Protests that continue late into the night in the absence of TV crews are often protests that bring down governments. I went to one in Delhi last week. The leaders were dead men – Gandhi and Ambedkar – whose pictures people carried. Middle-class engineers, homeless youth workers, teenage undergraduates, young professionals on their way home from work joined the demonstration. I hadn’t seen a spontaneous gathering this large, this angry, since December 2012, when the entire city erupted against the gang rape of a medical student. There were no speeches, no microphones; people read the Indian constitution in assembly, and raised their fists and their voices for hours on end. The slogans, after a while, sounded like curses on the government. They called the home minister, Amit Shah, a thief, a murderer. ‘Modi, too, is a murderer,’ they said. People seemed surprised by their own words, at their own courage. I saw fear lifting off young faces.
The day before, the police and paramilitary forces had chased protesters inside the gates of their university, fired bullets at them, thrown tear gas into libraries and locked the doors. They broke into mosques and girls’ hostels, and assaulted students. They rounded them up, bleeding and with broken limbs, and kept them in custody, refusing medical aid. Students at Jamia Millia University spent the night in hiding, afraid the police would kill them. At Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, at least hundred students were injured; one student’s palm was blown off by a stun grenade. Injured students from both Delhi and Aligarh say the police made no effort to hide their hatred for Muslims while they battered them. As the news spread that night in Delhi, thousands of people thronged outside police headquarters in protest.
The police in India are trying to suppress a growing civil disobedience movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, passed on 11 December, which effectively declares India a homeland for Hindus. Twenty-two people have been killed so far. The feared next step is a national register of citizens (NRC), which would require all of us to give proof of our citizenship. Whatever the criteria, it would be impossible for a majority of Indians to provide the necessary documents. Non-Muslims who cannot prove their citizenship will be protected if they can prove they are refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh who came to India before 2015. Muslims who cannot prove their citizenship may become stateless, lose their voting rights, or be sent to detention camps. Any law that excludes Muslims is a violation of India’s constitution. But a national register of citizens that excludes Muslims will be the end of the constitution. India, as founded seventy years ago, would cease to exist.
Shah has long been clear about his plans for ‘illegal migrants’ or ‘infiltrators’: detect, delete and deport. His language echoes the vocabulary of the Assam Accord, an agreement reached between the government in Delhi and the anti-immigration Assam Movement in 1985. Assam has a long history of xenophobia towards migrants, especially Bengalis. Last August, the government of Assam published an NRC for the state. Nearly two million people, who could not prove that they or their forebears lived there before 1971, were excluded from its citizen list. The BJP has learned in Assam how citizens can be turned against citizens, and an entire group of people disenfranchised. Even inclusion on the NRC in Assam isn’t enough to keep people safe: the border police can arbitrarily, without evidence, decide that someone’s a foreigner and their name shouldn’t be on the register.
If the NRC is implemented in the rest of the country, there is no reason to believe that Amit Shah wouldn’t try to grab similar arbitrary powers for himself, and use them to terrorise India’s two hundred million Muslims. No list would be final then; and no proof of citizenry enough. An unbearable insecurity about our future is the only reason why these protests are growing. What will the tyrant do next?
Thinking about a national register of citizens is itself isolating. We would all be required to prove ourselves individually to the state, again and again. There is a chance that, as has happened in Assam, your sibling may be on the list, your parents may be too, but you may not. The NRC is designed to separate us from each other. It is human nature to shun isolation and seek solidarity. The protests are not going to stop.