'Hum Dekhenge': Power and Pain in Modi’s India | Sojourners

'Hum Dekhenge': Power and Pain in Modi’s India

People shout slogans during a protest, organised by West Bengal State Jamiat-e-Ulama, an Islamic organisation, against a new citizenship law, in Kolkata, India, Dec. 22, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Babri Masjid mosque was located in Gujarat. It was located in Ayodhya. 

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) annexed Kashmir on Aug. 5, Hindu nationalists danced in the streets. A section of the population celebrated the egregious violation of the Indian Constitution and international law in agreement with the BJP’s conflation of religion with nationhood. The Indian government stifled the voices of Kashmiris, using internet blockades, army patrols, and a deluge of disinformation. In a matter of weeks, India moved on.

Three months later, on Nov. 9, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Ayodhya belonged to Hindus. The decision retroactively legitimized the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, which led to pogroms that killed at least 1,000 Muslims. When the Court announced its decision, lawyers — the vanguards of Indian secularism — chanted "Jai Shri Ram" (Hail Lord Ram) within Court premises.

Buoyed by what seemed like support, the BJP pressed on. On Dec. 11, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party took its boldest step yet, passing the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA). Once enacted, the CAA will overturn 64 years of legal precedence to deny Muslim refugees Indian citizenship. Importantly, the act contradicts Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, paving the way for governments to pass laws specifically targeting religious minorities in the future. When the bill passed in Parliament, BJP leaders celebrated, only this time, no religious chants rang out in the streets of Delhi. Instead, across India, civil disobedience showed its face.

It started in Assam, where 1.9 million have already been rendered stateless by the National Registry of Citizens (NRC). Immediately after Parliament passed the CAA, thousands took to the streets of Northeast India to protest the legislation. The case of Assam highlights the discriminatory intent of CAA. Although the NRC has identified 1.9 million in Assam as ‘illegal’ immigrants, the CAA will allow those among them who are Hindu to claim citizenship. Those who are Muslim will be deported or worse, herded into the camps currently under construction in the region.

As tensions in Assam escalated and threatened to spill over into other regions, the BJP resorted to an old trick. The military was deployed, a curfew imposed, and the internet shut down. An online army of BJP trolls began delegitimizing dissent as ‘fake news.’ Then, the death of four people at the hands of the police rocked India to response.

Grievance splintered. It spread to Kolkata, where Parliamentary members marched with students to denounce the caustic policy; to Aligarh where police swooped in on students and summarily detained protesters; to Bihar where thousands echoed the sentiments of Kashmiris under siege: Azadi, tum kuch bhi karlo — freedom, whatever the cost. Then, on Dec. 15, dissent reached Delhi.

Jamia University stretches out on either side of Okhla Marg, opening up on to Sarai Julena and Sukhdev Vihar on one end and Okhla and Shaheen Bagh on the other. Four days after Assam and two days after Aligarh, Delhi Police surrounded the campus and forced entry, raining tear gas down on students. To escape the onslaught, Vismay, a student of Jamia, took shelter in the campus cafeteria with his classmates. Vismay is a Hindu, but on that day, his identity, like the identities of millions of Muslims across India was reduced to a deshdrohi ‘anti-national.'

For hours, the silence of the cafeteria was broken only by the sound of windows breaking amid chants of "Pakistan wapas jao" (Go back to Pakistan). At one point, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the student wing of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — joined in. In one particularly chilling video, ABVP cadres can be seen interrogating a student on their position regarding the CAA. Later that night, the police paraded detained students down the streets of India’s capital. Reflecting on the night that had passed, Vismay said: “We knew that unless we hid, no one would be spared.”

As protests rage on across India, the BJP has doubled down on its modus operandi of denial and deception. On Dec. 16, Modi implored protesters to use democratic means to debate policies even as his government enforced an internet blockade on eight states. Home Minister Amit Shah followed suit by deflecting criticism of the CAA by reiterating that the law did not target Muslims. Hours later, the U.N. issued a statement warning that the act was ‘fundamentally discriminatory in nature.’

In Modi’s India, the dichotomy of power and pain mirrors the political polarity of a country coming apart at the seams. The recent protests might have been precipitated by the Citizenship Amendment Act, but they are the culmination of long-held grievances against a government that has targeted non-Hindu minorities with surgical precision.

Dr. Nawab Osman, who has traced the rise of Hindu-nationalism in India since Modi came to power, stresses the gravity of the situation: “Undoubtedly, the NRC and CAA targets Muslims with an eye towards securing a Hindu majority. However, it would be simplistic to assume that it’s just Muslims who are targeted; these policies impact every Indian who does not subscribe to the BJP’s vision of a Hindu nation.”

Shamsuddin Tamboli, president of the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal in Pune, echoes a similar sentiment: “The new Amendment will endanger the lives of minorities, many of whom already live in fear under the BJP government. The CAA is an affront to the secular foundation of the Indian Constitution.”

On Dec. 15, as night fell, water cannons left Jamia, but armored vans stayed back to keep watch. Students stuck inside Jamia dispersed, WhatsApp groups lit up with photos from the protests. A student had lost an eye, some had sustained fractures. Many remained missing . Screenshots from other groups confirmed the BJP’s internet army was coordinating counter-protests. Later that night, a more hopeful video made the rounds.

A few students had stayed out on the streets, braving the winter night. Lit by halogens, they sat in a circle and sang "Hum Dekhenge" (We Will Watch) by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Soon, their voices rose above the distant sirens, above the city itself, rarifying the cold Delhi air: 

“We will watch, as these high mountains
Of tyranny and oppression, turn to fluff and evaporate.”