Why Unarmed Student Protesters Are Worrying Modi

Why Unarmed Student Protesters Are Worrying Modi

By OZY Editors

NEW DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 16: Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra holds a sit-in protest in a show of solidarity with the students from Jamia Millia Islamia and several other universities across the country protesting the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, at India Gate on December 16, 2019 in New Delhi, India. Several protests some peaceful, some violent erupted across India on Monday against the police crackdown in Jamia Millia Islamia here and the controversial citizenship law as students and political leaders took to the streets, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi called these protests "deeply distressing" and appealed for peace. Demonstrations against the citizenship law turned violent near the Jamia yesterday. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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For the first time, Modi faces opposition from both liberals and nationalists over the new citizenship law.

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


Indian National Congress Supporters burn an effigy of the

KOLKATA, INDIA – 2019/12/14: Indian National Congress Supporters burn an effigy of the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi for sanctioning the CAB bill during the demonstration. Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB, which grants Indian citizenship to the non-Muslims of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, was passed by the Indian Government on this week has created violence, strike and protest all over the India. (Photo by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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What happened? Tens of thousands of university students across India are taking to the streets to protest a controversial new law that imposes a de facto religious test on citizenship through naturalization. The law will expedite citizenship for Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Jain migrants fleeing religious persecution from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan — but will not help Muslim minority groups, such as Ahmadiyyas, Rohingyas and Hazaras, who also face victimization in the region. Police have cracked down on protesters, using tear gas Monday to evict students from the Jamia Millia Islamia university library in New Delhi, where dozens were arrested. At least six people have been killed in violence in the northeastern state of Assam.

Why does it matter? The nationwide student-led protests represent the biggest political challenge yet to the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won a sweeping second term in May. For the first time, the Modi administration faces pressure from both liberals and regional nationalists. While liberal critics argue that the law violates India’s secular Constitution, protesters in Assam and other northeast states worry that it will open the floodgates for future migrants who would “dilute” their cultural identity — irrespective of their religion. The global headlines made by these protests could shadow a strategic dialogue between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and their Indian counterparts in Washington on Wednesday.  


Protest against Citizenship Amendment Act 2019

NEW DELHI, INDIA – DECEMBER 15: Students from the north-east hold placards to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, at Jantar Mantar on December 15, 2019 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

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A new theocracy. The Citizenship Amendment Act is the latest in a series of steps that critics say are moving India away from its secular traditions into a Hindu mirror image of Islamic Pakistan. In August, the government withdrew Kashmir’s autonomy and imposed a communications blackout. It has since kept all Kashmiri politicians — including pro-India former chief ministers — under arrest. Internet access there has been blocked for 134 days, the longest in any democracy. The Supreme Court last month allowed the construction of a temple where Hindu nationalist mobs had destroyed a historic 17th century mosque. And the government plans to deport 2 million migrants, many of them Muslims — including veterans who fought for India — because they don’t have adequate documentation. 

One step too far? While the crackdown in Kashmir enjoyed broad support in the rest of India — just as the Hong Kong protests have elicited limited sympathy from most people in mainland China — the popular response to the citizenship law has been different. Regional nationalists in the northeast who largely voted for Modi and his BJP party in the 2019 elections are turning against him, even as liberal protesters pressure the government from the opposite end. Faced with images of police thrashing unarmed students on the streets of New Delhi, popular Bollywood actors and authors who had previously cozied up to Modi are beginning to speak out against the violence.      

Global impact. Bangladesh and Afghanistan, close Indian allies, have lashed out at the new law for its suggestion that these countries systematically persecute minorities. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom has sought sanctions against Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, profiled by OZY this summer. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has criticized the religious test as contrary to the shared secular principles that bind the world’s two largest democracies. And India’s attempts to get Japan to invest more in its northeast regions have taken a hit, with Prime MInister Shinzo Abe putting off a planned visit to Assam amid the protests. 


As Protests Rage, Is India Moving Closer to Becoming a Hindu Nation? by Jeffrey Gettleman and Maria Abi-Habib in The New York Times

“India’s Muslims had stayed relatively quiet during the other recent setbacks, keenly aware of the electoral logic that has pushed them to the margins.”

Citizenship Act Has Corrected a Historic Blunder by Swapan Dasgupta in The Times of India 

“Acknowledging the injustice to minorities in three neighbouring countries and fast-tracking a solution does not mean India is emulating these countries.”


India’s CAB Protests: Not Just a Conflict Between Hindus and Muslims

“We know that we will become the minority in our own land.”

Watch on Deutsche Welle on YouTube

Protests Over Citizenship Bill Shut Down Parts of India

Watch on AP on YouTube


Attire test next? Modi is resorting to dog-whistle politics, and on Monday told an election rally that the protesters could be “identified by their clothes” — an apparent reference to Muslims. In Twitter and Facebook memes, meanwhile, Modi’s critics are mocking him as the “emperor with no clothes.”