India: mass demonstrations against national law – SPIEGEL ONLINE

The crowd has shrunk since the police put up in combat gear. Only a hard core, maybe a few hundred people, is demonstrating this Thursday in front of the town hall in Bangalore, India, against the controversial citizenship law.

On WhatsApp, rumors are spreading that Bangalore could soon be as high as it was in Delhi a few days ago: when police officers used clubs to beat students. Once – on Thursday morning – it looked as if the situation could get out of hand.

The famous historian Ramachandra Guha was dragged away by the police in front of the camera. He was about to give an interview when police dragged him from behind on the shoulder.

Manjunath Kiran / AFP

Ramachandra Guha after his arrest in Bangalore

The sentence comes from Guha that India is a “50:50 democracy” – a genuine democracy, but one with shortcomings. When he spoke to SPIEGEL earlier this year, he had already lowered his assessment to 40:60.

“Gandhi would protest against this government”

He was concerned about the lynching of Muslims and Dalits, the former untouchables, the intimidation of the press and the judiciary, and the style of government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “If Mahatma Gandhi were still alive, he would protest against this government,” he said. But what would Guha say about his country after today?

The pictures from Thursday will keep India busy for a long time. The government and police acted harshly against the protests that have been shaking the country for more than a week.

  • On the night of Thursday, the police issued assembly bans in several states.
  • Several hundred people – including lawyers, students, and politicians – were arrested.
  • In Delhi, the epicenter of the protests, police officers checked cars that were going to the capital to make sure there were no demonstrators inside.
  • More than a dozen metro stations in the center remained closed until noon.
  • The traffic on Delhi's already congested streets came to a complete standstill at times.
  • What particularly frightened many: in parts of the capital, the police had the mobile Internet and SMS services switched off. A measure that is primarily known from the unrest region of Kashmir – and from authoritarian states.

The government bases its approach on security concerns. Again and again – even this Thursday – the protests escalated. Rioters set fire to cars and police stations and threw stones at police officers. According to initial information, several demonstrators died in clashes, and more than a dozen police officers were injured.

“It is our right to express our opinion”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted a few days ago that “tangible interests” were behind the riots. The opposition should stop “creating panic and driving a wedge between people.”

But instead of curbing the protests, the strict process really sparked the protests. Mehak Malik, who also came to demonstrate on the streets of Bangalore, said that she had seen the police take Guha away on television. Only then did she persuade them to take to the streets. “It is our right to express our opinion,” she says. Many fared like her.

The protests spread quickly in the country. At the beginning of the demonstrations, there were mainly students in the big cities. Now, barely a week later, almost the same scenes can be seen in almost all regions of India: thousands of people roaming the streets – all with one goal: that the new citizenship law passed by the Indian Parliament last week is as fast as possible is tilted again.

The law facilitates naturalization for migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who have entered illegally. The only exception are Muslims. For the first time, citizenship is legally defined via religion. The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva spoke of a “fundamentally discriminatory” law. The Indian government, on the other hand, says it is concerned with protecting persecuted minorities. Islam is not one of them because Muslims in Islamic countries are allegedly not subject to persecution.

“We don't trust the prime minister”

Mohammad Faseeulla, himself a Muslim, does not believe the protestations. “We don't trust the prime minister,” says the literature professor in front of the town hall. “The day will come when they will say that we are from Pakistan too, and then it will be our turn.” Many demonstrators share his fear. They have all followed what is currently going on in the state of Assam, and they fear a similar fate for India's roughly 200 million Muslims.

Prisons are currently being built in Assam for those who may soon no longer belong. The 33 million inhabitants of Assam had to prove in a new version of the civil register that their ancestors came from India. Almost two million people failed to convince the authorities; they threaten to become stateless.

And soon all Indians could have to prove their lineage. The government plans to expand the civil register across the country. India's Interior Minister promised that no one would have to worry about it thanks to the new citizenship law – no one except Muslims. “We have been silent for a long time,” says Faseeulla. “Now is the time to fight back.”

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