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Protesters take part in a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Chennai Image Credit: AFP

While the anger against Narendra Modi’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Law has spilled on to the streets across the country, the protests reveal a brighter side of India.

This law, a first in the history of independent India, defines citizenship on the basis of religion, all religions except Islam. It makes it easier for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists to become Indian citizens if they are persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – where the state religion happens to be Islam.

For almost a week, protests are erupting in university campuses in several states, including capital New Delhi. The government and a big section of the media is attempting to project these protests as government vs Muslims. This is just not true. The truth is that Indians of all religions have come out to defend the most cherished character of their country – a secular nation that embraces and values diversity. They are loudly telling Prime Minister Modi that his attempts to tinker with the secular character of the country is not acceptable and that followers of all religions, including Islam, have equal rights in India. Modi recently said protesters can be recognised from their clothes and the protesters are telling him that his idea of India is not acceptable to them.

Vocal voices

On Thursday, among those who were arrested in the police crackdown included historian Ramachandra Guha and politicians Yogendra Yadav, D Raja, Sitaram Yechuri, Brinda Karat along with hundreds of others. They are not Muslims. Also today, I received a list of panel lawyers who have volunteered to provide legal assistance to protesters. All of them are non-Muslims.

Why non-Muslims are standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Muslim citizens? Because the defenders of secular India are aware that this law can be misused to harass Muslims when a planned national headcount of citizens is rolled out. They are protesting because they know this law discriminates against the country’s largest minority. Because they realise that this law is an attack on the very foundation of India’s democracy. Joining the protests on Thursday, author Arundhati Roy said this law poses an “existential threat to the country... it is turning India into a nation of petitioners”.

Muslim campuses

A big section of the media is broadcasting images of skull-cap wearing bearded Muslim protesters, an attempt to project it as government vs Muslim protests. It has also tried to keep spotlight on institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University in order to mislead people that only Muslim students are protesting against the law. On Sunday, riot police entered Jamia hostels and library and assaulted students. Campuses of Muslim universities in other cities were raided in a similar manner, a disproportionate use of force intended to tell people that Muslim youth are at war against the State and that they must be dealt with an iron hand. In some cases, policemen were caught on CCTV vandalising vehicles and properties in an apparent attempt to discredit the protesters.

Right to protest

While the government has refused to roll back the controversial law, it is not clear how long the protests will continue. What is clear though that the government is not willing to let people exercise their right to have peaceful assembly. By shutting down internet, mobile networks and metro stations in New Delhi on Thursday, the government is preventing people from reaching protest venues. Similar reports are coming from Bengaluru, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and other cities in ten states. The government can argue that anger of Muslims has no basis or that their protests is an overreaction. But the spontaneous disobedience by the civil society across the country should worry Modi who is accused of inventing distractions to divert public attention from his poor handling of economy and bad governance.