World in View: Mass protest challenges India’s Modi

January 21, 2020

From the January-February 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmet

The largest protests in decades rocked India following the December introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. For the first time, this Act introduces religious qualifications for immigrants to become citizens, and it specifically excludes Muslims. Dozens have died in protests of this bigoted new law.

Dec. 14 anti-CAA protest in New Delhi.

The movement exploded after New Delhi police brutalized protesting students at Jamia Millia University. The protests only grew larger, spread to other campuses, and were joined by Muslims and Hindus, women, secular activists, and others who recognize the existential threat represented by the BJP’s programmatic negation of the real India of history.

As historian Ramachandra Guha wrote, “One striking aspect of all the popular protests has been that people of all faiths have participated. In cities like Kolkata and Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, tens of thousands of Indians who are not themselves Muslims have recognized the new Act for what it really is—a body blow to the founding ideas of the Republic” (The Hindustan Times, Jan. 12).

Guha was forced from his university teaching position in 2018 after publishing his biography of Mohandas Gandhi; he was arrested in the recent protests for carrying a picture of B.R. Ambedkar, author of the Indian Constitution.


It is absolutely true that the CAA reflects the efforts of Modi’s Hindutva BJP to rewrite India’s multicultural history. It is equally true that it, along with the National Register of Citizens, points toward a chilling future born of Modi’s high-tech politics. The BJP has also introduced legislation designed to “intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer.” Numerous federal agencies and the New Delhi police have been given power to carry this surveillance out.

India has also copied China’s facial recognition system. New Delhi police have pioneered its use, and it has been introduced in the states of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. The aim is to create a centralized national database that could work with the growing network of surveillance cameras. A joint Chinese-Indian firm is producing hundreds of thousands of these cameras in a new factory in Mumbai.

This is being done under the guise of “law and order.” There are no planned safeguards. In the bigoted context of Hindutva, the threat of what Black scholar Simone Browne calls racialized surveillance becomes very real—in fact, it appears as a logical outgrowth of bourgeois society itself, prefigured in the branding of runaway slaves.


As the CAA went into effect in early January, Modi made a point of traveling to the state of West Bengal, which has seen large protests. He met in Kolkata with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, allegedly to discuss tourism. Banerjee, who leads her own party, has opposed the CAA and joined with protesters, but has her own ambitions.

She has allied with the BJP in the past, and at times has been a vocal voice in denouncing “illegal immigrants,” a term that was only introduced into Indian politics by the BJP in recent decades. As this is written, Banerjee is refusing to join other opposition parties in a meeting to discuss the BJP’s attacks on universities. Modi will doubtless seek out other established, opportunistic politicians willing to co-opt the protests.

The masses in the streets chanting “Azadi!” (“Freedom!”) and “You divide, we multiply!” are not inclined, right now, to fall for such a halfway show of opposition. Modi and his Hindu nationalist program are facing their most serious challenge yet. Many see that this is a moment of opposition to the current worldwide stage of “populist” reaction.

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