NEW DELHI – Tens of thousands of Indians have taken to the streets to voice their anger over a new citizenship law that they say discriminates against the minority Muslim community.
But it is not just Muslims who are protesting — majority Hindus, low-caste Dalits and Parsis are joining in to show their solidarity and condemn the legislation across the country of 1.3 billion people.
The law allows people of six religions from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan an easier path to citizenship but not if they are Muslim.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, facing its biggest test since sweeping to power in 2014 — with at least 25 people killed in almost two weeks of protests — insists the law is not discriminatory.
AFP spoke to five protesters at a demonstration in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Kersi, a 32-year-old Parsi who works in the tech sector joined the march called by students from Jamia Millia Islamia University where police smashed into the campus and tear-gassed students following violent protests earlier this month.
Kersi, who gave only one name, said he was worried because the country’s secular foundations had been shaken like never before. “There is a secular foundation to our constitution, there is an element of multiculturalism, pluralism, that is at the core of the country’s ethos and which differentiates it from other countries,” he said.
“The new law threatens it more than anything in the past. It’s a step too far. It’s a fundamental change they are trying to impose which I don’t agree with and which we should try and prevent.”
Mansi, 29, an upper-caste Hindu who has settled in the U.S. but was in Delhi on holiday, was accompanied by her 64-year-old father, who was carrying a cutout of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a revered social reformer and architect of India’s Constitution.
“There have been laws in the past that have been extremely controversial, but what they are trying to do now is alter the right to citizenship, which sits at the foundation of democracy,” she said. “This, according to me, is much too far-reaching than any single law affecting any single community. You are altering the identity of the nation and by definition who gets to exercise their vote to decide the future of the country. It is the moral responsibility of the majority to stand up for the marginalized minorities.”
Nandini, a professor at Delhi University who is a Hindu, said she was appalled by the alleged police brutality against students of Jamia University and wanted to show that she was standing up for them.
“I feel enough is enough. It is important that we are given the space to express our dissent. It doesn’t mean we are anti-state. We are actually asking the state to bring in policies that are equal for all and not divisive and discriminatory,” she said.
Pranav Yadav, 20, a student from one of India’s lower-caste communities, lied to his parents and joined the protest march because he “could not simply sit at home and do nothing when my country is under attack from fascist forces.”
“It’s a sort of a systematic plan to attack Muslims in India. Whenever the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, they have one basic agenda of targeting Muslims.
“Basically it’s like one leader having a target community and getting the majority to support that idea — like Hitler did with Jews, or the way Myanmar is doing to Rohingya Muslims.”
“After the Muslims, they can target against any other community they feel like. All they need is a scapegoat, and right now Muslims seem to be the perfect scapegoat.”
Promila Chaturvedi, a 79-year-old upper-caste Hindu, said it is important to speak up against injustice even though she “does not have much energy now.”
“I want to protect my constitution. I want to show my solidarity with the Muslim community. We want to tell them, ‘We are with you, till the last drop of our blood,'” said Chaturvedi, her feather-soft white hair tied in a bun.
“This can be compared to our freedom struggle but this is more important because they (British) were outsiders but these are our own people. If they behave like this we won’t tolerate.”