Reclaiming Indian Democracy: Students at the forefront of protest

On December 15, the students of Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi, held a peaceful protest against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act—an act that effectively disenfranchises 2 million Muslims. 

A peaceful protest on a university campus is quite normal for Delhi; it is almost an everyday affair in the capital. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party , the right-wing government in power, has created a new normal—one where peaceful student protests are met with violent police brutality, mass arrests, and tear gas thrown in university libraries. As the situation escalated, brutal mobs attacked students in their dorms with iron rods, and a radicalized Hindutva extremist shot a gun at students marching on Gandhi’s death anniversary. However, the government didn’t realize that they were trying to silence a storm; their efforts have only fuelled a revolution in the country, the largest since the struggle for independence in 1947. 

Students are often seen at the forefront of political movements, with university campuses as safe spaces for political dissent. We saw the University of Paris in 1968, we saw the All Assam Students Union called for an Assam Agitation in 1979, and we saw Tiananmen Square in 1989. In 2019, we are seeing Hong Kong and India following the same patterns. While some pass it off as aloof idealism, there is something stronger at play here. As Faye D’Souza, an independent journalist said, students seem to have nothing to lose and everything to lose at the same time. 

The state-sponsored attacks against Muslim universities do not come as a surprise. The BJP’s long-held Hindutva ideology, which claims that India is a Hindu state, has been foundational to its political campaign. In the world’s largest democracy, one with the third largest Muslim population in the world, the forces of Hindu nationalism are especially dangerous. Following Prime Minister Modi’s re-election in May 2019,  the country has been plagued by a series of blatantly anti-Muslim policies, each more outrageous than the last. From the stripping of Kashmir’s special status (the only Muslim-majority state in India), to the Ayodhya verdict, which pardoned the vicious destruction of a mosque by Hindutva extremists, the BJP’s populist and sectarian bravado is not only a threat to secularism, but to the very idea of democracy itself. The BJP’s most recent stunt, the passing of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, is the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the country finally woke up to the rising wave of covert authoritarianism. 

The BJP, since its election in 2014, has consistently silenced, detained, and threatened journalists, activists, and politicians who speak out against their draconian policies. The most outrageous means of silencing has been the infamous communication shutdown in Kashmir. The region was denied internet access for more than three months, following the abrogation of its special status by the centre in August. 

Police brutality during the CAA/NRC protests in university campuses across the country signals a dangerous paradigm shift: one in which any means to quash dissent, including through state-backed violence, is welcomed. The normalization of violence against minorities and those seeking to fight for their rights is evident through the support the BJP has ensured from other influential institutions, such as mainstream corporate media, and even the Bollywood industry. 

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) asks all Indians to show proof of their citizenship through documentation, a requirement that is impossible to meet in a country where a majority of the population lives in rural areas without access to basic needs. However, the CAA is an amendment which claims that undocumented citizens of all other religious minorities besides Islam can apply for fast-tracked citizenship. The CAA also offers citizenship to “persecuted minorities” of all religions besides Islam, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Both amendments were initially only to be implemented in Assam, a northeastern state with a large migrant population. However, they were never meant to be religiously motivated. When Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that NRC would be implemented nation-wide, the people took to the streets. 

The sheer immensity of student solidarity in this movement has been particularly striking. Students from universities around India—across lines of class, caste, gender, and most importantly, religion—are standing together to protest against the CAA and NRC, the police brutality, and the BJP’s attempt to dismantle Indian democracy.

Students have shown immense solidarity to the women of Shaheen Bagh—one of the longest 24-hour protests in India. They have shown up daily, fed people, provided medical services, ensured that protesters know their rights, shared alerts on social media, and helped maintain a peaceful and productive environment. There has been immense international support for the student movement too; Tufts, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and a plethora of other institutions poured in support and solidarity statements. There have also been ongoing protests in state capitals and university campuses across the world, the most recent one in Boston being the 24-hour sit-in in Harvard Square on India’s Republic Day, organized by the Harvard Indian Students Association.

The increasing moral policing, the presence of paramilitary forces on university campuses, and the public condemnation of dissenting students curb the intellectual freedoms that are the foundations of educational institutions. Public universities in India, such as JNU and Jamia, act as undercommons and their success relies on their social, cultural, and political subversions. The fact that students have nothing to lose, yet everything to lose at the same time, is a perceived threat to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. The BJP’s violent reaction to student protests not only aims to strip these universities of their exceptionalism, but also has grave implications on the future of democracy. It is in times like this where one recalls Ambedkar’s eminent call to, “educate, agitate, organise.” 

Hum Dekhenge—a poem by famous Muslim protest poet Faiz—was “under review” after being called “anti-Hindu” in IIT Kanpur. University campuses have long served as places where freedom of speech thrives in its truest form—where the Constitution comes to life and democracy tries to exist in its idyllic form. As part of the academic community, it is our duty to stand in support with Jamia, AMU, JNU, and all our fellow protesting students in India, to show our support, to take to the streets, and increase pressure on the Modi government from abroad. Given the sizeable South Asian population at Tufts, it is a sad reality that only a handful of Tufts undergrads attended the recent protest at Harvard on India’s Republic Day. Our community failed to show up. It’s time to walk the talk. It’s time to show up. 

Wo din ke jis ka wada hai

Jo lauh-e-azl mein likha hai

Jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garan

Rooi ki tarah ur jaenge ….

…Hum dekhenge

Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge

When these high mountains

Of tyranny and oppression

turn to fluff and evaporate…

…We shall see

Certainly we, too, shall see

that day that has been promised to us