On Sunday, as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act intensified across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statement that dripped with communal vitriol. At an election rally in Jharkhand, he said that the people “creating violence” could be “identified by their clothes” – an emphatic reference to members of the Muslim community.

The new citizenship law, cleared by President Ramnath Kovind on December 12, speeds up the process of granting Indian citizenship to all non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The law’s explicit discrimination against Muslim refugees has triggered widespread protests across the country, organised by political parties, Muslim organisations, various secular civil society groups and students from several universities.

Protests turned violent in several places, particularly Assam and Meghalaya, where demonstrators across communities have focused on the impact that an influx of Bangladeshi refugees could have on local ethnic populations. On Thursday, police firing resulted in five deaths in Assam.

Over the weekend, the protests spread to West Bengal with arson reported from Muslim-dominated areas, where residents were angry over the discriminatory provisions of the law.

On Sunday evening, at a protest in South Delhi, miscreants vandalised vehicles and set three buses on fire, and the police responded with lathi charge and tear gas. Hours later, the Delhi police stormed the campus of Jamia Milia Islamia, allegedly without the consent of the university administration. Students claim the police then unleashed an unprovoked attack on them, beating up both male and female students, breaking into the library to baton-charge students, detaining more than 50 people and injuring at least 125.

Since the police attack, students in institutions across the country have organised protests in solidarity with Jamia Milia Islamia, and citizens’ groups have announced rallies and marches in several cities this week.

Given the secular nature of the opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, Modi’s cryptic statement about identifying violent protesters by their clothes has triggered an inevitable controversy.

By seemingly suggesting that Muslims are the instigators and perpetrators of the violence, the statement highlights the double-bind that Indian Muslims often find themselves in when it comes to public protests against the State.

If Muslims choose not to protest in the face of communal discrimination, they are often blamed for not standing up for their rights. When they do protest on the streets, however, their agitation can be twisted to suit the Hindutva agenda and further communal polarisation. The Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday is an example of this.

'We are not tenants, we have an equal stake in India,' says a poster held up by a protestor outside Jamia University in Delhi on Monday. Photo: Vijayta Lalwani

A bitter history

In several parts of India, the Muslim community’s experiences with public protest have been bitter. In 1992, for instance, Muslim protests against the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya triggered a violent backlash against them that lasted several weeks.

“Mumbai’s Muslims burnt their hands when they came out on the streets spontaneously after the Babri Masjid demolition and faced unprovoked and excessive police firing,” said veteran journalist Jyoti Punwani. “It took almost two decades for them to come out again, this time in an organised manner to protest atrocities on Rohingyas and Assamese Muslims in 2012.”

Punwani’s reference is to the August 2012 riots at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, when a peaceful protest by Muslim groups was disrupted by a handful of young miscreants who attacked the police and the media. Two people were killed in the violence and several were injured before Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik prevented the violence from spreading. “But the ensuing public anger and large number of arrests, even of Muslims not involved in the rally, have not been forgotten by the community,” Punwani said.

In light of such experiences, Indian Muslims have often been cautious about choosing to protest against the government.

Assamese protestors in Mumbai on Sunday. Credit: PTI

“Indian Muslims showed commendable restraint in response to last month’s verdict of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya dispute even though they were unhappy with it,” said activist Javed Anand, the convener of a group called Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy.

On November 9, the Supreme Court handed over the disputed plot of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to the Hindu side, paving the way for a Ram temple to be constructed on the site. The mosque had been demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

“It is noteworthy that there was no protest, no demonstration of Muslims against the verdict reported from anywhere in the country,” Anand said.

‘No option but to protest’

The Muslim response to the Citizenship Amendment Act stands in sharp contrast to this silence. The law, in conjunction with the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s promise to implement a National Register of Citizens that could have the effect of making many Indian Muslims stateless even as it spares followers of other religions, has triggered fear and indignation among community members.

“Since the BJP came to power in 2014, Muslims have been targeted for all kinds of issues, like beef, love jihad or being forced to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Now we are at the verge of being declared foreigners,” said Hasina Khan, a founder of the human rights group Bebaak Collective. “Now we are left with no other option but to protest. It is our only weapon, and we need to build alliances with as many groups and movements as possible so that we can stand together.”

Like Khan, other observers also emphasised the need for Muslims to protest with allies from other communities.

“While Muslims have every reason and right to protest, they should be mindful of the RSS-BJP agenda of using the double-barreled CAA-NRC to widen the Hindu-Muslim divide,” said Javed Anand. “The unconstitutional and divisive game plan must be opposed. But it is best done through secular forums and platforms.”

Hilal Ahmed, an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, said “Unlike other issues such as Triple Talaq and Babri Masjid, there is a strong opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act in the country now. Hence, Muslim communities are certainly going to participate more actively in such protests because of their inclusive character.” He pointed to the Delhi protests as an example of that.

“The BJP is going to use this Muslim reaction to consolidate its core Hindutva constituency,” he added. “Now it is upto Opposition Parties to offer an alternative secular meaning to this movement.”

In Kolkata, Muslim leaders have been urging community members to step out and protest peacefully against the new law, and activists like Sabir Ahmed have been working to strengthen non-Muslim participation in these protests.

“In West Bengal’s history, we have had many protests where Muslims and Hindus have lent support to each other, because there are many cultural similarities between them as Bengalis,” said Ahmed, a volunteer for the ‘Know your Neighbour’ campaign working to promote inter-community collaborations. “We are now trying to highlight these instances.”

A banner protests at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI

According to Punwani, the peaceful, Muslim-only rallies organised over the Citizenship Amendment Act by mosque committees in Kolkata and Kerala can be seen in two ways. “That is a marker that they see themselves as equal citizens and know the cops won’t turn on them without provocation as has often happened in Mumbai,” she said. “At the same time, a protest restricted just to Muslims sends out a clear message, and that is not an inclusive one.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act has faced opposition across communal lines because it violates the secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution, said Punwani. “Had these groups in Kerala and Kolkata reached out to secular organisations, the message sent would have been far more powerful,” she said.

In Mumbai, even though protests against the Act have not been very large, Punwani points out that they have included people from all communities. On December 14, a rally organised by the Samajwadi Party in Mumbai to oppose the Act attracted several non-Muslim protesters too. “This is because the party had taken care to invite speakers whose appeal has nothing to do with religion, such as Umar Khalid and Kannan Gopinathan,” she said.

Punwani noted: “It is actually the responsibility of the majority that constitutes 78% of the population to protect the 14% which is being targeted by the State. Hindus need to be at the forefront of protests against the CAA.”