19, India witnessed massive protests across more than a dozen major cities against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Passed by the Indian parliament on December 11, the Act offers the promise of citizenship to all religious minorities from three neighboring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu– except Muslims. Discriminating against one specific religious group—Muslims (which, within India, in fact, comprise at least about 14% of the population according to the 2011 census data), the CAA is a direct affront to the secular ethos of the Indian constitution.
The act has been condemned widely by the Indian population, including the Chief Ministers of states such as Rajasthan, Kerala and West Bengal. Large-scale protests have broken out in various parts of the country, starting with the northeastern state of Assam; and at universities such as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMU). Peacefully demonstrating people were mercilessly beaten by the police, turning the protests into a violent clash between the heavily armed police force and unarmed students and other groups voicing their opposition. Teargas was unleashed upon the protestors: many incurred serious injuries, and at least four have died.
The current right-wing Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, instead of at least condemning police brutality, or actually ordering that it stop, instead suggested that protesters were inciting the violence and “can be identified by their clothes.” Many opposition parties joined hands and called for a nation-wide protest against the implementation of the Act in the Indian political tradition of civil disobedience to save Indian democracy. However, a day ahead of the protest, the government imposed Section 144, in multiple states, that prohibits any public gathering of more than four individuals. Despite this ban and the fear of further clashes with the police, scores of people in different cities took to the streets on December 19 to protest this unconstitutional and bigoted Act. In Delhi and Bangalore, protesters were arrested.
What is extremely important to understanding the significance of these protests is the larger popular concerns about the fascist politics of the ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The writer and political activist, Arundhati Roy has pointed out the similarity between the CAA and Nazi Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which voided Jewish citizenship and set the stage for mass detention and genocide. In September, news reports revealed that the state was building a mass “detention center” for illegal immigrants in Assam (a state with large Muslim population), right after it had stripped close to 2 million people in the regions of their citizenship. Such detention centers are planned to be built across the country, and one is slated to open in Karnataka in January 2020.
Around the same time, the BJP government declared a state of emergency in the disputed region of Kashmir, flouting an international agreement, deploying military forces that provoked violence and human rights abuses. All forms of communication in Kashmir were shut down (the internet is still down), and many ordinary citizens, as well as political leaders were imprisoned. The special constitutional status of Kashmir as a disputed territory, which granted a region that has been fighting for its independence for decades relative autonomy and the right to “define the state’s “permanent residents,”” was scrapped.
The motive for this intervention was clear: to ‘hinduize’ Kashmir and bring it under the fold of Indian state. Simultaneously, BJP leaders announced its intention to enforce Hindus’ “right” to buy land in Kashmir. The government’s supporters cheered online, expressing as well a collective dream of intermarrying with Kashmiri women. The fantasy of domesticating the Muslim other, and the political charade of wanting “development” in the region are thus closely intertwined
This is the larger context for the CAA. Ever since Modi first came to power in 2014, Muslims and the lower-caste Dalits have been a regular target of spectacularly orchestrated hate-crimes. They have been attacked and lynched by mobs of Hindus demanding that the victim submit to their will and chant the Hindu religious slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail, Lord Rama!).
Even as recorded videos of these violent crimes went viral on social media, the government refused to comment on or condemn these attacks.
The motif of “Ram-rajya” (the Hindu lord “Rama’s kingdom”) captures the essence of BJP’s ultimate political goal: to convert the secular Indian state into a Hindu state, ruled by upper-caste Hindu elite. One by one, these political actions have been steps in the larger totalitarian program of the BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, who seek to build a “new India” based on the political philosophy of Hindutva. But the Hindutva isn’t an invention of the BJP. It was first articulated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his Nazi-inspired pamphlet, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Savarkar, who professed an ethno-linguistically fascist and xenophobic vision of India in his motto “Hindu, Hindi, Hindusthan!” (India as the land for Hindi-speaking population of Hindus), and who was charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (who imagined a secular India), is an idol of the Hindu-Right. Building on this fascist political philosophy, another Hindu-Right leader, M. S. Golwakar, had made clear his Nazi inspiration for Hindutva in his pamphlet, We, or Our Nationhood Defined.
Given this history, many Indians are concerned that the CAA, the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC), the abrogation of the Article 35A and 370 in Kashmir, the detention centers, are not isolated political issues or simply, changes in our constitution. Together, they are a larger scheme that might transform the world’s largest democracy into, not just a right-wing populist but a full-blown fascist state. Even worse, a global consensus might form to support this new state. Modi has been shrewd at building alliances with similarly inclined leaders in other countries around the world. This includes Donald Trump, as well as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who has been invited to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebration in 2020; and the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson — who recently declared his support for Modi’s efforts to build a new India.
And this potential alliance of extremist leaders should be of deep and genuine concern to us all.
Shiv Datt Sharma is a candidate for the master’s degree in Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research.