The Bharatiya Janata Party’s official spokesman and head of its IT cell Amit Malviya has called the Citizenship Amendment Act protest as an “Islamist insurrection” and accused protesters of getting their “instructions from the masjid”. He has also alleged that the agitation is being used as a pretext to radicalise Muslim youth, including little children.

“Shocking! In the name of protests, depraved minds are exploiting the innocence of young kids, especially girls, for their propaganda and stirring animosity,” he tweeted with a video of a small girl shouting slogans at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh sit-in. “We have seen this kind of indoctrination among kids in radical Islamic societies. But in Shaheen Bagh?”

Clearly, Malviya has no idea of what an “Islamist insurrection” looks like, and he should be careful about what he wishes for. The bare-knuckle strategy that his party and the government have chosen for dealing with protesters, calling them anti-national and proxies for India’s enemies, risks ending up doing precisely what it claims to be combating – that is, radicalising Muslims. The thrust of this strategy is to undermine and discredit protesters by portraying them as part of an “Islamist conspiracy”.

As part of the BJP’ s strategy to fuel the culture wars, Home Minister Amit Shah has accused them and their supporters of speaking the “language of Imran Khan”, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said one can tell who the protesters were from “the way they dress”. It has also been alleged that they are being bankrolled by shadowy outside sources; and the “level of organisation” points to professional planning. The party has wheeled out its Muslim spokespersons – Abbas Naqvi, Shazia Ilmi, and Shahnawaz Khan – to attack, mostly Muslim protesters, alleging that they are being manipulated by the “enemies” of India and its prime minister.

The problem with this strategy is that it has the effect of further alienating a community already feeling under siege. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense – even among moderate Muslims – that in the past six years since the Modi government first came to power, they have been deliberately targeted as part of a push towards the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh idea of a Hindu India.

They say that so far, they have been remarkably restrained, ignoring even physical attacks. But the Citizenship Amendment Act – which pointedly excludes Muslims from a list of persecuted minorities who will be entitled to seek Indian citizenship and could be used to disenfranchise Muslims who don’t have documents to prove their Indian citizenship – is the last straw. A phrase one frequently hears in Muslim circles is that “even a worm can turn when pushed against the wall”.

The fear of being deprived of citizenship and a growing sense of insecurity fuelled by a toxic anti-Muslim discourse make them vulnerable to exploitation by radical groups. Statements such as the Aligarh Muslim University Student leader Faizul Hasan’s intemperate outburst that Muslims have exhausted their “limits of patience”, and the inflammatory remarks of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi may have been made in the heat of the moment but I am sure radical groups would be watching them closely. There have already been incidents at Shaheen Bagh of certain radical groups trying to infiltrate and “Islamise” the protest. So far, they have not been successful, but there’s no room for complacency.

If I had the ears of the leadership of the RSS /BJP leadership, I would advise them to tread cautiously in pushing their “Hindu India” project if they really worry about Muslim radicalisation. Five years of relentless Muslim-baiting has taken a heavy toll of the community’s capacity to resist fundamentalist tendencies and left it more exposed to radical influence. Particularly vulnerable is the new generation of Muslims growing up in a palpably hostile climate. They could prove easy pickings for Islamist groups looking for new recruits in the subcontinent. It’s a risk the government cannot afford to shrug off.

An undying spirit

Meanwhile, irrespective of the outcome of the agitation, protesters have shown remarkable tenacity in the face of enormous odds. That, more than one month on, they are still standing tall – refusing to blink and determined to carry on – is quite an achievement. The round-the-clock women’s sit-in at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh has become a rallying point for protesters in other parts of the country with little “Shaheen Baghs” springing up in several cities across India. In Lucknow, a police crackdown has failed to dampen spirits.

Women are leading protests across the country, such as this one in Kolkata. Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Given the asymmetry of power between an all-powerful government machinery and a group of leaderless agitators , it would be fair to give them the first round in this war of attrition for their sheer staying power. A month ago, if someone had suggested that they would still be around with their numbers swelling rather than diminishing, they would have been laughed out of the court. The government condescendingly saw it as a passing phenomenon that would soon fizzle out, as protests often do after initial anger dies down.

It was a gross misreading of the situation; and more broadly, of the national mood, especially the simmering discontent among the youth who had overwhelmingly voted for Modi on the back of his promise to give them jobs and opportunities for economic growth. They feel shortchanged and believe that the mandate they gave him is being used instead to push a divisive agenda they don’t wish to be a part of.

An India Today poll reveals widespread public disillusionment over the government’s economic performance, people believe that measures like the Citizenship Amendment Act are an attempt to divert attention from its failure to deliver its poll promises. An accumulated angst over a range of issues and across communities has found a lightning rod in the citizenship agitation, giving it an inclusive pan-India character. Much like what happened in Hong Kong, where protests against a controversial extradition bill morphed into a wider platform for venting concerns that had been bubbling under the surface.

The current agitation might have been started by Muslims but it long ceased to be a Muslim-only affair, though the government continues to portray it as such in a bid to undermine its credibility. Such a characterisation allows it to make the specious argument that one community can’t “hold the country to ransom”. Any lingering expectation of a compromise has been laid to rest by Amit Shah who has made clear that come what may the government will not budge. “They are free to protest but we will go ahead [with implementing it],” he said, echoing the prime minister, who has dismissed the protests as a political conspiracy against his government.

Alas, a far cry from the BJP’s election pledge to listen to everyone and carry everyone with them. “ Sab ke saath”?

Hasan Suroor is the author of Who Killed Liberal Islam.