The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is not about just Muslims but effects anyone who is attached to India, says Anjali Arondekar, Director of the Center for South Asian Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, and among the 300 signatories opposing the recent attack on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, the implementation of CAA and concerned about the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Talking to indica Arondekar explained that the CAA that went into effect Jan. 10 and the JNU attack are clearly connected, and the escalation of unhitched violence against students at JNU makes it even more pressing for us to link the two events together, which they obviously were.
“It directly impacts us as we work in academia,” said Arondekar, expressing concern, especially since the abrogation of Article 370, and the increased violation of civil liberties in Kashmir.
The professor added that the situation at JNU carries great weight for her precisely because of the threat it poses to the future of public education in South Asia, and in the world at large.
“The unprecedented attack against students at JNU amplifies the concerns scholars have been expressing since the discriminatory citizenship registry efforts began in Assam,” said Arondekar, who has a Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A., from Cornell University
“We have been writing letters that stridently state there needs to be a connection made between the escalation and abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, to population registration in Assam and now to CAA. There is clear guiding thread, so it would be wrong to say the letter is just about recent JNU attack,” she said.
It is important to not just focus on JNU but recall that the energy of the movement has been galvanized by the events taking place all over India, especially in Kashmir and Assam. JNU has become an inspiring flashpoint for us all because of its national reputation, because of its status as a celebrated public university. And because it’s a public university, it provides a wonderful microcosm of what a secular, democratic India can be… as students who attend the university cut across class, region, genders, and caste. And you see this diversity reflected in the students leading the protests” she added.
Citing the example of Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University, she emphasized that many of the protests were spearheaded by students (especially Dalit/Bahujan and female Muslim students) who hailed from small cities other than Delhi. As such, it would be false to assume that these are elite protests run by elite students, but more that the protests are truly a movement spearheaded by students from all parts of India.
When asked if this is a new India, Arondekar said, “No, not at all. This is not a new India. This is the India that has always been around, but the last 10 years of the rise of BJP has made it impossible for this India to shine.”
Referring to the Jan. 8 mass strike by 250 million people hosted by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and raising demands against the brutal policies of the Modi government, Arondekar emphasized that these mass strikes and movements are focused on unity rather than division.
However, on the CAA topic she highlighted a key issue that has been missing from the discussion: the religious rights of Adivasi and tribal communities who are equally vulnerable under the new CAA. Almost 8 percent of the Indian population belongs to tribal and Adivasi community, and they all have different religious and spiritual practices that do not have the same religious protections as majority religions.
“I think the challenge here is to remember that this is not a singular explosion of resistance. It’s part of a broader canvas of resistance that’s happening across India and has been triggered by the rise of a draconian government that refuses to hear the voices of their minority communities but instead wants to legalize discrimination against them. That’s the most important thing,” said Arondekar.
“JNU is just the cover story, and there are many more stories that are equally important. The picture is very complex, and what we are trying to do through the letter is asking for an immediate action. And we are trying to say this comes up after a long history, the shutdown of our freedom by this government.”
When asked about the CAA being law, she said, “Yes, it is, but I won’t say nothing will change … but something has already changed, and will continue to change.”
There is clearly much excitement, energy not just within students, but across swathes of the population that may have previously not been interested in politics.
“Remember, many middle-class people have attended these universities,” she said. “They may not get impacted, but their children are getting arrested, and then they have to pay attention. So, you are activating multiple layers of the population. In a way it’s unprecedented.”
“CAA might not be overturned, but we are watching the beginning of a movement that is not going to stop. Shaheen Bagh has created a mass movement of women protestors across the country, again with Muslim women leading the charge. We are in week five, and every single day the protest continues. Every single day, even IITians have raised their voice, and so it’s not just the left, its everybody,” she said.
JNU is the microcosm of what diversity can look like in India if it’s allowed to flourish, Arondekar said.. It’s a public university that gets students from everywhere from across classes across gender across caste, across religion and provides affordable education. Even before the attack at JNU, students had already been protesting because their fees had been hiked up extraordinarily. Many young folks who were previously eligible suddenly found out that they were not able to afford a JNU education because of the fee hike, she said.
When asked by indica how she defines this government, she replied, “It’s a Hindu-right, majoritarian government. There is no doubt that their agenda is to create a Hindu-rashtra.
“CAA came into effect on Friday, January 10, so it’s a law, yes, but we have had many repressive laws in India which at some point or the other have been overturned.”
What will happen now is that once the law is on the books and fully institutionalized, Arondekar said she believes, people will have to continue to be creative on how to push back. “And I think one of the ways in which we can do it is by national strikes.”
“Modi cannot run away from the fact that the economy is de-escalating and that we are not investing in things like education,” she said. Even people who previously voted for Modi recognize that the economy is flailing. The lack of jobs, dismal health care, abysmal education systems are factors that can no longer be ignored. For instance, did the government really need to expend crores of rupees in registry in Assam? Instead, these monies could have easily been used to assist those in desperate economic need in India. So, yes, let’s focus on JNU and the massive inspiring protest movement growing in India, but let’s not forget that the failure of the economy is very much part of this growing story.