On a cold Sunday afternoon, thousands of Bharatiya Janata Party supporters gathered at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to attend a rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he launched the campaign for February’s state assembly elections. “Vividhita mein ekta, Bharat ki visheshta,” Modi said at the beginning of his speech. Unity in diversity is India’s specialty.

Soon enough, Modi made a reference to the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which has sparked protests across the country. The Citizenship Act fast tracks the citizenship process for non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who entered India before 2014.

Many people fear that the Act, used in tandem with a National Register of Citizens which the BJP has promised, will be used to harass Indian Muslims. Twenty three people have been killed in the protests, 16 of them in Uttar Pradesh. Thousands of protestors have been detained across India. In some places, policemen have been injured.

But Modi, in his first public speech since the agitation began, was anything but conciliatory. He accused the Congress and other Opposition parties of spreading rumours about the new law. He also claimed that the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens were not linked.

“A lot of lies are being spread about NRC as well,” Modi said. “It was made during the Congress regime. Where were the protesters then? We did not make it, nor did we bring it to the Parliament or announce it.”

His message set the tone. Many of the people at the rally reflected Modi’s defiance and echoed his accusations that the Opposition was spreading misinformation about the Act.

“Nobody knows anything,” said 25-year-old Krishan Kumar, works as a delivery executive. “Rumours are being spread by the Opposition party and Muslims who are against the BJP.”

Holding up a placard that read “I support CAA”, Kumar added: “The protests will stop only when people understand this.”

Krishan Kumar (left) with other BJP supporters at the rally on Sunday. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

‘Which other country do Hindus have?’

As he waited to enter the venue, 67-year-old resident Vinod Sharma said he was there to demonstrate his support for Modi and the Citizenship Act. “He has helped all of those people and rescued them from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who faced discrimination and whose women were raped,” said Sharma. “Which country do the Hindus have for themselves? It is a brahm [delusion] that India is secular because we were partitioned on a religious basis.”

He also echoed Modi’s accusations against the Opposition. “People are being brainwashed by [Asaduddin] Owaisi, Sonia [Gandhi] and Rahul [Gandhi],” Sharma claimed.

Vinod Sharma Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

Over the past year, Home Minister Amit Shah has on several occasions said that the government will introduce an NRC, making it clear that this would be done after passing the Citizenship Amendment Act. But during his speech, Modi contradicted Shah, claiming that his government had not announced such an exercise.

Many at the rally seemed to believe him, including a Muslim woman holding a sign saying “I Support CAA”. “Muslims are coming on the streets without any knowledge,” said 35-year-old Shabnam Khan, who said she was a human rights activist in Delhi.

Khan said that Muslim protestors had an incorrect perception of the NRC. “NRC has not been announced or prepared,” she said. “So you cannot set fire to the nation in the name of this.”

Sharma said that the NRC was being drawn up expressly to remove “infiltrators like Rohingya Muslims who created problems”. The Rohingya, the majority of whom are Muslim, are a ethnic group that has faced enormous persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. About 40,000 Rohingya have fled to India. There is no evidence that that the group is involved in terrorism or other major crimes.

Said Sharma, “If we have to feed them then what will we feed our citizens?”

Shabnam Khan (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Police action against students

At the rally, Modi also criticised the burning of vehicles during some protests. He also expressed support for the police amid accusations that excessive force had been used against protestors. “I want to ask those instigating violence against policemen, what will they get?” Modi said.

While protests have been violent in some areas, hundreds of peaceful demonstrations have been held across India over the past week.

Many attending the rally backed the police actions in Delhi against the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and against Aligarh Muslim University students in Uttar Pradesh on December 15. At Jamia, the police used teargas inside a library and brutally assaulted students. In Aligarh, the police used stun grenades, in addition to severely assaulting students.

Some Modi supporters carried placards that read “Delhi Police Jindabad” and justified the police’s use of force.

“If students are attacking then they should be shot at sight,” said Sharma. “Whoever destroys public property is an anti-national and police action was justified.”

Supporters held up a placard in praise of Delhi Police. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Lalit Kumar, a resident of West Delhi’s Pritampura who runs an electronics store, felt that Delhi Police did not have any alternative to using batons and tear gas against students and other protestors in the National Capital.

“What else will they do?” asked 40-year-old Kumar.

Lalit Kumar. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

“Stone pelting only used to happen in Kashmir but now it is happening in Delhi also,” he said. Besides, Kumar was convinced that the Delhi Police had acted violently. He said, “You can check it on WhatsApp.”

Khan felt that the police would act the way “others react”. “I am not in favour of firing bullets but tear gas has to be lobbed, no?” she said. “Otherwise how will the police stop criminals?”