The state of “the world’s largest democracy” is in an uproar. In late February 2020, Hindu nationalist mobs attacked Muslim homes, shops, and mosques in what has been called the worst outburst of violence in the capital since the anti-Sikh attacks in 1984. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds have been injured. 

This follows months of protest against a series of legislative proposals that exclude Muslims from Indian citizenship rights. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which passed in the Indian parliament in December 2019, provides a fast-track to Indian nationality to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants who arrived in India from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan before 2015. Crucially, the CAA excludes Muslims, as well as other significant refugee groups. This marks the first time that religion has been used as an explicit criterion for citizenship under Indian law. 

Additionally, the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been another cause for serious concern. The NRC, alreadyimplemented in the state of Assam, is an official record of all legal citizens of India where individuals would have to provide a prescribed set of documents issued before a specified cutoff date to be included. The National Population Register (NPR) is an associated proposal set to also include non-citizens already implemented to a limited extent. 

In conjunction with the CAA, these proposals would mean that many Muslim citizens and others unable to provide the necessary documentation would be rendered stateless. In addition, the proposals entirely change the requirements needed to access citizenship rights and public services. This is likely to disproportionately affect working-class people, women, migrants, and other vulnerable groups who are less likely to have access to the necessary documents. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the proposals “fundamentally discriminatory“.

Photo: Manasi Saxena

Hundreds of thousands of protestors around the world would agree. The slogan of “no CAA, NRC, NPR” has been shouted at rallies, painted on walls, and shared in hashtags since December, effectively forming a global movement demanding the withdrawals of the proposals and more broadly rejecting the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. After the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Delhi, activists have mobilized with increased urgency.

#WorldAgainstDelhiPogroms

On February 28 and 29, vigils and rallies were organized around the world. Various groups in 18 European cities organized simultaneous demonstrations in solidarity with the victims of the Delhi attacks. In Paris, the network Indian Alliance Paris gathered outside the Indian Consulate in the 16th arrondissement. The group has been organizing protests against the CAA since December, in coordination with its counterparts around the world.

“We were feeling very disturbed at the draconian laws being proposed,” said Hina Fathima, a member of Indian Alliance Paris. “With the way the government has cracked down on protests back home, we wanted to do something.”

These activist groups emphasise that the common media portrayal of the violence in Delhi as “Hindu-Muslim clashes” or “riots” is not only inaccurate but harmful. The worldwide rallies were united under the hashtag #WorldAgainstDelhiPogrom, using a term most commonly associated with violent persecution of Jewish people. Given the context of increased explicit legal discrimination of Muslims that preceded the attacks, as well as the inaction of (or violent participation by) the Delhi police, protestors also call for the attacks to be treated as an incident of state-sponsored violence. 

“Calling it a riot implies two equal sides with the police coming in to intervene, which is simply not what happened,” Hina Fathima emphasised. 

This is further motivated by the fact that sites of peaceful protest against the CAA-NRC-NPR proposals in India have also been systematically attacked and threatened. At a solidarity rally in Atlanta, USA, members of the Indian consulate tried to intimidate protestors by taking photos and noting down their names. In Delhi, over 35 protestors have been killed and over 200 have been injured. Journalists on the ground trying to cover incidents of anti-Muslim violence have been harassed and attacked. Nevertheless, activists have remained resolute.

The case of Shaheen Bagh

Back in Delhi, the majority Muslim working-class neighbourhood Shaheen Bagh has become one of the most prominent hotbeds of protest in India over the past few months. Here, hundreds of thousands of mostly female, working-class protestors without a formal education have gathered since December 15, when a group of women launched an indefinite sit-in in protest since the CAA was passed in parliament.

Through non-violent resistance methods, including blocking a major highway in New Delhi, the demonstrators have agitated not only on the CAA and NRC, but also on issues of women’s safety, poverty, and labor rights. Interfaith prayer ceremonies, art installations, dancing – the site is characterized as colorful and welcoming to all who wish to join. The walls are covered with slogans in English, Hindi, Urdu, and many other languages. Members of the Sikh community, who suffered similar violent attacks in the 1980s, have set up langar, serving free meals to anyone who stops by. The site has become a place where members from a large variety of marginalized communities come together. Shaheen Bagh has also inspired many similar women-led protests in cities such as Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Bengaluru.

The protestors have also faced harsh physical and political conditions. On January 30, a 4-month old infant died of exposure to the cold after being brought along to the protest. Demonstrators have been fired at and threatened by police. After the February attacks, tensions have increased as police have started surrounding the area and banned assemblies. Mediators from the Supreme Court sent to the site have concluded that while the Shaheen Bagh protesters are not doing anything illegal, the Delhi Police’s blockades are posing more of a problem.

Shaheen Bagh also became a politicized campaigning issue ahead of the Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections held on 8 February 2020, with many candidates promising to end the blockade if elected to power. Both the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal and Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, used Shaheen Bagh to attack each other in the lead up to the election, which was ultimately won by the largely pro-protester Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The movement has become a polarizing symbol used as a shibboleth for support or resistance to the BJP’s nationalist policies. Several BJP politicians have made derogatory and sometimes violent statements in regards to Shaheen Bagh, characterizing the protestors as “Jihadis” or “anti-India gangs”.

Definitions of democracy by and for the people

While firmly anchored in an India-specific issue, Shaheen Bagh holds symbolic power as a site of resistance to democratic backsliding, echoed by Indian activists around the world. In 2019, the NGO Freedom House recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global civil rights and democracy. They noted increased persecution of minorities as a particularly worrying trend in Asia. Movements like Shaheen Bagh have risen to prominence and commanded global attention. Anthropologist Irfan Ahmad from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity has argued that this is due to a few characteristics that movements like Shaheen Bagh tend to have in common.

Firstly, they are truly grassroots-led, with no official centralized leader figure – at least in the traditional sense. Shaheen Bagh certainly has leaders, often young and female, but the movement is driven by its participants and its principles, not from top-down directives. Secondly, movements like Shaheen Bagh are firmly anchored in a vision of democracy as a living process. Faced with a discriminatory bureaucratic imposition, Shaheen Bagh retaliates with democracy as an ideal as well as a practical tool for making the lived experiences of ordinary people heard. 

The worldwide activist mobilizations in response to the attacks in Delhi bear witness to the fact that resistance to the BJP’s democratic backsliding is mounting. Fighting to prevent the normalisation of discrimination and violence in Indian society and honouring its victims, Indian activists are seeking to redefine democracy for themselves.

“We will continue to organize to help with mobilization of activists and aid the relief effort for victims,” Hina Fathima said in regards to Indian Alliance Paris. 

Since the Delhi anti-Muslim attacks, she has been noticing increased attention of the BJP government’s crackdown on secularism, freedom of expression, and democratic protest in international media. “In India, the media is falling apart. In Kerala, two news channels covering the violence were shut down for 48 hours by the government. You don’t see things like that in a democratic country.”