Couldn’t see India as a democracy: Exchange student sent back to Germany after CAA protest

After photos of his participation in the anti-CAA protest circulated on the internet in December 2019, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office ordered the German exchange student Jakob Lindenthal to leave the country immediately. Ahmad Zaza / Courtesy Jakob Lindenthal
20 January, 2020

On 19 December 2019, Jakob Lindenthal, a 24-year-old German student, participated in a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, in Chennai, a city in Tamil Nadu. As an exchange student from the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, Lindenthal had been studying physics at IITM since July 2019. He was scheduled to study at the campus till May this year. But after photos of his participation in the anti-CAA protest circulated on the internet in December last year, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office ordered him to leave the country immediately. Lindenthal has been back in Germany since 25 December 2019.

It is unclear whether he will be allowed to return to India. Lindenthal has been trying to communicate with Indian authorities and get clarity on the matter. On 30 December, an official at the Indian embassy in Berlin suggested to Lindenthal to not try to re-enter India via his current visa. Lindenthal replied, “I do hope that it will not affect academic relations between Germany and India. The eviction of a student can certainly be viewed as an unfriendly act, especially under such undocumented and therefore unprofessional and possibly illegal circumstances from the side of Indian immigration authorities. I would like to make you aware that a similar case would never happen in Germany since demonstrations are open to everyone and even in case of an eviction order legal assistance and appealing the decision would be permitted.”

 On 4 January 2020, Holger Fröhlich and Julia Lauter, freelance journalists based in Germany, interviewed Lindenthal via Skype and email. Lindenthal spoke about why he protested against the CAA in India and the parallels he sees between the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled India and Germany during the beginning of the Third Reich.

Holger Fröhlich and Julia Lauter: When did you notice that your involvement in the 19 December demonstration has received widespread attention?
Jakob Lindenthal: The day after the rally on campus I was shown pictures on Instagram featuring me. I was the only foreigner at the protest. The big echo only reached me when I was already sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to Germany on 24 December. I did not hear the yelling on Twitter, I did not have an account at that time. But I was aware that a lot of broth would come in when I opened the hatch of my submarine. I am open to criticism, but I don’t waste attention on BJP-funded troll armies. After all, it’s clear what their goal is. The only time I was concerned was on the last day when I received all the press inquiries. I cancelled a photo shoot at some point because I got a little paranoid. I didn’t know who would recognise me on the street and if the police could arrest me eventually.

HF and JL: How did the FRRO approach you?
JL: On 21 December, the FRRO called me in by email. The meeting was then on 23 December. The initial purpose of the meeting was just to clarify a formality regarding an imminent deadline. That was quickly sorted out. Afterwards, we casually talked about politics, also about the CAA. And then, after a short break, I was told that I had to leave the country immediately.

HF and JL: You had no idea that these chats would determine your further stay in the country?
JL: No, it was an informal conversation after the clarification of a matter. I grew up in a liberal constitutional state; I am not used to being sounded out about my views. That reminded me a lot of the GDR [the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, when it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union]. The authorities intended to deport me from the very beginning. I never heard or read anything about that imminent deadline ever again.

HF and JL: How openly did you speak about your political position?
JL: I said that I did not think it was in the spirit of the constitution to make an explicit distinction between religious groups. I also pointed out parallels with Germany. It was a respectful conversation, but the officials also made it increasingly clear to me that I had no right to comment on these issues. They told me that only those who are informed can complain.

HF and JL: What was your response?
JL: That in a democratic pluralistic system it is not so easy to define who is informed and therefore allowed to say something. It was a controversial but academically distanced conversation. The outcome was very surprising to me. My visa is issued for the sole purpose of attending classes. In Germany, however, your visa status only matters to the tax office—it refers to your source of income, not to private commitment. As long as you obey the law, you’re free to protest peacefully. In the Indian perception, this seems to be different.

HF: Has the IIT backed you?
JL: Not at all. Since I heard about the deportation, there has only been one conversation and in it I was asked to leave one day later so that I could still do my paperwork. I did not respond to that. If I was going to be thrown out of the country head over heels, I wanted to be with my family on Christmas Eve and not help the university with the office work. I haven’t heard from the staff since. Maybe they’re on vacation.

The IITM has written an email to the TU Dresden at their request, that from their point of view there is nothing against my return, subject to the permission of entry. I have therefore contacted the Indian embassy in Berlin to inquire whether I can enter India on my currently still-valid student visa. Without a positive response by 24 [January,] I will stay in Germany, because after this time … I will probably not be able to start my semester in a meaningful way.

HF: What was the role of the German embassy?
JL: I immediately reported to the consulate in Chennai after the FRRO meeting. There, they were clearly overwhelmed and advised me to leave the country voluntarily, in order not to be deported. The only thing that is documented in writing now is my hasty departure with an extremely expensive plane ticket one day before Christmas Eve.

HF: Are you taking action against the deportation?
JL: I am having the possibilities of a return examined, but out of Germany I am in a bad position and am dependent on the Indian authorities.

HF: Can you comprehend the criticism of undue interference in Indian domestic politics?
JL: For sure, I can understand it. But it’s not a position I consider valid. There are also nationalists in Germany who say, “We have our country and our affairs that no one else can understand.” That is the typical nationalist’s sermon. You can understand why they say that: it’s better for them if no one from the outside looks over their shoulder. But I don’t share this opinion.

HF: What made you as a foreigner interfere publicly in Indian domestic politics?
JL: For me, resentment against parts of Indian policy making began with the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Cases like that of the war veteran Mohammed Sana Ullah, who was declared a foreigner and sat in detention, shook me awake. This reminded me strongly of how Jewish veterans of the First World War were treated in Germany during the Third Reich. Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore that they had proved to be patriots before. These are dangerous signals. When I heard about the CAA through friends and then read up on it, that was the last straw for me. I was aware that this is an undoubtedly dangerous law. The decision to protest came quickly.

I understood that the law was fundamentally contrary to the Indian Constitution by making a distinction according to religious affiliation. Add to that the combination with the NRC, which makes it very easy to deliberately make large groups of Muslims stateless.

It was like paintball—if everyone hides in the bushes, nobody does anything, but if your opponent comes out of cover, you shoot. With the CAA the case was clear—the government came out of cover. The law has room for an application for which it is not superficially designed and it bears the signature of the Hindu nationalists. Because I could assume that the law would be abused, I had to take to the streets against it.

HF: Did you have any concerns about marching along?
JL: I wouldn’t interfere easily in the domestic politics of another country. It’s a matter of respect. But I have heard so many times from friends how important all support is. I have never been accused of having the presumption of being a foreigner explaining their country to the Indians. I wouldn’t dream of doing that.

HF: Where do you draw the line between tolerance and interference?
JL: If I have to ask myself in five years of time why I didn’t interfere back then, then I have to open my mouth. All I have to do is understand the possible outcomes of the CAA—to be against something evil, I don’t need to know every detail.

HF: Did your socialisation in the land of the holocaust perpetrators also drive you to the streets in Chennai?
JL: Yes, there is a consensus in large parts of Germany that human rights and democracy must be actively supported if they are to be maintained. That is a lesson from our history. It is not enough to say “Never again national socialism!” Whenever there are signs that people are marching in a similar direction again—albeit in a completely different context—and we just say, “I’m sure they mean it differently,” we make the same mistake as before. That was what I wanted to express with my poster which said, “1933–1945 We have been there.” I don’t want to imply to the [Narendra] Modi government that they are fascists throughout. There are people who are doing this. I’m more restrained about that. But I think the tendencies are dangerous and it is definitely worthwhile to raise one’s voice against them.

HF: You have hope of being heard?
JL: The German dictatorship from 1933 to 1945 was also a path of escalation, the course of which could not have been predicted in 1933. But the attitude—“We haven’t seen or heard a thing”—eventually led to war and the Holocaust. We have the possibility to intervene at any time.

HF: What view did you have of India before your arrival?
JL: I was in Rajasthan with friends a year before. To be honest, I didn’t like it socially. I found the high social inequality very distressing. India is somehow still a democracy, but it doesn’t function well. In my eyes, the ruling party does not consider themselves to be 100 percent democratic. If society is always under observation and perhaps even under threat, then this is not a country in which it is unrestrictedly pleasant to live. The IIT Madras is certainly an island of the blessed, so I put up with these circumstances.

HF: How has your view of India changed during your stay? 
JL: It was not a coherent picture. On the one hand, top performances like the Indian space programme. On the other hand, there are slums and the lack of prospects in the countryside. I was surprised how much origin and status shapes the chances [people get]. This is also present in Germany, but not so clearly. From the distance, I had the impression of an independent judiciary and a largely intact democracy. But on site, the feeling of being there was more like how I imagine life in the former GDR during the Cold War.

HF: What do you mean by that?
JL: I had the strong impression that many people no longer want to express themselves publicly on political issues, out of fear. People on campus told me when the IIT student R Sooraj was beaten up by right-wing students for eating beef, the administration of the university repeatedly made it clear that this was not a political act but a private matter. The administration also seems to be afraid to take on the government. I have always perceived an atmosphere of basic tension and concern about surveillance. The constant feeling—better not say anything against the official line, it might backfire on you.

HF: How did you perceive the events in Kashmir in August 2019, when the government of India took away its special status?
JL: I have witnessed the horror that liberal circles in Chennai expressed. But also that there’s so little one can do about it. It frightened me that military operations are hardly ever questioned. And that there is so little tolerance from the government for protests. That was the first time I had the feeling that I could not really see India as a democracy.

HF: Have you noticed any discrimination against Muslims personally?
JL: No, but Tamil Nadu is a relatively developed and liberal state. Well, on campus, Muslims only have a kind of bigger hole in the wall as a prayer room, while Hindus have three temples and even Christians have their own church. But that could have many reasons.

HF: Are you a political person?
JL: Absolutely. In my hometown, Dresden in eastern Germany, I am active with the Green Party. But I am not a classic left-wing Green—I stand behind necessary military operations.

HF: How often are you at demonstrations?
JL: Rather rarely—at home, about three times a year, mostly to counter demonstrations against right-wing extremists. On the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden by the Allies on 13 February 1945, there are always demonstrations by neo-Nazis. I am traditionally on the opposite side, because I reject this kind of sacrificial cult.

HF: Would you recommend India to other exchange students?
JL: I had hoped India would be a democratic state, but, at present, I can only put it on a par with China. If you go to this country, and to a state university in particular, you have to accept that rights will be restricted and that you will live in an illiberal atmosphere.

HF: Do you want to go back to India?
JL: I’d love to. Academically, it was not outstanding, but I built up a network of friends there and really enjoyed life on campus. If I could, I’d fly back next week. But if that is only on the condition that I cannot say that I am clearly against the CAA, it would be a major conflict for me to which I do not yet have an answer.

HF: Would you do it all over again?
JL: Maybe I would try to support the protest more off the street, to avoid personal persecution. Then again, maybe I’d do the same thing again. At the core, it is important to me to signal my support and contribute effectively. Otherwise, the effect would have been exactly the same as in the GDR at that time, which kept citizens from taking to the streets for so long.

This interview has been translated, edited and condensed.