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story | Avani Adhikari, Editor-in-Chief
photo | Google Images
On Dec. 18, 2019, Chaitainyashree Lenin ‘22, shared three links on the Yale-NUS College Community Facebook group: one describing the political situation in India after the passing of a controversial bill, and two petitions protesting against its implementation.
Since Lenin’s first post, students and alumni across all years have gotten together to address the chaos happening in India since the passing of the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) in Dec. 12, 2019.
Unlike other political disruptions that happen all over the world, for a lot of Yale-NUS students stories of police brutality and unrest hit very close to home.
Indian nationals are among the largest cohort of international students in Yale-NUS — in the class of 2023 alone, 17 students (the largest international cohort) came from India.
The people impacted by the disruptions were the students’ friends, family — and fellow classmates.
During the winter break, Afiya Dikshit ‘23 was on her way to the protest site with her mother when they saw a young man getting detained for just asking to cross the street to get to an area where civilians were not allowed.
“My mother got extremely agitated and went after them questioning why he was being detained. In the meantime, women constables came and detained her, by grabbing both her arms and literally dragging her to the police bus.”
When Dikshit asked the police why her mother was being detained, she herself as taken away. “I was literally dragged, I had bruises on my arms later. When I reached the bus, I met with a bunch of people who had been detained for just sitting next to the metro station where the incident happened.”
Under the Indian Penal Code, Section 144, when in anticipation of unrest, the police has the authority to detain any unlawful assembly comprising of four or more people. As Dikshit and her mother were not in direct violation of this law, they were taken to the police station and kept there for five hours, or until the protests ended.
“There were around 50 of us in the area. We started shouting slogans, but nothing against the police. Some of the people had sustained injuries in [protests Jamia Millia Islamia, a public university in Delhi where police clashed with student protestors], but were in the cold, where their injuries were aggravated.The police was very easy going. They asked us for our names and after five hours let us out.”
Dikshit is not alone to have been impacted personally by these protests. Siddharth Chatterjee ‘21 says, “For us, it is difficult to act apathetic when these people who we know are protesting, people who we know are getting affected, and places we know are in chaos.”
“Over the winter, a lot of us didn’t have Internet because the government shut it off. In Lucknow, the city where I grew up, one of my teachers, who is now an activist by the name of Sadaf Jafar got detained after a protest.”
Hence, inspired by the stories back home as well as similar statements being drafted by colleges in the United States, Atharva Brameha ‘21, Chatterjee, and Lenin got together to write and publish a letter of solidarity.
The letter, which currently has 112 signatories including undergraduates, alumni, and faculty, begins, “We, the students and affiliates of Yale-NUS College, stand in solidarity with the nationwide peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, of India.”
“We condemn the violent suppression of peaceful student protesters at the Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia University, and elsewhere.”
A similar solidarity letter, this time representing all South Asian nationals in larger Singapore was headed by alums Pragya Sethi ‘19, and Mehul Banka ‘19.
Furthermore, on campus, Diya Kundu ‘21 has organized a closed-door solidarity session where people showed up to support the protestors back home.
Among the students, however, there is a general confusion regarding what the situation actually is.
Hence, in our first such feature, to understand the motivation behind the student activism, we attempt to take a deep dive and explain the context behind the unrest.
What is the CAA?
“To understand the impact of the CAA, we have to go further back and look at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being implemented in the border states of India,” says Brameha.
Like the name implies, the NRC is a register of all legal citizens of India. To get your name on the NRC, you are asked to provide documents proving that your family lived in India before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971
However, in a country as large as India, this becomes a difficult task. “Even the Prime Minister is unable to produce his college degree,” adds Chatterjee.
With multiple waves of migration and natural disasters, documents get lost. Added to this is the extra burden of bureaucracy involved in obtaining these documents, which often prevents poor people from obtaining them.
To get around this hurdle, the government implemented a National Population Register (NPR) which is a list of all people living in India, regardless of their residency status. Not to be confused with the national census, the NPR only contains demographic and more importantly, citizenship information.
Though the government claims that the NPR is a natural first step to obtaining a place on the NRC, critics are worried that it can let the government target people and ask them to prove their citizenship.
“If you don’t have these papers, you are classified as a ‘doubtful citizen’. The government can now legally arrest you for being a foreigner and detain you. There are detention camps being built by people who might end up in it tomorrow.” says Chatterjee.
It is important to note that the NRC has not been implemented nationwide. After a pilot run in Assam, an eastern Indian border state, it has been met with the current round of protests.
“In this comes the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is meant to provide an accelerated path to citizenship for refugees who come to India facing religious persecution. However, interestingly, this bill has a very specific list of religions that can face religious persecution — only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” adds Brameha.
Why are people protesting against it?
According to Yogesh Joshi, Professor of International Relations at Yale-NUS, “The contention around the CAA 2019 revolves around one central point — can the government stipulate religion as a criterion for citizenship, which prima facie appears to be in contradiction to the Indian constitution?”
To Brameha, this contradiction is the meat of the issue. “If you look at the list, you can already tell that the glaring omission of Muslims from the list is suspicious.”
“There are various sects of Muslims that face persecution in the so-called Muslim states. Ahmadiyya Muslims aren’t even classified as Muslims in Pakistan — being one can get you sent to prison for 3 years.”
“The government can’t come up here and say, ‘the Muslims can go to other Muslim countries’, when India was built on the idea of equality and religious secularity.”
It is important to note however, that not all protests in India is based on religious omissions. In Assam, a state with a high indegenious population, the debate is centered around state rights and culture.
Why is the government implementing controversial bills now?
According to Mr. Joshi, this is not the first time the CAA has come into the public eye. “The CAA has been a part of BJP’s (the ruling right wing party) electoral manifesto at least since 2008.”
“The bill was introduced in the Indian Parliament in 2016 under the first Modi government but could not pass muster in Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament.”
“BJP still does not have a majority, but its strength in the Rajya Sabha has improved in the last five years. This parliamentary majoritarianism has also spurred the BJP to go on the offensive in pushing through some of the most controversial agenda-items in its election manifesto, including the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.”
“In my opinion, BJP’s ability to command a majority in both houses of the parliament is the most crucial reason behind the timing of the bill.”
What has the government been saying in defense?
For the goverment, which has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration into India, the recent bills are necessary to maintain the borders and ideal of India.
“In the government’s view, persecuted minorities in Muslim-majority states such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan can only be non-Muslims. Therefore, only non-Muslims can obtain citizenship through CAA 2019.” adds Mr. Joshi.
However, a lot of critics feel that this explanation is not enough. “The idea of protecting minorities might stand, if this bill hadn’t come so soon with the NRC. It is dubious that the government would pick these six religions arbitrarily, especially after how almost a million Muslims were disenfranchised in Assam.” says Chatterjee.
“CAA with the NRC feels like a terrific way to follow [the] election rhetoric of the BJP. When the home minister, Amit Shah, himself has called Bangaldeshi immigrants “termites” and “infiltrators”, it is very dubious for the government to use this rhetoric that they don’t want to exclude anyone.
Where do we go now?
For a lot of people, the recent trend of India conducting controversial activities, such as revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, seems concerning. Why is it all happening now would be an easy question to ask.
However, Mr. Joshi tells us that these bills have only been passed as a result of the BJP majority in the parliament.
“This situation will not obtain indefinitely. BJP has lost several state elections in the last couple of years and the impact of these losses would soon influence the numbers in Rajya Sabha.”
Back at the college, to Lenin, Brameha, and Chatterjee, the petition is an important step in solidarity with their friends protesting back home.
“In a situation as dire as this, this petition has become a momentum of solidarity. Even though it may not go outside this community, we have nonetheless built a community here.” says Chatterjee.
“It was great to see students [and] faculty members all join in the condemnation of something like this.”
Despite being inspired by the solidarity letter put out by Harvard where students had a protest on campus, students at Yale-NUS will not be able to replicate it.
Instead, when asked about their future plans, Brameha states, “We are now planning to print the petition out and submit it to the High Commission of India in Singapore on the Republic Day of India, Jan. 26, the date celebrating when the constitution came into effect.”
It is important to note that this article doesn’t cover all the intricacies and perspectives of this issue. Students wishing to get more information are welcome to attend a closed-door discussion on Jan. 29 organized by the Yale-NUS South Asian Society.