Can Protests Save India's Muslims or is it Too Little, Too Late?
CJ Werleman considers whether the Modi Government’s crackdown on Muslims is indicative of India never having been a liberal democracy in the first place.
In cities all across India, secular and pro-democracy Muslims and Hindus have joined hands to rise up against Hindu supremacy and, more specifically the Naredenra Modi Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws, which seek to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the country’s 200 million adherents of the Islamic faith.
These protests have been peaceful, law-abiding and student-led, giving hope that India’s future might not ultimately be defined by Hindu nationalists, but rather by those who remain committed to the ideals of a secular democracy. Images of hundreds of thousands of protestors marching in the streets of Hyderabad carrying national flags and pro-democracy slogans are symbolic of this optimism.
India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its closely associated Hindutva allies, is determined to have the final say, however. It has given tacit, and sometimes implicit, approval to the country’s security forces and far-right street goons to mete out violence to those who oppose the Government’s expressed intention to create conditions hostile enough for Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities that they will ultimately be left with no other choice but to migrate to Pakistan, Bangladesh or elsewhere.
For years, the Modi regime has not only been chipping away at the rights of Muslims in the courts, but also in the streets, unleashing a wave of lynching attacks, which have resulted in the violent deaths of countless Muslims in the five years the BJP has been in power. But protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have produced state-led violence not seen since 2002, when anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat left more than 2,000 Muslims dead – a state Modi was chief minister of at the time of the violence.
Last Friday, approximately 200 men belonging to the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is affiliated with the ruling BJP, stormed Jawaharlal Nehru University and attacked students and teachers with wooden sticks and iron rods, leaving more than 70 seriously injured. The group has promised further attacks against anti-CAA protestors.
Since nationwide protests against the CAA and NRC laws began last month, more than 30 Muslims have been killed, thousands have been arrested and countless have been subjected to what can only be described as torture and cruelty at the hands of Indian police forces. Most of the deaths and accounts of abuse have occurred in Uttar Pradesh, a state led by a chief minister who has referred to Muslims as “termites” and “invaders”.
Numerous videos shared online have shown police firing indiscriminately into crowds and Muslim-majority residential areas. Others have shown police viciously beating Muslim bystanders, while also encouraging Hindutva street thugs to participate in the violence. A recent investigation by The Guardian revealed almost unimaginable horrors, which some have likened to “Kristallnacht but for Muslims”.
At an Islamic seminary in the Uttar Pradesh city of Muzaffarnagar, 50 police officers, “bearing batons and iron rods, broke down the doors and burst in”, looking for people who had taken part in protests against the Government. They rounded up 35 students, 15 of whom were younger than 18 years of age, taking them to a nearby police station, where they were either tortured or raped or both.
“Here the cleric was, witnesses allege, stripped of his clothes, beaten and a rod shoved up his anus, causing rectal bleeding, while the students were allegedly tortured with bamboo rods and made to shout Hindu nationalist slogans Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram] and Har Har Mahadev [Save us Lord Shiva],” according to The Guardian report.
According to numerous accounts, these kinds of night-time raids have taken part across the state, leaving Muslims battered, bruised and broken.
“My family did not take part in any protests, why would they do this to us?” a man identified only as Hasan told journalists. “Muslims in this country are being made to live in fear, even in our homes we are not safe from violence now.”
In an effort to quell international condemnation, the Indian Government has resorted to doing what it has been doing in Kashmir for nearly six months and shut down internet access in areas where protests are taking place. India has carried out the largest number of government-ordered internet shutdowns in the world, putting it ahead of China, Russia and Syria.
Clearly, millions of Indians are protesting like their lives and their democracy depends on it, although many contend that the country’s democratic character never actually existed, with well-known Indian author Siddhartha Deb arguing: “What we are living through is not some tragic downfall of a once great secular democracy. Rather, what we are experiencing, with great shock and horror, is the collapse of our own exalted ideas about ourselves. Acknowledging the latter is vital if we are not to dangerously prolong our state of self-deception and attempt to restore a reality that never existed.”
Deb’s broader point is that commentators, particularly Western journalists, often fall into the trap of imagining that India will somehow return to its imagined glory days at a point when Modi and the BJP are removed and replaced with the Indian National Congress (INC) party, but that India has never been a liberal democracy and that anti-Muslim pogroms and forced displacements were also a feature of the INC’s rule.
If there was ever reason to fret about the safety and wellbeing of 200 million Indian Muslim citizens, then Deb’s clear-eyed dose of reality might be it.