Over little more than a year, hundreds of Indian scientists have repeatedly come together to express concern about the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir, its attempt to redefine citizenship and its persecution of dissident intellectuals. The Indian scientific community has historically been reluctant to intervene in broader social debates. So, the fact that so many scientists have felt compelled to speak out highlights the Modi government’s divisive agenda and its impact on the Indian academic community.
In late 2019, about 2,000 scientists issued a statement criticizing the enactment of a new Indian law, called the “Citizenship Amendment Act” (CAA). The CAA was ostensibly designed to provide citizenship to refugees who had fled religious persecution in India’s neighboring countries. But it carefully restricted its benefits to the “Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community.” This list excludes Muslims—even though Islam is the second-largest religion in India, and despite the fact that millions of Muslims, such as those from the Ahmadiyya community, have suffered for their religious beliefs in neighboring countries.
The government disingenuously claimed that the CAA was designed only to grant citizenship and therefore did not affect existing Indian citizens. But the act must be placed in the context of the government’s repeated promises to create a “National Register of Citizens” (NRC) and ensure that “every infiltrator is thrown out of the country.” When a similar exercise to “weed out illegal immigrants” was carried out in the state of Assam, 1.9 million people, comprising 6 percent of the state’s population, were unable to provide documentation proving their citizenship.
The government has already started updating the “National Population Register” that, as it earlier explained, is “the first step towards the creation” of the NRC. This has led to legitimate fears that Indian Muslims will face discriminatory treatment. The concern is that the provisions of the CAA will be used as a pretext to demand higher standards of proof of citizenship from Muslims, whereas those from other religions will be granted the benefit of doubt. This will leave millions of Indians at the mercy of an unsympathetic bureaucracy and at the risk of becoming stateless.
The debate on the CAA may appear confusing at first sight because many of the government’s official pronouncements are meant to provide it with plausible deniability in international forums and the courts. But, if one looks beyond the thin smokescreen, both the CAA’s supporters and its opponents are quite clear about the worldview that motivates the law.
Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) draws its ideology from a parent organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS position on citizenship was articulated by one of its early ideologues, M.S. Golwalkar. Golwalkar explained, even before India gained independence, that it was “the land of the Hindus.” Others who “happen to live upon the land … can have no place in the national life, unless they abandon their differences.” Golwalkar later wrote that Muslims were one of three most significant “internal threats” to the nation. (The other two were Christians and communists.) Modi, who was himself an RSS functionary before entering electoral politics, counts Golwalkar as one of his most significant inspirations. Prominent BJP leaders lament that “unfortunately, the present Indian Constitution cannot be amended beyond” a certain limit set by the Supreme Court. It is nevertheless clear that the BJP plans to use its current grip on power to advance its vision of a “Hindu nation.”
Indian scientists who envision our institutions as inclusive spaces where people of all faiths (and those like me who hold no faith at all) are welcome to study and work must clearly state that we reject the exclusionary ideology propagated by those in power. One of the main objectives of our statement was to send this message of solidarity to our own colleagues. In this case, however, our collective statement helped to focus broader attention on the egregious nature of the citizenship law. The government itself soon supplied evidence of our impact by systematically contacting the directors of various scientific institutions in an attempt to intimidate their members into silence.
This government exploited the fact that some institutes in India have blindly incorporated the rules that govern the government’s bureaucracy into their own contracts. These rules, which are both inappropriate and irrelevant for academics, prohibit members from expressing “adverse criticism” of any “policy or action” of government. In my own institute, where there is no such rule, the government claimed, somewhat ludicrously, that signing the statement amounted to participation in “active politics.”
The statement by the scientific community was issued while the CAA was still being debated in Parliament. Soon afterward, opposition to the CAA exploded in a nationwide protest movement led by Muslim women and supported by students from several universities.
The government responded with repression. The police entered the library of the Jamia Millia Islamia University (Delhi) and assaulted several students. In Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a mob believed to be linked to the student wing of the RSS entered the student residences and attacked students involved in protests. All the while, BJP leaders made incendiary speeches against the broader protest movement. The Delhi minority commission found that communal riots, which eventually led to more than 50 deaths, started “almost immediately” after one such speech. The commission also concluded that the police, which are directly controlled by the Modi government, were “complicit and abetted the attacks” on the Muslim community. Not surprisingly, the police have failed to arrest any of those who participated in the attack on JNU, or any of the BJP’s leaders, but have instead arrested a number of activists and academics.
The Modi government’s plans to implement the CAA were interrupted by the pandemic. But the lull is only temporary. India’s ill-conceived lockdown failed to control the virus, as hundreds of scientists had warned, and instead created an avoidable humanitarian crisis. As a result, India now has one of the worst records in Asia, both in terms of per-capita deaths from the pandemic and in terms of damage to the economy. The danger is that the government will double down on its divisive policies to divert attention from the scale of its administrative failure.
So far, the really serious attacks on academics have focused on scholars from the social sciences, although scientists have also been targeted. In September, more than a thousand scientists drew attention to the government’s use of draconian laws against prominent dissidents. It is an error to calculate, as some scientific administrators do, that these are isolated cases and that it is possible to lie low and appease the government. The Indian scientific community must anticipate a broader onslaught and organize itself robustly to defend justice in society, and the freedom of expression and thought in academic spaces.