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As Modi pushes Hindu agenda, a secular India fights back

Protesters gathered by the Jama Masjid mosque at a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law in New Delhi on Friday.
Protesters gathered by the Jama Masjid mosque at a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law in New Delhi on Friday. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

NEW DELHI — Wearing Muslim skullcaps, colorful turbans of Indian Sikhs, or hip beanies of secular university students, thousands protested at the largest mosque in India’s capital Friday, a turbulent scene that played out in multiple cities across the country. They defied government curfews, Internet shutdowns, and the divisive politics that have kept them apart for years.

The unrest, now in its second week and increasingly violent, started over a contentious citizenship law that favors every other South Asian faith over Islam. It has since evolved into a broader fight over what demonstrators said is an increasingly authoritarian government bent on dismantling India’s foundation: a secular nation that draws strength from its diversity.

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“You just needed a trigger,” said Jasbir Singh, a Sikh information technology worker who joined the protests in Bangalore this past week. “In India, religion never decided your citizenship, and it should not in the future.”

More and more people are pouring into the streets, and many have clashed with police officers. On Friday, six protesters were killed in several towns in northern India, according to officials and Indian news media reports, as officers used water cannons, tear gas, wooden sticks, and possibly live ammunition against the demonstrators. At least 14 lives have been lost since the first protests erupted.

The protests have emerged as the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his agenda. His governing Bharatiya Janata Party has not shied away from articulating its vision of India as a homeland for Hindus.

Modi has tried to play down the diversity of the crowds, describing protesters last Sunday as disgruntled Muslims and saying that they could be “identified by their clothes.” But the anger over the law is widespread, with Indians of various political stripes, creeds, and backgrounds worried that one religion could become dominant.

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It has galvanized university students, mirroring a pushback against conservative forces around the world. It has drawn in activists, intellectuals, and professionals, continuing a long tradition of protests in India.

Protesters are also growing tired of Modi’s sectarianism as the economy sputters. At the polls, some Indians had put aside their apprehension of the prime minister, attracted to his economic plans. The country’s growth rate has now fallen to its lowest level in six years.

“A lot of people voted for Modi because of the economic issues and corruption. Now the economy is in real bad shape, and corruption has not gone down,” said Aadhira Gaikwad, 26, an advertising professional who protested in Mumbai. “All he is doing is using religion to hide under the real issues.’’

For India’s Muslim population, the protests are deeply personal. Muslims have watched the rise of Hindu nationalism under Modi with a wary eye.

Dozens of Muslims have been lynched by angry Hindu mobs, with the perpetrators often walking free. The country’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, was stripped of its autonomy in August, and thousands of young men and elected politicians were detained without being charged.

Until now, Muslims had largely remained quiet, hoping that sectarian relations could be restored. But when the government passed the citizenship law this month, many felt they had to mobilize or risk losing even more.

“We are at a tipping point now,” said Mohammad Abduzar, 26, from Merut in Uttar Pradesh state. “When Kashmir happened, no one questioned our citizenship. But how much longer do we have? How much further can this government push the envelope?”

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Many Muslims fear that they could be stripped of their nationality. Along with the new law, the government also plans to expand a citizenship check nationwide. Those tests would force Indians to produce land deeds, birth certificates, and other documents to prove their lineage in the country.

Panic recently set in when Abduzar and his father, Ahmad Abduzar, realized that their names were misspelled on a school certificate and a passport. For years they had viewed the mistakes as nothing more than a nuisance, so commonplace that even bureaucrats dismissed the errors as the sloppy work of government clerks.

Now such blunders could render them stateless. When the test was applied this fall in Assam State, about 2 million of its 33 million people failed.

The new citizenship law would protect Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, Buddhists, and Jains who fail such checks. But Muslims, India’s second-largest religious group at 200 million, would be excluded.