They are assertive, resolute and articulate. They are attracting admirers and getting noticed by their detractors. They are India’s new Muslim youth leaders fighting injustice and inequality.
Since India’s Hindu nationalist-dominated Parliament passed a law that grants citizenship to refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as long as they are not Muslim, there have been protests across the country demanding its repeal.
The movement against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed in December 2019, gathered momentum after protesting students faced a brutal police response.
Delhi police’s beating of students at Jamia Millia Islamia, one of India’s top universities, in the initial days of what became a national anti-CAA movement was the catalyst for the famous Shaheen Bagh protest in the city.
When Jamia protesters were assaulted, a group of women from the Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh came out of their homes, occupied a part of the main road and did not leave the site for 101 days.
The sit-in inspired similar protests not only in Delhi but in many states and energized the 200 million-strong Muslim community to demand an end to discriminatory state policies. Shaheen Bagh became a symbol of the anti-CAA movement. Activists and leaders belonging to different backgrounds and faiths considered it a matter of prestige to speak from its platform.
On some days, Shaheen Bagh received tens of thousands of people, including those who came out of curiosity to see how a group of women had organized such a large protest that went on around the clock.
It became a thorn in the government’s side and was reviled by various Hindu nationalist groups and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders.
Then came the coronavirus. Since then, everything has changed for the mass movement. What has not changed is the disdain Hindu nationalists hold for the leaders and activists who oppose the citizenship act, which critics say flouts India’s constitution that grants equal rights to people of all religions.
The coronavirus risk led to the thinning of crowds at Shaheen Bagh, and finally the site was cleared by police on March 24 when there were just a few protesters left, in the new era of social distancing.
Another nonstop protest at Jamia Millia Islamia was dismantled in a similar fashion.
Delhi police were meticulous in removing graffiti, painted slogans, posters and other signs of protest.
Now the police are using the opportunity provided by the sweeping restrictions on public movement during the pandemic to victimize high-profile campaigners and activists. Among them are Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, both research scholars at Jamia Millia Islamia.
Kafeel Khan, Sharjeel Imam and Khalid Saifi were arrested before the coronavirus lockdown. “The anti-CAA movement has produced new, articulate and fearless leaders. They refuse to remain silent spectators to the Muslim community’s oppression and marginalization. The authorities want to create a climate of fear by intimidating us,” said Afreen Fatima, who has campaigned against the controversial law.
“Whether the Congress party or the BJP, the successive governments in India have treated Muslims as second-class citizens. The new citizenship law will be further used to take away the basic rights of Muslims. We demand self-respect and dignity as equal citizens of the country,” she said.
Kafeel Khan, a medical doctor who became famous for going the extra mile to save children at a government hospital lacking enough oxygen supplies, has faced problems since 2017.
He was vocal about the children’s deaths at the hospital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and lost his job. He organized medical aid for the needy, spoke out against lynchings of Muslims by Hindu fanatics and added his voice to the anti-CAA movement.
Khalid Saifi is one of the founding members of the United Against Hate group, which has led protests against mob lynchings. Being at the forefront of the anti-CAA campaign did not endear him to the powers that be.
It must be understood why India’s Muslims are so bitterly opposed to the CAA, which the government says only gives citizenship to the non-Muslim refugees who have come to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The BJP government told Parliament that minorities faced persecution in the three countries.
Indian Muslims wouldn’t have bothered with the CAA if things were really as straightforward as claimed by the BJP, whose role in the Babri Masjid demolition by Hindutva mobs in 1992 is not forgotten by the community.
For the record, non-Muslims have received Indian citizenship in huge numbers since the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. So, the question is, why the new law if the Indian government never felt hobbled in giving foreigners citizenship before?
The Muslim community, comprising about 15% of India’s 1.35 billion-strong population, as well as others who oppose the CAA, point out that when the law is implemented in conjunction with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), it may render many people stateless, as happened in Assam, the northeastern Indian state.
Considering the size of India, global implications of what might happen are far greater than the bloodbath that took place in the Balkans or Rwanda. The NRC, for example, has been implemented in Assam with disastrous results. About 1.9 million people have become non-citizens and many have been put in detention centers.
At the anti-CAA protests, dummies of detention centers were erected to hammer home the point that the CAA was a sinister move irrespective of its popularity among the BJP’s radical supporters.
A BJP politician opposed to anti-CAA protests is blamed for igniting anti-Muslim violence in northeast Delhi, coinciding with U.S. President Donald Trump’s India visit in February. Dozens of people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands fled their homes in the orgy of violence.
It was reminiscent of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 in Delhi, the anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993 and the Gujarat carnage of 2002.
I visited some violence-hit places of Delhi along with a few journalists on Feb. 26, and after surveying the area and talking to people there, it was clear that India’s law and order machinery had failed to prevent and control the situation. As often happens in India, organized and armed mobs killed innocent people and looted and destroyed property without any fear of punishment.
Also on Feb. 26, I called Saifi, one of the arrested activists, to inquire about the situation in the violence-hit areas. On the few occasions I had met him before, I found him knowledgeable, smart, sharp and media-friendly.
“The situation is so bad that a court had to intervene (on the night of Feb. 25) to ask police to allow ambulances to evacuate the injured from Al Hind Hospital in the Mustafabad area,” he told me.
I learned later that police arrested him and he was tortured in their custody.
“We demand the immediate release of Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Sharjeel Imaam, Khalid Saifi and others. There should be an end to this illegitimate targeting of political activists in search of excuses to blame Muslims for the northeast Delhi riots,” said Maskoor Ahmad Usmani, a strong anti-CAA voice.
He is part of the Unite for Change group of volunteers who distribute food aid to poor families left without the means to survive the harsh coronavirus lockdown in India.
“Both Meeran and Safoora have been strong critics of the current government and are now being targeted for their political activity. The targeting of random innocent Muslim youth and of activists who have played leading roles in the anti-NRC protests is being carried out openly, while the actual rioters and mobs have been left to return to their routine lives,” Usmani said.
The coronavirus restrictions mean that supporters of the arrested activists cannot do much for them apart from talking to the media or expressing their anger and frustration online.
“It is an apt time for the police. It is very strategic on their part to arrest people because we cannot come out into the streets physically to organize solidarity actions. The BJP has shown that it doesn’t care about the pandemic and won’t hesitate to use the coronavirus situation to pursue its hate agenda and propaganda against Muslims,” Fatima said.
The message is clear: The new generation of Muslim leaders cannot be manipulated or bullied easily.