- Neha Dixitindependent journalist based in New Delhi, India. Her investigative reporting focuses on politics, gender and social justice. She received the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Protests continue to erupt across India against a new anti-Muslim law that gives immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan a path to citizenship — unless they are Muslim. Police have responded with violence, leaving at least six dead. This comes amid a broader crackdown on India’s Muslims. We get an on-the-ground update from New Delhi from Neha Dixit, an independent reporter who just received the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in India, where a wave of protests continues across the country in opposition to a new anti-Muslim citizenship law. Many see the so-called Citizenship Amendment Bill as a major step toward the official marginalization of India’s 200 million Muslims, because it provides a path to citizenship for immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, unless they’re Muslim.
PROTESTER: [translated] We are protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which is dividing people, which is taking advantage in the name of religion. And this is what we do not want. India is a secular country, and let it remain secular.
AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to the demonstrations in more than a dozen cities by deploying troops, enacting a curfew and shutting down the internet. Police have also violently confronted protesters, leaving at least six dead, including four people shot by police in the state of Assam.
Student protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi clashed with police over the weekend. In one video that’s gone viral, police officers can be seen beating a male student as a group of female friends try to protect him. The police continue to beat the young man with their wooden batons despite the women’s pleas. One of the female students, who hurled her body in front of the police batons, 22-year-old Ladeeda Farzana, later told reporters she’s fighting for her very existence in India and encouraged others to do the same.
LADEEDA FARZANA: It’s a matter of existence. If actually it happened, it happened first with the Kashmir issue. At that time, we kept quiet. We kept in the peace, many of them. Then came the Babri verdict, and we lost our faith over the judiciary in that verdict. Later on, it came for the — when it came to that CAA, we ascertained that next they will be targeting the whole India. … If you see any injustice in the society, don’t think that you are a woman who someone will be telling like that to someone who will be telling that. Don’t think of that. Just get out, raise your voice. Men will be making you sit inside, slow down your voice, because women are always told, and they were always nurtured by telling that, “Keep making your voice very low. Keep respect men.” But, no, raise your voice. We’re already warned not to raise the voice. Raise your voice.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the police violence, protests against the citizenship bill are continuing. They come amidst a broader crackdown on India’s Muslims by Modi’s government. In the Muslim-majority region Kashmir, access to the internet has been shut down more than four months. And Modi has already enforced a citizenship test in the state of Assam, which borders Burma and Bangladesh, requiring 33 million residents to provide evidence they or their ancestors lived in India before 1971. More than 2 million people, many of them Muslim, failed to pass the test and are now at risk of being held in mass detention camps.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi himself has been accused of sanctioning the massacre of more than 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister there. For that massacre, he was banned from the United States for years.
Well, for more, we go to New Delhi, India, where we’re joined by Neha Dixit. She is an independent journalist who’s been covering the protests against the new citizenship bill. Her investigative reporting focuses on politics, gender and social justice. Last month, she received the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Neha, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Thank you so much for joining us from New Delhi. Tell us what’s happening there.
NEHA DIXIT: Thank you so much, Amy. Amy, the things are quite disturbing and bad at the same time. On 9th December, the home minister of this country, Amit Shah, introduced the bill in the Parliament, in the lower house of the Parliament. And on December 11th, two days later, the law was passed in the upper house, which is the Rajya Sabha. So, the Citizenship Amendment Act right now excludes — like you said, excludes Muslims, particularly. And six other communities — immigrants from six communities have been allowed citizenship under this act. No explanation has been given why these six communities have been allowed and why Muslims have been excluded. And this goes completely against the tenets of the kind of plurality and diversity that exists in India and a number of us grew up with. So, it completely goes — it’s unconstitutional and illegal.
And even though Amit Shah, the home minister of the country, said in the Parliament that it has the endorsement of 130 crore people of India, the protests that have broken out in various parts in the country, including Jamia Millia Islamia, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Bombay, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay, in Guwahati, in Tamil Nadu — there are protests all over the country right now. Twenty-four — students from 24 universities in India are out there protesting against this act.
So that the government has not been kind to the criticism or the debate or the dissent that has come up regarding this act, and most of the protesters have been met with police violence. There is police brutality all over. Yesterday and day before, there have been various incidents in Jamia Millia Islamia University. Yesterday, students protesting at IIT — at IIM Ahmedabad were also detained. The same goes in West Bengal. The same — a similar thing happened in Tamil Nadu.
So, I think the country is burning right now, and nobody is ready to accept this kind of sectarian law that the government has passed, with a complete Islamophobic agenda in mind. I also want to say that at this point it’s important to recall that the current political party in power, Bharatiya Janata Party, they had stated this in their manifesto in the 2014 general elections and this time, in May 2019 general elections, that this is what they’re going to pass. And because they have always had the agenda of creating India into a Hindu country, the Hindu Rashtra, this is a step forward in that direction and breaking the secularism that we all grew up with in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times headline today on the front page, Neha, is “India Erupts in Protests as Modi Presses Vision for Hindu Nation.” So explain the different actions he’s been involved with, going back to the Gujarat massacre of 2002, for which he was banned from the United States for years.
NEHA DIXIT: Absolutely. Modi — first of all, Narendra Modi has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the parent body — RSS, which is the parent body of the current political party in power, in BJP. RSS, one of the main tenets of RSS is Hindutva, which is to make India into a Hindu country. So they’ve always been Islamophobic. Modi, as the chief minister in Gujarat in 2002, he was the chief minister when several people were massacred, all of them Muslims. Two thousand people were killed in various capacities. There was no investigation. People who were involved in it had direct — had direct involvement with the political party in power at that time, which was, again, BJP. And there were lots of other affiliated organizations with the RSS who were involved in it. There have been several, several documentations to prove that.
Moving from his chief ministership from Gujarat to his journey as the prime minister, he has constantly been saying things which have been Islamophobic in nature. In 2014 general elections, just before his first term as the prime minister, they had promised in their agenda that they are going to stop the “pink revolution.” And the “pink revolution” was a direct reference to the Muslim community that is involved in — that owns a number of slaughterhouses in India. And that’s when they started this whole — and once they came into power in 2014, they started this entire narrative about Muslims consuming beef.
And in the last six years, since 2014 to almost now, we have seen a number of lynchings of people, specifically from the Muslim community and some of them Dalits, who are also in the lower rung of the Hindu caste order. And we’ve seen a number of those lynchings. We have seen police in Uttar Pradesh, again, under the chief minister of Yogi Adityanath, who’s a Hindu Islamophobic monk, again, from BJP — we have seen almost 5,000 police shootouts in the last two years, where 72 people have been killed, all of them, again, Muslims and really from a very socioeconomically working-class, marginalized background. So, this agenda has been carried forward.
And even now, yesterday, while Prime Minister Modi is campaigning in a state called Jharkhand, which is poll-bound, he has said — responding to the protests, he has said that you can make out from the kind of attire the people are protesting, that who they are, and which is a direct reference to the attire that the Muslim community wears. And that is, again — in a poll-bound state, he has started — he is again trying to create this kind of communal divide between people.
So, I would like to place this on record that this — while globally we are talking about several autocrats, the whole idea of the global Islamophobic trend that is going on, there hasn’t been enough critique of Narendra Modi to be seen in that light, particularly because he’s been making all these foreign trips. He was recently in United States also with the “Howdy Modi” campaign. I think this agenda has constantly been there. There have also been several investigative reports. I have also done one where the RSS, the Hindu body behind BJP, had been trafficking several children from northeast India and taking them to Hindu seminaries in other parts of India to indoctrinate them in the Hindutva ideology, so that — and they are told how Muslims are the invaders, Christians are the invaders, and how to fight them and how they are rapists. So, this kind of narrative has been propagated in the reporters’ columns, and Narendra Modi has been at the helm of this press.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe just yesterday? I mean, as we tried to reach you yesterday through the day, you were in the streets for hours. We just described what happened at JMI University, the level of the police violence and the number of deaths that has resulted from that violence.
NEHA DIXIT: Yes, exactly. This is the first time, actually, that — Jamia Millia Islamia is a central university, so it is not just for Muslims. A lot — many professionals in various departments have actually attended this university across religions. So, first of all, the government itself is trying to put it out as a university for Muslims, which it is not.
What happened in the last three days is that on Friday several students were out there just carrying a peaceful march in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The police, within an hour of that march, targeted them with water cannons. Their water cannons were on standby. There was tear gas shelling. There were stones hurled at the students — there is enough documentation for that — and then there were shoes. So, the students went back, and the next day, when they came out again, the police dealt with them with greater brutality that is unheard of in Indian history. Police entered the campus. They were inside the library. They broke the windowpanes. Students were trying to hide away from the police in the reading halls of the main library of the Jamia Millia Islamia University. The police tried to break the windowpanes, and through that they fired tear gas shells. And according to the United Nations guidelines, you can’t fired tear gas in confined spaces. So, several people were injured in that. People couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t escape. Several students had locked themselves inside washrooms, but the police entered inside. The first thing they did — this is accounts from eyewitnesses that I gathered yesterday, that the first thing that the police did was to break the CCTV cameras in these spaces, and then they charged the students with batons. They slapped several of them. And apart from that, there’s confirmed news that two people, at least, from Jamia have been shot with bullets. So, this is not tear gas shells, or these are not rubber bullets, but these are actual fire — they were actually fired at. One of the students, his report has come out, and it has been confirmed that they were bullet injuries. Now, why were the students, who were just trying to hide away from the police, beaten up in this manner?
The unfortunate part is that the next day the students had to appear for the exams, so a lot of students were just in the reading halls preparing for the examination the next day. And as a result, the university has declared a vacation for these students. Now, suddenly, most of the students are from outside. They are from Kashmir, which we have heard of that people can’t reach their parents. And suddenly the university has shut down, and the students have been advised to evacuate the university. So several students are stranded. Several women students in the hostel in the campus are stranded, and they are terrified. So, this has been a general situation. Lots of them are — lots of people are scared; they’re in panic. And this is completely unheard of. And there has been no action. And the proctor of the Jamia Millia Islamia University went on record to say that the police requires permission to enter the campus, but no permission was taken, and the police just bashed in. So, the atmosphere has been tense since then, and we have not heard anything positive or constructive from anybody from the administration or the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Neha Dixit, you — Bollywood and cricket stars play a huge role in India in shaping public opinion, yet they have been largely silent here. Can you explain why?
NEHA DIXIT: If I put it simply, I think it is very important to point out that the reason behind their silence is the corporate-political nexus right now in India that is ruling everything. The same corporate groups fund the political parties that are now in power. The same corporate groups own cricket leagues, or teams in the cricket — in the Indian Premier League. The same corporate groups fund the Bollywood film industry. And which is why the silence has also to do with the kind of commerce involved in this, and this huge nexus which has not been broken, and which is why we can’t see independent voices.
The one or two independent voices that we have seen have been crushed completely, because the next time they are not given work any longer. So there is no scope for any freedom of expression or speech right now in the kind of current environment that we are in. So, either there is some kind of boycott economically, or there is a lot of shaming and harassment and torture that happens. There have been several, several reports, bonafide reports, which suggest that the current political party in power has an organized troll army to send all kinds of threats to people who come out and speak up. And there is no action ever taken. We have also lost people. We’ve seen several threats to somebody like Gauri Lankesh, who spoke up, who was killed. But she was a journalists, but even with Bollywood stars who have come up and spoken up, they have received all kinds of threats. So I think the general atmosphere is such that the corporate-political nexus is not allowing it, and there’s a vicious environment full of hate, and people who propagate this kind of hate know that they enjoy impunity and they’re backed by the government and there will be no action against them.
AMY GOODMAN: Neha, I want to thank you for being with us. Final question: Would you describe India as a democracy?
NEHA DIXIT: As of now, I would say that even though India has a democratically elected leader, we are in a democracy under a dictator. So we are not a democracy. We are only a democracy for the privileged, upper-caste Hindu in this country, and none of the other communities that have existed in India for so many years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, please stay safe, Neha Dixit, independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. Her investigative reporting focuses on politics, gender and social justice. She just received the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaking to us from New Delhi.
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