A woman standing next to me searched Google for the preamble and started reading along. When I told Fahad this, he smiled and said, “This is what we wanted: for the citizens of this country to revisit the constitution that has been long forgotten. We need to remember the secularism enshrined [in it] because those in power would rather bring in a Hindu rashtra [Hindu nation].”
Fahad is one of thousands of students who have taken to the streets of India to protest the citizenship bill that was passed in Parliament last week. The bill allows the Indian government to grant expedited citizenship to persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, excluding Muslims.
On Sunday, police entered New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia — a pioneering university established by some of the leading freedom fighters of the Muslim community — and attacked hundreds of student protesters. They fired tear-gas shots and hit students with sticks, injuring dozens. Multiple reports say that protesters have been admitted to Delhi hospitals with bullet injuries.
According to the newsmagazine Caravan, a 25-year-old protester was brutally beaten and then taunted by the police, who asked him to beg in the name of Allah. Another student preparing for his law exams lost his eyesight to police brutality.
The crackdown that occurred simultaneously at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh had a common thread. Both institutions had their genesis in the Muslim revolutionary movement of India. Police in Aligarh entered the university on Sunday night and fired tear-gas shells, injured students and asked them to vacate the hostels. Many Kashmiri students, who have been the victims of prejudiced attacks, had to flee overnight to protect themselves.
The crackdown on these institutions was anticipated when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a veiled reference to Muslims at an election rally on Sunday. In yet another one of his consistent dog whistles, Modi said, “We can recognize the people who start the fire from their clothing.”
Then, at another election rally on Monday, Home Minister Amit Shah — who has yet to condemn the attack on student protesters — referred to the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which has been a contentious issue for Muslims. He promised the electorate that a temple touching the sky would be built at the site of the mosque within four months.
But unlike the response to previous majoritarian attacks on the rights of Muslim citizens, this time the Modi government has faced unprecedented backlash. Majid Ahmed, a student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who held up the Indian tricolor flag at the protests, told me that the country had moved beyond the language of silence: “They lynched us; we remained silent. They attacked our institutions; we remained silent. They built detention centers for Muslims; we remained silent. They called us migrants, referred to us as termites, and we continued to remain numb. But now we cannot take a new wound. The citizenship bill is the biggest challenge to India since the Partition of the country, and we are the freedom fighters.”
On Monday, social media in India was abuzz with revolutionary images from all over the country, with women leading the protests. A student from the recent protests screamed: “People in Hong Kong are protesting, in Chile they are protesting, and they are not scared. We are not scared, too."
The air of despondency in the country has been replaced by pockets of rebellion. The nationwide protests in the country have begun to cast doubt on Modi’s image as a leader who means development. I spoke to multiple diplomats from two important embassies who said they were being asked to prepare reports on Modi’s track record on minorities, the allegations of fascism and Modi’s role in promoting religious division in Gujarat.
Even some in the Indian film industry, which has often been accused of complicity in whitewashing Modi’s majoritarian agenda, have started speaking up. Many believe that Modi has gone too far this time, the visuals of the attack on students too compelling for all but the most rigid, indifferent fence-sitters.
An important question raised by critics and journalists is whether the protests could actually put the brakes on Modi’s fascist projects. The prime minister has a nefarious record of turning protests such as these in his favor, giving resistance a communal hue and using it to consolidate his majoritarian vote bank. Modi’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already called the student protests an act of vandalism by “jihadists, Maoists and separatists.”
Yet, as demonstrations grow from Hong Kong to India, the world’s largest democracy could place its faith in the history of protests that have proved to be a tipping point for authoritarian regimes. India has a long way to go in fighting a regime that will stop at nothing to implement its idea of a Hindu nation. But for a country that is being labeled a “malevolent republic,” accused of losing its soul to small-minded, petty and vindictive ideas, students are proving to be its conscience keepers. And that should give some hope to India and the world as we witness one of its darkest periods in our history.