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Professors discuss impact of Indian laws, resulting protests

| Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In mid-December, protests erupted in India over a law passed by the county’s parliament. In order to discuss these developments, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies hosted a panel called “India’s Winter of Protest” in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall on Monday. The panel consisted of three professors with different viewpoints and focuses regarding the protests to speak about the law’s impact within India.

Susan Ostermann, an assistant professor of global affairs, gave legal background on the protests. The conflict actually arises from two different laws passed at different times. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December of 2019, sparked the protests by slowing down the citizenship process for Muslim refugees. The real issue, she said, comes from a law passed in 2003 in the Indian state of Assam — the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which requires all Indian citizens to register in order to identify illegal immigrants.

“Alongside the CAA and, in fact, a trigger of it is the National Register of Citizens … The NRC implementation in Assam has resulted in 1.9 million people present in India, claiming to be citizens, not meeting the documentary requirement for the act of registration,” Ostermann said.

Ostermann said the two laws in tandem could be used by the ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to attack Muslim residents of the country.

“Many are worried that the NRC will be essentially used to strip individuals born in India or otherwise rightfully Indian citizens of their citizenship, and then the CAA will be used to deport them,” she said.

Assistant professor of history Nikhil Menon spoke of the distrust between the BJP and Muslim citizens in India, including party members who “have questioned [Muslims’] loyalty to India, have associated them with terrorists in Kashmir or with crimes against Hindus.”

Menon also called attention to three points of historical iconography used by the protestors and why they are so effective.

“The three main tangents on which the symbols have been arranged have been that, one, the nationalist heroes of India’s past would have been on the side of the protesters; two, to use symbols of religious pluralism to suggest that the majority is on the side of minorities; … and three — which I think is the most curious — the protestors have in some ways wrapped themselves with the flag and the constitution,” Menon said. “I think by using these three kinds of iconography, the protestors are able to argue that, call them what you might, you cannot call these protestors anti-nationalist.”

Julia Kowalski, an assistant professor of global affairs, focused on how gender plays a role in these protests, specifically on the dadis, or older women, of the Muslim neighborhood Shaheen Bahg in New Delhi.

“I’m a cultural anthropologist, so when I approach issues like this, I often ask how people are remaking longstanding, interpretive categories,” she said.

The women protesting in Shaheen Bahg have been focusing on peaceful messages to all Indians, as shown in their slogan #GoliNahiPhool, or “Not bullets, flowers.” They have sat uninterrupted for 50 days and were recently fired on by a Hindu vigilante.

This particular subsection of the protests, Kowalski said, exemplifies “not only the importance of the gender identity of the protesters … but how also the category of gender intersects with citizenship and religion.”

Kowalski explained these protesters are using their traditional gender stereotypes — welcoming and domestic — to combat the largely male group of Hindu aggressors.

“In pulling out these connections and kinship across social difference, these dadis are also responding to aggressively austere models of masculinity that inform the Hindu right,” she said.

Kowalski said she saw promise for the future in the protests, citing specifically the small cardboard “constitution houses” social activists have began passing out. 

“Over the door is written, ‘Secular: This house belongs to people of all religions,’” Kowalski said.

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