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India is cracking down on university protests. Here’s what you need to know.

The rising opposition to the government’s tough response may bring out even larger crowds.

- January 9, 2020

The Indian government’s crackdown on protesters across the country has resulted in 25 deaths in recent weeks — a stark contrast to the two confirmed deaths in the Hong Kong protests over six months. The crackdown has been particularly harsh against peaceful protests at three of India’s leading universities: Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

On Dec. 15, police fired bullets at unarmed citizens in Jamia, and some AMU students went missing after the police assault. On Jan. 5, masked people indiscriminately beat up teachers and students in JNU — sending at least 30 people to the hospital as police stationed on campus reportedly stood by.

What’s going on at India’s universities? And what has been the public’s response?

1. Many universities are protesting the new citizenship law

These protests are a response to the Dec. 11 Citizenship Amendment Act. The CAA and a proposal for national registration of all citizens (NRC) led to countrywide fears that the government would discriminate against Muslim minorities. To many in India, these two moves suggest that Muslims will bear the burden of proving that they are not from neighboring countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh.

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Protests began in AMU on Dec. 9 and in Jamia on Dec. 13. Both are Muslim universities protected under the Indian constitution’s mandate that allows minorities to “establish and administer” their own educational institutions. A majority of their student populations are Muslim, so the protests were particularly salient to their respective academic communities. However, their religious identity probably made these protesters targets for the BJP-led Hindu right-wing government.

In a Dec. 16 speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that Muslims protesting against the CAA were violent and could be identified “by their clothes.” As a response, demonstrators at Jamia included groups of students protesting with bare chests to show the commonness of humanity — without their symbolic garb, protesters aren’t Muslims but Indian students, teachers and citizens.

2. Fee hikes also have brought protests

Students at JNU in New Delhi have been protesting not only the CAA but also a fee hike announced last October. They are angry that the higher fees would hinder the enrollment of students from lower castes and low-income segments of Indian society. A majority of the students decided not to officially register for the new semester, which was supposed to begin Jan. 6, until the issue is resolved.

The Jan. 5 attack on JNU protesters appears to be a government-sanctioned crackdown on a peace gathering that the JNU Teacher’s Association had organized. The meeting was meant to restore peaceful dialogue on campus with the news of rising fights between students regarding whether registration should proceed.

While JNU is not a minority educational institution, both faculty and students at the university have a long history of criticizing government policies, regardless of the party in power. JNU alumni include the current external affairs minister, finance minister, a sizable portion of the Indian Administrative Service — and one of the 2019 Nobel laureates in economics, Abhijit Banerjee, who works on global poverty issues.

Nonetheless, India’s BJP government has labeled JNU an “anti-national” institution filled with “Urban Naxals,” or insurgents. Analysts see these attacks as the government’s attempt to distract from a string of policy failures — resulting in rising unemployment and an economic downturn — that run contrary to the BJP’s election promise of achhe din (prosperous times). The government appears to be rallying support by demonizing criticism from universities as anti-national.

3. How has the Indian government dealt with these protests?

The protests criticizing the CAA in AMU and Jamia began as peaceful responses — protesters employed Gandhian tactics of hunger strikes and boycotts. On Dec. 15, the police forcefully entered the Jamia campus and beat up protesters, including students and teachers. They also used tear gas and rubber bullets.

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Following the news of the Jamia attack, AMU students gathered that day in solidarity with the Jamia protesters. The police fired tear gas shells and stun grenades at the AMU assembly, with as many as 100 people suffering injuries.

In contrast, the police reportedly refused to enter JNU to control the violence against teachers and students, despite multiple calls from students and teachers during the Jan. 5 attack requesting urgent police assistance to restore law and order. In fact, the police escorted the masked and armed attackers safely off campus and let them go free, leading to suspicions that the police had instructions to not harm them. In the aftermath, police have made no arrests in the JNU attack.

Protesters also claim that armed personnel hindered medical assistance for the injured at AMU, while masked individuals hampered efforts to help those attacked on the JNU campus. The Indian Medical Association unequivocally condemned the prevention of access to medical care and the intimidation of medical personnel.

The police involved in the Jamia and JNU attacks fall under the command of the BJP-led federal government. The BJP-led state government controls the police forces who responded at AMU. All three instances suggest that India’s government is willing to actively suppress protests, as well as passively allow individuals and groups outside formal political channels to enact violence with impunity.

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4. The public’s reaction: Expect large-scale solidarity protests

The harsh assaults on these campuses has led to solidarity protests across the country. At least 29 major universities and colleges have launched their own protests against the violence. Students held peaceful demonstrations even in the largest city of Gujarat, Ahmedabad — the state that Modi ruled for 13 years and where the BJP has been in power for nearly 22 years.

General public protests in solidarity with the three universities have emerged from the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai to Indian embassies and consulates around the world. The Supreme Court’s Bar Association condemned the JNU attack and the accompanying police inaction.

A nationwide general strike on Jan. 8 was explicitly anti-government and also in support of the universities targeted by violence. There were an estimated 250 million participants nationwide, including trade unions, student unions and farmers.

Given the government’s intransigence and the rising opposition to the government’s tough response to protesters, the next few weeks are likely to witness continued protests — perhaps some of the largest national gatherings in independent India’s history.

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Shubha Kamala Prasad (@Shubha186) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Her research examines domestic sources of foreign policy, spanning insurgencies to diaspora mobilization.