Not just CAA, it’s a struggle against authoritarianism: Academics unite against police brutality

On 15 December, the Delhi Police detained over fifty students of the Jamia Millia Islamia and forced the unarmed students to march to the vans waiting outside the campus with their hands drawn up, treating them as criminals. The police had forcibly entered the campus, lathi charged students who were protesting peacefully and lobbed tear-gas shells at them. Adnan Abidi/Reuters
21 December, 2019

Over a week after the Indian government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, university campuses across the country are doubling down on their opposition to the legislation. The controversial act has been variously described as draconian, discriminatory, bigoted or downright unconstitutional. While the currents protests against the act first began in Assam, on 4 December, before the bill was passed into law, student protests gained momentum 13 December onwards—the day after the act came into force. Over the next three days, as campus after campus declared their defiance, several states, most of them ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, unleashed their police forces on students protesting peacefully. This included Delhi too—the Delhi Police comes under central rule and reports to the ministry of home affairs, helmed by Amit Shah.

By late evening on 16 December, as reports of the crackdowns and students accounts of police brutality reached nationwide, at least forty universities across 17 states had joined the resistance. That day, a statement of solidarity “condemning the recent police action and brutalization of students at Jamia Millia University and Aligarh Muslim University” started to circulate in various international academic networks.

In Delhi, the Jamia Millia Islamia had borne the brunt of police action—two consecutive days of lathi charges and tear-gas shelling—while the Aligarh Muslim University, in Uttar Pradesh also witnessed similar police atrocities. Other campuses were also policed, but nothing compared to what the students of JMI and AMU endured. Nivedita Menon, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a signatory, told me, “It’s very clear that the students of Jamia and AMU are being targeted as Muslims—as Muslims who do not have the same rights that Hindus have.”

By 18 December, the statement had gathered 10,293 signatories from over 1,100 universities, colleges and academic institutions across the world. Scholars from every major academic institution in India, including JNU, Delhi University, all the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, among many others from every state in India have signed the solidarity statement. According to Aarti Sethi, a fellow at Harvard University, in the United States and a signatory, “The number of signatories in such a short time, from so many places and affiliations, speaks to the outrage and horror that the national and international academic community feels at the unmitigated violence unleashed by police.” She added that the overwhelming support from academics working and living in India “shows the depth of resistance to this attack across the university community” in the country. She dismissed the government’s claims that only a few universities were making trouble. Sethi said, “What is happening is that scholars and teachers across the entire country are watching in horror as the govt wages a war on the fundamental principles of the university and the constitution.”

Judith Butler, a US-based philosopher and gender theorist who also signed the statement, echoed Sethi. “The struggle right now is against this racist law, but it is also for both academic freedom and freedom of speech, critical thought and the rights of dissent,” she told me. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have countered critics of CAA by claiming that it will protect minority migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Butler said that the law, which is “meant to offer protection to people from neighboring countries from persecution, is itself persecutory.” According to her, the CAA “establishes Muslims as undesirable, and sends a clear message to Muslim citizens that their own rights are imperiled.”

Priyamvada Gopal, a faculty member at the Cambridge University in England, wrote to me stating that the CAA is, “if you use the language of the Hindu Right, more ‘anti-national’ than those they accuse of being anti-national: it’s an attack on the Constitution of India.” According to Gopal, “Without the Constitution, there is no modern India—you have attacked the very basis of the nation-state.” Suvir Kaul, another signatory and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, told me that the CAA “is not surprising as it is one more step in the establishment of a de facto and de jure Hindu-majoritarian state.” Rahul Roy, a signatory from the Indian Statistical Institute considered the CAA “an insult to the citizens of this country,” but he did not have much hope of the centre backing down in the face of such widespread protests. “I don’t expect such a cynical and fundamentalist government to take any action,” he said.

Menon was of the opinion that the CAA is a precursor to an all-India National Register of Citizens. Amit Shah, the union home minister, has publicly stated that the government plans to introduce the NRC across India. “Every single Muslim in this country comes into question,” she said, adding that the NRC is the “cake” and CAA is the “icing.” Menon did not expect the BJP government to let go of its divisive agenda either. “The home minister has said things—the Congress is responsible, the Maoists are responsible, and urban Naxals are responsible. They are simply refusing to accept that there is a massive mass-grassroots upsurge against the NRC.” While she expected the “resistance to redouble,” she also expected the “repression to redouble everywhere.” Kaul framed the police actions at JMI and AMU as the government’s determination to enforce its majoritarian instinct and said that the BJP “will target Muslim-identified institutions in particular to [give] effect their aims.”

The signatories I spoke to viewed the police crackdown on dissent as a marker of an authoritarian state trying to bolster its legitimacy by crushing any contrarian views. According to Gopal, the use of indiscriminate force against students was symptomatic of “rising naked authoritarianism—and the fear that underlies authoritarian rule, fear that the populace will rise against power.” She continued, “The lockdown in Kashmir is clear indication that they fear the power of the idea of azadi. You use repression when you are unsure about your own moral legitimacy. A legitimate cause to which people consent has no need of security forces and weapons.”

Kaul, too, drew the parallel with Kashmir. “These are crackdowns (a word made familiar by military and police excesses in Kashmir) that are designed to destroy opposition, on campus and elsewhere,” he wrote. “We know what they are doing in Kashmir, and those methods are being extended to deal with protestors across the nation.” Another signatory, Gyan Prakash, who is a professor at Princeton University in the United States, felt that “crackdowns on such spaces are signs of a creeping authoritarianism, of a form of governance that fears free expression.”

In the past five years, various public universities across the country have seen protests against the government’s policies. “The public university system has been one where students do raise their voices,” Sethi said. But the protests in recent years have often encountered high-handedness by the authorities. Sethi noted that an “India-wide suspicion” is being spread about universities. “Young students are being called anti-national, being hounded as enemies of the nation, being hounded for sedition.” Ania Loomba, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explained, “As we know from history, authoritarian regimes need to curb academic freedom and that has really terrible effects long term on the health of education in any country.”

Several signatories believed that the clampdowns on universities are meant to alter the fabric of higher education in India. Sethi said, “Somewhere, the message is being sent that university students must not engage with the larger questions that they are facing in the world.” According to Kaul, the aim of such crackdowns is to create “a climate of unquestioning mediocrity within our universities,” where no one examines “difficult ideas that challenge the narrow, sectarian definitions of a Hindu India that this government wishes to perpetuate.” However, Prakash hit a quietly optimistic note. “It says something of the students’ deep democratic convictions that they have seen through the ruse and are standing up for fundamental principles to democracy.”

Almost all the signatories I spoke to said that there seem to be various parallels between the situation in India and that of other countries. Sheldon Pollock, a professor at Columbia University in the United States, wrote that “I fear for Indian democracy; indeed, I fear for democracy everywhere.” Gopal said, “We are facing a worldwide surge of retrograde rightwing authoritarians in government who are, as it happens, linked in many ways: Netanyahu, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro et al are allies of each other.” Loomba echoed Gopal and added that this link between right-wing regimes ought to be replicated in counter movements, too, as it “is so important for those opposed to them to also come together.” Noam Chomsky, a linguist and philosopher, called for solidarity and wrote, “It’s a very dangerous development and should be protested worldwide.”

Menon said that neither the repression nor the mass resistance surprise her. “But I think you cannot hold a country down through repression permanently so I think it’s the beginning of the end for this regime as well,” she said. “Well, I hope it’s the beginning of the end of this regime as well.”