“Agar sadan unki hai, toh sadak tumhari hai”—If the parliament is theirs, the street is yours. Afaq Haider, a student of the Jamia Millia Islamia, a public central university in Delhi, was urging other students to be prepared for a long fight against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The doctoral scholar, who addressed the crowd from an elevated platform next to the main gate of the JMI, said that this was a fight for the protection of the Constitution and not for or against any religion. Haider asked the students to be proud of the fact that the Muslim community, which has no support from political parties or mainstream media, had led the charge.
It was 14 December, the second day of a protest by students of JMI against the Citizenship Act that had been signed into law two days ago. The act will facilitate Indian citizenship for migrants based on their religion. Members of the Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Hindu communities from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh—would be granted citizenship, provided they entered India before 31 December 2014. Migrants from the Muslim communities of these countries will not be entitled to benefits under the act, and will continue to be considered as illegal immigrants. Many of the students I spoke to believe the act is a precursor to a nation-wide implementation of the National Register of Citizens—which will be used as a tool to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship. The union home minister Amit Shah has repeatedly asserted the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s resolve to enumerate a pan-India NRC.
The day before, the students of JMI had declared that they would march to the parliament to protest against the act. Shaheen Abdullah, a journalism student, told me, “The whole idea of marching towards the parliament was to make the legislators know that we are against the act, while the house was still in session.” As the students assembled, they were joined by local residents—JMI is located in Okhla, a Muslim-majority assembly constituency of Delhi. The march resulted in a clash with the Delhi Police, who had erected barricades and lathi charged the students as they reached the blockade. The police then used teargas to disperse the crowd. Multiple eyewitnesses told me that the use of force by the police was unprovoked and unilateral. The police also entered the campus and beat up several students, including Abdullah. He was detained by the police, along with 41 other students, and all of them were released late that evening.
Rameesh EK, a doctoral scholar, told me the protest had begun with the simple idea of marching to the parliament. He said that since it is a student-led protest, there was no long-term goal and they expected the protest to evolve as it goes. The protests were not being led by any one student organisation, but by several small student bodies. However, before the students could clearly articulate their plan of action, the police cracked down on the marchers with an aggressive display of force. Ironically, the police action seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect.