INDIA’S DEMOCRACY IS AT BREAKING POINT

by Ella Wade-Jones

On 12th December India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA) into law. The series of protests that have erupted and brutal crackdown that has ensued has thrown the country into a state of flux. The highly controversial Citizen (Amendent) Act seeks to fundamentally amend the definition of illegal immigrants in India. Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Buddhist immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will be granted fast track Indian citizenship in six years. Muslims are not included on the list. 

With many unable to prove through correct documentation that they are “Indian”, many of India’s 200 million Muslims could end up being sent to detention camps set to be constructed for “illegal” immigrants. 

The CAA is based on religion and is hence seen by many to be against India’s secular constitution. 

Following widespread anti-CAA protests in New Delhi, on December 15th Delhi police forcefully entered the Muslim majority Jamia Milia Islamic university campus, brutally beating students, seriously injuring many and firing teargas into the library. One student, Mohammad Minhajuddin lost an eye after being hit in the face with a tear gas canister. His crime was studying in the library. 

On 19th December, mass rallies poured onto streets across the country to protest police brutality and implementation of CAA. This included some 25,000 that gathered on the August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai. One of the biggest protests in several decades. In a highly symbolic move, August Kranti Maidan is famously the space where MK Gandhi called for the British to quit India in 1942, kick starting the final phase of the Indian freedom struggle. 

 

india

Karanti Maidan Protests (Image widely circulated on WhatsApp groups during the protests)

 

In the wake of the unfolding situation in Delhi – and following huge agitations in Assam, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh – police in various states imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1973, forbidding public assembly of four or more people and allowing for sweeping powers to cut off internet, mobile and telecoms. The protestors defined the ban and at the time of writing more than 20 have been killed and thousands injured. 

In the last eight months alone, India has seen ten instances of the imposition of section 144 as a tactic to quell unrest and stifle dissent. Including when special status was revoked in Jammu and Kashmir, the highly contentious Ayodhya verdict was delivered in Uttar Pradesh and when approximately 2,600 trees were cut in Aarey forest in Maharashtra, to make way for construction to extend the Mumbai metro. Section 144 has become the go to piece of legislation to deal with all forms of dissent.

Ironically, given the BJP’S claim to be the Indian Peoples Party (Bharatiya Janata Party), section 144 was drafted by the British colonial government and incorporated into the Indian penal code in 1870. The logic behind the act was to regulate protest, arrest anti-colonial forces and stem criticism of the colonial government.  

The “world’s largest democracy” has in recent times become the world leader in internet shutdowns. In 2018 alone accounting for 134 blackouts, which amounts to approximately 68% of the global total.  On 20th December, China’s largest newspaper (and communist party mouthpiece) People’s Daily justified the tactic, citing India as an example. It was argued that “shutting down the internet in a state of emergency should be standard practice for sovereign countries”. 

The primary motivation behind implementation of the CAA is the long held desire of Hindu nationalists to tear up the countries secular constitution and transform India into a Hindu state. 

The recent protests have been the strongest challenge yet to the Hindu nationalist project since Modi took power in 2014.  However, the brutal crackdown has been unusual, even by the standards of the Indian police. Implementation of colonial-era bans on protest, assaults on university campuses – and hospitals – alongside reports of brutal attacks, torture and sexual assault against protestors has shown contempt for democracy not seen since the period of authoritarian rule instigated by prime minster Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977 known as “The Emergency”.

The Republic of India may well be facing a new “Emergency”. The strength of India’s long history of anti-colonial struggle and dissent against injustice will be crucial in the hard times to come. 

 

Featured image credit: Adam Jones (Flickr)


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