India’s protests: why now?

Mumbai-based copywriter Sarah Syed says she was long alarmed by the Hindu nationalist direction of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi but felt powerless to stop it — until now.

Like many others taking part in the current wave of protests, the final straw was Modi’s new citizenship law and then the images of students being tear-gassed when they demonstrated against it.

“It’s not as if one didn’t know that things were not right. But for many of us, politics was just too depressing to think about,” said Syed, a Muslim married to a Catholic.

“Now though it feels criminal to sit out the protests and say nothing,” the 27-year-old told AFP.

The law, which offers fast-track citizenship to non-Muslim nationals from three neighboring countries, is the latest policy instituted by Modi’s government that critics accuse of marginalizing Muslims in the Hindu-majority nation.

During his nearly six years in power, Modi’s party has renamed places with Islamic-origin names, rewritten history textbooks to diminish or discredit the role of Muslim leaders, and stripped the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir of its special autonomy.

Modi has insisted the legislation will have no impact on Indian Muslims, however his party’s 2019 election pledge to conduct a nationwide survey to identify illegal immigrants has raised fears among Muslims of becoming stateless, with no fast-track naturalisation option available to them.

Mumbai-based lawyer Momin Musaddique, who has been providing free legal advice to people worried about the implications of the law, said years of pent-up anxiety among Muslims have finally found an outlet in the protests rippling across the country.

“People have been afraid for so long of this government’s Hindu nationalist agenda that they now feel like they have nothing left to fear,” he told AFP.

“Now that their very survival in India is under threat, they have no option but to protest,” he added.

– ‘We have woken up’ –

In addition to Muslims, the demonstrations have galvanized large sections of Indian society, from secular Hindus and members of other minorities to intellectuals and opposition politicians.

Historian Zoya Hasan of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University told AFP the protests represented “the biggest challenge to the Modi government in the last six years”.

Several local governments in opposition-ruled states such as Kerala and West Bengal have said they will not conduct surveys for the national citizens’ register, responding to the public mood and undermining the prime minister’s authority.

Although the protests began as a fight against the citizenship law, many of the demonstrators are now seeking a rollback of the government’s push to remake officially secular India as a Hindu nation, said Hasan.

Nevertheless, she added that the unrest was unlikely to derail Modi’s Hindu nationalist campaign and risk alienating his base which propelled him to a landslide re-election victory in May.

“The government may take a step back as a result of the protests but they are not going to move away from their core agenda,” Hasan said.

For first-time protester Syed, participating in the demonstrations left her with “goosebumps” as she described her elation at seeing people from different communities come together.

“I used to feel so helpless before, like there was nothing I could do to change the way things were in this country,” she said.

“The government’s strategy has been all smoke and mirrors”, she said.

“Now we have woken up.”

Image: AFP/File / Manjunath Kiran The new citizenship law has sparked two weeks of protests across India

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