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Colors of Citizenship

“Ridiculous! Tell me, Ram—do you really think these students even know what they are protesting about?” my Thatha, grandfather in Tamil, complained, frowning as he peered into the morning newspaper.

Thatha’s question pulled me from my winter holiday torpor. I had arrived ready for rest at my grandparents’ house in Coimbatore, a city in southern India. Although Coimbatore has a population of almost two million, it is known in India as a “Tier-II” city, its pace of life considerably tamer than some of India’s chaotic, sprawling megacities. As a native of Bangalore, one of those irrepressibly effervescent metropolises, I often spend my visits to Coimbatore in a lethargic stupor, the city’s year-round sultry climate and languid passage of time sapping my will to do much more than nap, spend hours on marathon online chess sessions, and feast on my grandparents’ cooking.

I had braced for this question with a combination of dread and eagerness. Like many Indian students, I returned for winter break engrossed by political events back home. I joined Twitter and stayed up late reading news. I wrote and signed petitions and exhorted my parents and friends to do the same. When my parents remained too disengaged for my liking, I retorted over text: “I hope we have an answer two decades later when my kids ask us what we were doing when this happened. If you’re satisfied with yours, then sure, rest easy.”

In the case of Thatha—and indeed, much of his generation—I expected to be confronted with opposition more than apathy. I had carefully prepared my arguments, and began to methodically explain why I found recent changes in India’s laws downright dangerous. But before I could get very far, my grandfather interrupted me. He opened his phone, pointing to a message he had been forwarded on WhatsApp that was both misleading and plainly inaccurate. Our discussion would soon be derailed by an inability to agree on basic facts and figures—facts as simple as what the new law actually stated. 

***

The cause of this turmoil was the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed on December 11, 2019 by India’s lower house of parliament. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argues that the act will provide refuge to persecuted minorities among India’s neighbors. But a look at its actual language reveals that the CAA contains neither the word “persecuted” nor “minority.” The CAA restricts its ambit to individuals from six religious communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians—who can demonstrate that they entered the country before December 31, 2014 from one of three countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The law will no longer consider them illegal immigrants; instead, they will be offered an expedited path to Indian citizenship. 

Muslims are the obvious exclusion from the law, the first in India’s history to tie citizenship to religion. The law also makes several other seemingly arbitrary distinctions, including the exclusion of neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, China, and Myanmar. That these countries are home to persecuted minorities–many of them Muslim–reveals the act’s pernicious contradictions. 

To be fully understood, the CAA must be read together with plans for a nationwide National Registry of Citizens (NRC) announced last year. The NRC shifts the burden of establishing citizenship onto the individual by demanding documents of proof from every citizen, a particularly difficult task for India’s marginalized populations. The CAA serves as a safety net for the NRC, ensuring only India’s Muslims can be rendered stateless. 

India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, admitted as much last April to a room of reporters: “First the CAB [Citizenship Amendment Bill] will come. All refugees will get citizenship. Then NRC will come. This is why refugees should not worry, but infiltrators should. Understand the chronology.”

In the BJP’s dictionary, the word “infiltrator” implies “Muslim.” In an election rally, Shah explicitly connected the two, proclaiming, “We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha [sic], Hindus, and Sikhs.” Much of his party’s rhetoric has borrowed from—and indeed, gone beyond—nativist right-wing rhetoric across the globe. In a chilling speech delivered last year, Shah even termed infiltrators “termites.” 

These laws have triggered a firestorm across the globe. While the government has shrugged off international criticism, it has responded to domestic dissent with brute force, especially against Muslims and protesting students at India’s most prestigious universities. Prime Minister Modi himself delivered a speech proclaiming that those inciting violence can be “identified by their clothes”—referencing the traditional attire of Muslim men and women. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, also promised “revenge” against dissenters. Uttar Pradesh has seen some of the worst police violence, with 23 civilians killed. 

But protesters have soldiered on. To India’s Muslims, recent government actions resemble a threat to their very right to have rights, the latest step in a long history of marginalization that has been central to the BJP’s rise to power.

***

In 1987, when India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, joined the BJP, the party held only two seats in India’s parliament. Modi had long been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist volunteer organization. The RSS and its various affiliates—together known as the Sangh Parivar—subscribe to a political philosophy often called Hindutva, which asserts that the Indian nation is co-constitutive with Hinduism. For much of the 20th century, the Sangh Parivar remained a fringe group in Indian politics, which were dominated by the Congress Party in the decades before and after Indian independence in 1947. The Congress Party has typically endorsed a secular democratic platform, beliefs enshrined in India’s 1950 Constitution.

The BJP rose to national prominence in the 1990s through a carefully orchestrated, highly publicized campaign to build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya, his purported place of birth. The BJP and its affiliates alleged that the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in the city, had been built on the remains of a destroyed Hindu shrine. In 1992, the mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob consisting of Sangh Parivar members, which sparked a wave of communal violence across India. Riding the wave of religious polarization that followed, the BJP became the largest party in parliament in 1996. The site of the destroyed Babri Masjid remained an important tenet of the Sangh Parivar’s politics, whose members continued to make pilgrimage to Ayodhya to advocate for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site.

In February 2002, one such set of Sangh Parivar members was returning from Ayodhya when their train compartment was set on fire. Fifty-eight people perished in the inferno. Modi, then just five months into his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat, allowed the Sangh Parivar to publicly parade the victims’ corpses in the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad. As enraged Hindu mobs–many of them coordinated by members of the RSS–rampaged across the city, promising revenge against the Muslim community, the state’s law enforcement was conspicuously absent.

Numerous human rights groups alleged that members of the police instead took part in the violence against Muslims. Evidence also suggests the riots were planned and executed with the help of voter rolls that informed the mob where to find Muslim homes. In the aftermath, Modi and his government embarked on a Hindu pride rally across the state, featuring incendiary speeches and thinly disguised support for the perpetrators of violence. 

The events of 2002 established Modi’s credentials among the BJP’s hardliners. But India’s minorities, a fifth of the country’s 1.3 billion people, usually vote the other way. Although the 2002 events in Gujarat allowed Modi to consolidate his control over the state, Modi lost face outside his bastion. He was banned from entering the U.S. or the U.K., and the BJP lost control of Parliament in the 2004 elections.

Modi and the BJP realized that an image makeover was required. In the next decade, Modi toned down his communal rhetoric in public, and made efforts behind the scenes to cover up any evidence of his involvement in supporting or failing to prevent the riots. As a child, I never learned of the events in Gujarat in 2002. 

With Modi as the face of their campaign, the BJP came to power in 2014 promising inclusive development and clean governance. But they also made sure to keep their Hindutva base within reach, maintaining a marked silence following a series of mob lynchings.

Seeking a second term in 2019, Modi found himself overseeing an economy suffering from one of India’s worst slowdowns. Facing an upcoming election, he raised his nationalist rhetoric to a fever pitch. Two months before the election, an attack on a military convoy that killed 40 soldiers gave Modi an opportunity to control the narrative. Supported by India’s biggest businesses, an army of social media trolls, and dozens of TV news channels that have increasingly stoked Islamophobic fears, Modi projected himself as a strongman leader that would teach Pakistan—and India’s Muslims—their place. The BJP won another emphatic victory, with millions of Indians expressing their preference for a “strong” leader at the center. Thatha was one of them.

***

Five days after that aborted conversation with Thatha, I returned home to Bangalore. We had not broached the conversation again during the rest of my time in Coimbatore. 

Politics was clearly in the air in Bangalore. I was immediately struck by the pervasiveness of the color saffron, a symbol that has come to represent Hindutva politics, assertively displayed on flags in temples, public spaces, and on the sides of hundreds of taxis and rickshaws. However, saffron was not the only color on display.

The day after I returned to Bangalore, I joined a protest at Town Hall, a prominent landmark in the city center. Saffron had been replaced by the tricolor of orange, white, and green–India’s national flag. Volunteers paced throughout the crowd, handing out bananas, water bottles, and copies of the preamble to the Constitution of India, while students, activists, and religious leaders took turns addressing the crowd. Some spoke in English, some in Hindi-Urdu, and others in Kannada. Some sang poetry; others used more earthen language. Their message, however, was remarkably similar. Each speaker grounded their language in the vocabulary of an inclusive India, pointing to the Constitution as the symbol of that ideal. Between every speaker, the crowd spontaneously broke into impassioned chants of “Long Live India,” “We Want Freedom,” and “We are One.”

***

I have fond memories of HMT Ground, a large sporting area in northern Bangalore. It was the site of many of my high school cricket matches, and always provides a welcome visual respite from the city’s concrete sprawl. But on this warm day in early January, just a day after the Town Hall protest, the Ground was unrecognizable. Almost 3,000 people had gathered on what would otherwise be a sleepy Saturday afternoon, but the sheer size of the crowd was almost lost beneath a sea of Indian flags.

I had dragged a reluctant friend along, in part because of an earlier conversation in which she revealed her belief that Muslims were religiously dogmatic in their faith and out of touch with modernity. The Ground is located in the middle of a large Muslim colony, and the crowd was made up of a sea of bearded men in flowing white kurtas and veiled women in black niqabs. As is the case in most Indian cities, Muslims in Bangalore are often prevented from co-inhabiting residential spaces with upper-caste Hindus, and thus congregate together in less affluent neighborhoods. The image of the burqa-clad woman and the bearded man still viscerally unsettle many Hindus today. When my friend saw the colors of the crowd, she grew hesitant and called for an Uber. 

The opposition has been wary of how the right uses such visuals to frame resistance in purely religious terms. Shashi Tharoor, an intellectual heavyweight in the Congress Party, embroiled himself in controversy when he tweeted a video of Muslim protesters chanting the Kalimah, one of the basic expressions of Islamic faith, at a protest. Tharoor wrote, “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either.” Many on the left lambasted Tharoor for what they argued was a less overt but similarly dangerous form of majoritarianism. Tharoor defended himself by saying he was seeking to “broadbase the cause,” writing that “for most of us, the struggle is about India, not about Islam.”

As a Muslim cleric came up to speak on the stage, my thoughts turned to these debates. 

Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem,” began the imam. I expected the next line of the Quran to follow. 

I was in for a surprise.

“This is my country!” he continued, switching to an eloquent Urdu. “I was born from this dirt, and I will die here too. Who are you, Mr. Modi, to tell me I don’t belong here?” The crowd roared, and a thousand Indian flags soared in the brilliant blue sky. 

“Long live India! Long live India!” boomed the crowd.

“Our constitution does not invoke the name of Allah, or Bhagwan, or God. It begins with ‘We the People.’ This country of ours is not founded on the basis of a single religion. We are all Indians. I may pray in my mosque and you in your temple or church, but we are all equal before the law.”

My friend’s Uber arrived, and she left in a hurry. But later that day, I received a text from her.

“I honestly felt really bad today. The little I heard…it just moved me.”

India’s Muslims have always had their loyalty to the nation questioned. They have been termed “anti-national.” They have been accused of harboring sympathies for Pakistan, sponsoring terrorism, and having too many children. They have faced violence, marginalization and apathy from institutions meant to protect them. For years, they have borne this discrimination quietly. 

The past month has opened the floodgates. With their very citizenship in question, Muslims have responded by taking to the streets peacefully while wearing their religious identity proudly. The image of a woman in a black niqab waving the Indian flag challenges the rhetoric of those in power, and it has become ubiquitous on India’s streets today. 

And Muslims are not alone. Many of their neighbors have joined them in protest, forming coalitions across class, caste, religion, and gender lines. This diverse group of protesters has proudly reclaimed national symbols previously monopolized by the right, imbuing them with new meaning through their acts of defiance. Long considered dead relics of ideals like secularism and democracy imposed by a distant elite, these symbols have taken new meaning as the language of the streets—and of the idea of an India home to all. 

***

Back in Coimbatore, Thatha no longer shares the right-wing political messages he would often forward to our family WhatsApp group. Instead, I am greeted every other morning with videos of physics-defying stunts or gifs of cat bloopers. Perhaps he is wary of upsetting me. Perhaps the BJP’s recent rhetoric has gone too far for him. Perhaps, as for many like him, recent events have become another fleeting historical interlude.