On March 22, in response to COVID-19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a nation-wide curfew that later became a lockdown. The announcement came as hundreds of people, mostly student activists and working-class Muslim women, were staging a months-long sit-in in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood in the capital city, New Delhi.
They were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which took effect in December, that gives immigrants from neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh a pathway to citizenship, as long as they practice one of the six religions specified in the law — excluding Islam.
While just under 15% of its population identify as Muslim, India is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population. It is also the largest Muslim-minority country.
Protesters demonstrated from the law’s passage until COVID-19 hit. The protesters at New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh began leaving the site after the curfew was announced.
“We left our shoes, our slippers there, in the place where we were sitting or standing,” said Sharjeel Usmani, a Muslim student activist. “It was some sort of symbolism, that we are here.”
But the shoes didn’t remain long. Within hours of Usmani and others leaving Shaheen Bagh, the police cleared the whole area, taking away the tents, the microphones, the posters, and painting over the graffiti, leaving no trace of the protest behind.
Not everyone was happy to leave the New Delhi protest site, which had served as the central symbol of similar protests all over the country. Some believed that once they ended the Shaheen Bagh protest, the government would never let them start it again even after the lockdown was lifted.
Usmani, on the other hand, realized how serious the threat of the novel coronavirus was. He also feared that the government would use this protest as yet another reason to blame the spread of the virus on Muslims.
“They did this with Tablighi Jamaat,” said Usmani, referring to the Muslim missionary group that held an event in early March, attracting over 8,000 followers from all over India and the world to gather at its New Delhi headquarters. Many worshippers contracted the coronavirus at the gathering and spread it across the country as they returned home, causing the first big wave of COVID-19 infection in India. Officials from the Ministry of Health said in early April that close to 1,500 out of the over 4,000 cases of coronavirus could be linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation.
Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said that there was no denying that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering was one of the hotspots of the virus in India, but also pointed out the damaging impact of the media campaign that ensued.
“They accused Muslims of spreading the disease deliberately, using it like a suicide bomb,” said Krishnan. “They call this Corona jihad.” She believes that this type of rhetoric has made the fight against COVID-19 harder, as it signals that having COVID-19 is a shameful thing. It deterred not only those who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, but also Hindus to come forward when they showed symptoms.
To Krishnan, the most damaging impact of the rumor-mongering campaign is that it reinforced the idea of Muslims being untouchables among the mainstream collective consciousness. Leaders from the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and local community leaders in Delhi put out calls to boycott Muslim street vendors. Some hospitals refused to admit Muslim patients.
“If the anti-CAA protests reasserted India’s secular, anti-Islamophobic values, and the sense of shared humanity, COVID-19 could have done the same,” said Krishnan. “But in fact, it has gone the opposite way.”
BJP’s rise to power
While the rise of Modi and his party, BJP, has heightened Islamophobic sentiments in the country in the past few years, Islamophobia is not new. According to Krishnan, the BJP is a political wing of a “paramilitary, fascist organization,” Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded in 1925.
“Their founders wrote treatises, in which they said quite clearly that they would like to do to the Muslims in India, what Hitler did [to] the Jews in Germany,” explained Krishnan. After years of political evolution, BJP was established in 1980. While some see BJP’s position as a dilution of the ideology RSS supports, the BJP continues to promote Hindu nationalist ideals.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the BJP and other groups affiliated with the RSS began a Hindu-majority movement. They claimed that a mosque in the northern India city of Ayodhya, Babri Masjid, was built on land where a temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Ram, used to stand, and demanded the temple be rebuilt at the particular spot.
The movement garnered active public support and participation, leading to the demolition of the mosque in 1992, although the leaders of the movement had promised the Supreme Court that they would do no harm to the structure of the mosque. Anti-Muslim violence broke out on a large scale in Uttar Pradesh state, where Babri Masjid was located, and many places around the country, including Mumbai.
Riding on the momentum of this movement, the BJP gained a significant number of seats in the parliament, becoming the largest party in the parliament in 1996. Less than two decades later, Modi led the BJP to a landslide victory during the 2014 general election and has been serving as the Prime Minister since.
National Register of Citizens in Assam
On August 31, 2019, the government published the National Register of Citizens of the northeastern state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh. The NRC was first created in 1951, and this was the first time the register was being updated. According to BJP’s 2019 parliament election manifesto, the reasoning behind the NRC update is because “there has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas [in India] due to illegal immigration, resulting in an adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and employment.”
Many indigenous Assamese people support the update as a way to identify and root out undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, who might have illegally entered India after 1971, when the Bangladesh Liberation War started. However, critics such as Krishnan believes that it is also the BJP government’s hope that the NRC would reduce the Muslim population in the country by excluding Bengali-speaking Muslims with claims to legal residency from the register.
The requirements of being included in the latest NRC are high: One had to provide documents that prove their ancestors were residing in India before 1971 and prove their relationship with those ancestors. “And the problem was,” explained Taha Ahmad, a New Delhi-based Muslim photographer, “in India, there is a high amount of illiteracy, and people usually don’t have any records of the family, of the houses.” He also mentioned that many regions, including Assam, experience devastating floods every year, destroying houses and documents that families might have kept.
Around 1.9 million people were left out of the updated NRC, but only about a quarter of them were Muslims. “The BJP found themselves in an awkward position,” said Krishnan. “They wanted to say, ‘Look, we’re gonna throw out these Muslims.’ But instead, their voters found themselves evicted and on the verge of losing citizenship.”
Even so, the BJP committed to carrying out the NRC nationally as its campaign promise during the 2019 general election. To ensure that they are able to have a mechanism to save the Hindus and deport the Muslims left out of the NRC, they created the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The parliament passed the new law on December 11, 2019, making immigrants that are Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh eligible for citizenship after living in India for six years—notably leaving out Muslims.
Prime Minister Modi assured the nation that the CAA “is not going to take away anybody’s citizenship,” and that “it is about giving citizenship to those facing discrimination,” in a speech made on December 22, 2019. However, the new law continued to incite widespread criticism of it being discriminatory and set off a series of protests around the country and abroad.
Sharjeel Usmani, a student at Aligarh Muslim University, and a dozen of his friends started protesting against the CAA on December 7, before the bill was even tabled in the parliament. As AMU is one of the few universities where the majority of the student population is Muslim, the protests quickly gained support from thousands of students. Soon after, students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, another institute with a significant number of Muslim students, launched similar protests on their campus.
On December 15, Afreen Fatima, a 22-year-old Muslim student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, joined the protest started by Jamia Millia Islamic students. “What we faced was [a] brutal crackdown by the police. They entered the university. They used tear gas, they used assault rifles, they used pellet guns, they used rubber bullets on students. These are weapons that are used in wars, and they were used against us,” she recalled.
The police also launched a similar raid on AMU’s campus that same day. “They literally attacked the students,” said Usmani, “And this operation went on for like, six or seven hours, from 6:30 in the evening, all the way till 2 in the morning.”
Then, images from the campuses under attack were shared online. A friend of Usmani’s at AMU lost his hand because of a grenade, and a Jamia student lost an eye. While the protests had been limited on the two university campuses before December 15, the photos of police brutality enraged a large number of Muslims. “Muslims thought these two campuses were the safest places in India for Muslims,” said Usmani.
On the same day, Shaheen Bagh started. As the crowds came out to the streets in solidarity with the students, a JNU student, Sharjeel Imam, suggested that everyone sit down and block the Shaheen Bagh area, a strategic location that also blocked a national highway. The peaceful sit-in soon became iconic, and many protesters around the country took the same model and created their own version of Shaheen Bagh. The original one lasted for more than a hundred days, until COVID-19 forced the protestors to end the streak on March 22, 2020.
These sit-in protests around the country were mainly led by Muslim women. Usmani said the police justified using excessive force toward Muslim men by arguing that they “are inherently very violent.” He believed the Shaheen Bagh protest came as an advantage to the movement because it couldn’t be easily suppressed by the state. “At the end of the day, it’s just women sitting on the road. You can’t just go shoot them down,” he said.
For many of the women participating in the sit-ins, it is not just about demanding change, but also about coming together as a community and sharing their experiences as Indian Muslims. Fatima, the 22-year-old student activist, traveled around the country and gave speeches in various protest sites. In her speeches, she reflected on how as a Muslim, she had always felt like the other in this country and had a sense of insecurity and anxiety. Many Muslim women in the audience would thank her in tears afterward, which constantly motivated her to continue the fight.
The female activist, Krishnan, stressed that while the anti-CAA movement had large Muslim participation, many non-Muslims also took part. They felt that the government’s push for Hindu nationalism violates the Indian Constitution, which states that the country is a “secular democratic republic,” and felt the urgency to defend it. Krishnan herself, while no longer practicing, comes from a Hindu family. During the months of protests, she actively addressed non-Muslim gatherings, especially the rural poor, who did not know much about CAA and NRC.
Krishnan made it clear to these communities that the laws were not just about the population. When the local government takes control of the register of citizens, they can control the voting list to suit their needs. “Anybody who has a dissenting voice, and anyone who’s seen by the government as being disloyal, could be put under suspicion, stripped of voting rights, and eventually threatened with losing their citizenship.”
Northeast Delhi Riots
At the end of February, when the anti-CAA movement was at its peak, protestors at a Northeast Delhi protest site moved to block a main road in the Jafrabad area, in an attempt to recreate another Shaheen Bagh. A local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, threatened that if the police did not clear the protestors from the road, he and his supporters would do it themselves.
Just several hours after Mishra’s ultimatum, violence broke out. Hindu mobs began attacking the anti-CAA protest sites and Muslim neighborhoods around the area. Some Muslims fought back to defend themselves, and the situation devolved into one of the most violent Muslim-Hindu clashes the country had seen in decades. Riots raged on for days, resulting in at least three dozen deaths, around two thirds of them Muslims. Homes and properties were destroyed from burning and looting. There was little intervention from the government or the police.
Ankit Gupta, a young Hindu professional who had been taking part in anti-CAA protests, found out that a few of his Muslim friends, whom he met at the protests, were stuck in a mosque near one of the protest sites. He started calling everyone he knew, trying to rescue them.
“When I saw that my friends were stuck there, and now it’s about their life,” said Gupta, “it triggered me.” He managed to save his friends after getting in touch with a woman running a helpline, and afterward, began volunteering to help. Whenever they got a call, he would go verify the situation on the ground and arrange for help to reach there. “We were left with no hope, but we were still trying our every source, every means, to ask for help,” said Gupta.
Two former civil servants, Kannan Gopinathan and Sasikanth Senthil, who resigned from their positions in protest of the government’s Islamophobic actions in the months prior to the riots, traveled to New Delhi to assist with organizing relief.
Krishnan remembered one of them telling her, “I don’t know how the Delhi administration and police are sleeping at night. I can’t sleep because these calls keep pouring in, knowing that people are dying and that they are prevented from reaching help. Hungry people’s homes have been burned down, people have bullet injuries and we are struggling to help them.”
Activism during lockdown
As those affected by the violence in Northeast Delhi were still struggling to regain their footing, the coronavirus began ravaging the country. While many activists continue to raise awareness and protest against CAA and NRC under lockdown on social media, some of them turned to organizing aid for those in need.
Gupta, the Hindu young professional who got involved in relief work by chance, continued the work even after the lockdown was imposed. He started a fundraising effort anonymously on Twitter, so as not to worry his family, who does not know that he had been involved in the relief work since day one of the Delhi riots, or that he had quit his full-time job to contrate on this.
“They are not against Muslims, but they are BJP supporters,” said Gupta about his family, “and they don’t really like me involving in any of these activities, protests, or any other thing.”
While Gupta thought about leaving the area when the riots broke out, he realized that he joined the anti-CAA protest to help the Muslim community, and they needed help then more than ever. As the only Hindu in the area he was staying in, Gupta had a lot of support and reassurance from the Muslim friends he had made during the protests. “They were like, ‘If anyone comes, we will be in front of you. We won’t let anything happen to you’,” recalled Gupta.
Right after the violence calmed down, Gupta and a group of seven other volunteers fundraised for families whose shops and houses were destroyed during the Delhi riots. In addition to funds, they also brought food and medical supplies to the families.
During the lockdown, the volunteers obtained a special pass that allows them to move around between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. They have delivered dry rations to 80,000 people and provided 15,000 cooked meals around the Delhi capital region. They also organized transportation for more than 70 patients that needed to go to the emergency room.
At times, the volunteers defied the time restrictions on their pass. “If I’m getting an emergency call at 11 p.m., I just know that there is a person who needs help, and I go out,” said Gupta. “We don’t care. This is not our job. It is the government’s job to do, and they are not working.” He considered himself lucky that none of the volunteers he worked with had gotten into major troubles with the police.
When asked about the risk of contracting the coronavirus, Gupta said, “No volunteer who’s working with me is scared by the coronavirus.” They are all determined to keep saving those in need when they have the resources. “We see that people are dying because of hunger. They don’t care about the virus because they’re already dying.”
During the lockdown, when public protests are not possible, the government has begun indicting and detaining anti-CAA protestors. The government implicates anyone who was planning and participating in the protests, claiming that these actions were attempts to instigate violence and led to the Delhi riots. As a result, the victims of the violence, who were mainly Muslims taking part in the anti-CAA protests, and activists who are working to help them are now framed as the perpetrators of the violence.
Usmani, the student activist who is only 23-year-old, faces more than 70 charges, including attempted murder, looting, and rioting. “Luckily, I’m not in jail,” he said, “Most of my friends are in jail.”
According to the Human Rights Watch, authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Usmani is from and where Aligarh Muslim University is located, at least 23 people have been killed during the anti-CAA protests, and hundreds have been arrested since the protests started in mid-December last year. The India Express reported in April that more than 800 people have been arrested in relation to the Northeast Delhi riots, with at least 50 of them arrested during the coronavirus lockdown.
Many of the arrested activists were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which is generally used for terrorists. The controversial law has been called draconian, as the police can keep those charged with this law in jail without bail for years, not needing to prove them guilty.
Sharjeel Imam, the JNU student who started the Shaheen Bagh protest and a friend of Usmani’s, is one of the thousands in jail under the UAPA. Back in January, he avoided being caught by the police in his home state, Bihar, and surrendered to the police in New Delhi. “If the police from any other state arrested him, he would have been tortured in the police station,” Usmani explained, “Delhi has its own privilege. The media is here, students movements are very easy to build up.”
However, the media and the activists’ efforts still have their limits. Safoora Zargar, a graduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia University, was arrested in early April, also under UAPA. Now five months pregnant, she has been detained at Delhi’s overcrowded Tihar Jail, where there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19. Both Zargar and Imam were denied bail in early June.
Usmani emphasized that Imam’s and Zargar’s stories were just the tip of an iceberg, as most arrests during the lockdown went unreported. “There are so many people [being arrested] that the media has lost its interest. Another Muslim going to jail. There’s nothing new,” he said. “I also don’t know the names of all the people. I don’t even know where I would be able to find the names of all those people.”
Despite concern for their own safety, many activists have continued to speak out on social media. “All I’ve learned from the whole movement is that I’ll not stop speaking,” said Fatima, firmly. “I have seen a lot of people going all quiet after the arrests started, but I will not be silent. I’d rather be in jail than to go quiet.”
Just like people in the rest of the world, Indians feel a great sense of uncertainty about their future because of the pandemic. While government officials have put a hold on CAA and the nationwide NRC, and promised to consult all stakeholders before implementing them, many activists believe the fight is far from over.
“The Indian state is a monster, and the current government don’t really care about the Constitution,” said Fatima. “I’m not going to sit because a piece of paper protects my rights. I’m going to demand my rights.”
For Usmani, it is not just about rights, but rather existence. “The debate used to be whether Muslims in India are second-class citizens. Now the debate has come down to whether they are even citizens,” he said. “If [CAA and NRC] get passed and implemented, then we won’t even have the option to protest, because we won’t be citizens anymore.”