Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi at Delhi University, is a vocal human-rights activist. In recent years, he has written and spoken out against the rising tide of Hindutva under the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government. Since December, when nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, began, Apoorvanand has regularly voiced his opposition to the act. He has also expressed his opposition to the government crackdown on academic spaces, such as police excesses at Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia university in mid December, as well as the attacks on students in Jawaharlal Nehru University in early January by members of student groups aligned with the BJP.
Along with other intellectuals, writers and activists, Apoorvanand has demanded a fair and impartial probe into the violence that broke out in northeast Delhi in late February, soon after the conclusion of elections in the capital, which resulted in the death of over fifty individuals, most of whom were Muslim. In an interview to Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, Apoorvanand, spoke about the recent protests, the concept of citizenship and why it matters, and the state of civil liberties in India. He further discussed the Delhi Police’s investigation into the Delhi riots which, he said, appears to create a pre-determined narrative.
Tushar Dhara: Can you describe the arc of events that took place between the enactment of the CAA and the Delhi violence?
Apoorvanand: If you go back to the enactment of the CAA, there was a stunning silence from the opposition parties. But the streets erupted in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. People came out and started protesting, including students at Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University [in Uttar Pradesh]. But it was put down in a brutal manner. The Supreme Court refused to take cognisance of any of this. They just made an observation that [protestors against the CAA] cannot destroy public property and said that if the protestors want to be heard, they have to get off the streets.
These events led to a unique development called Shaheen Bagh [a neighbourhood in Delhi where Muslim women led a sit-in against the CAA for over a hundred days]. It was an organic protest by the women there with the support of their families. What Shaheen Bagh did was to make the Preamble of the Constitution the battle cry for the demand for equality in citizenship. The CAA created pathways to attaining Indian citizenship, but blocked it for one particular religion, which introduced a discriminatory element in the concept of citizenship, which is against the Constitution. This is what Shaheen Bagh was trying to point out, and the means they adopted was peaceful. For the first time, Muslims were claiming citizenship.
TD: What was the effect that Shaheen Bagh had?
A: It inspired a number of similar protests across India, approximately two hundred-odd sit-ins. It broke many myths. One is that Muslim women are mostly burqa-clad, backward and uneducated. But here were Muslim women leading a movement and not allowing the clergy to have a decisive say in how the movement would run. The government found it difficult to break the movement and international observers were looking on with interest.