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India's secularism under attack

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REPORTERS © FRANCE 24

At the end of December 2019, India's government introduced a controversial new law that grants a fast track to Indian citizenship for migrants fleeing religious persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – as long as they are not Muslim. In a country built on the secular principle of granting equal rights to members of all faiths, many see the new law as a threat. As thousands took to the streets in protest, the police began cracking down on dissent. In less than two weeks, over 30 people were killed. Is India poised on a dangerous precipice? Our team reports.

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Even before India's citizenship law cleared both houses of parliament in early December, violent protests broke out in Assam, a north-eastern state on the border with Bangladesh. Six protesters were killed as the police fired live rounds to control the crowd, and soon afterwards the authorities switched off the internet in the state capital – a move that they would replicate many times over as the protest movement grew. Foreign journalists were prohibited from travelling to Assam without a special permit, which was nearly impossible to obtain. 

For several years the government had been conducting a controversial exercise in the state, called the National Register of Citizenship, to identify who is an Indian citizen and who is an illegal migrant. Some 1.9 million people were on the verge of statelessness, including many Hindus, because they had failed to produce the required identity documents. When the citizenship law was announced, it was clear that Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists amongst the 1.9 million would be saved from an uncertain future. But what about the Muslims among them?

>> Turning point for India? Modi's citizenship act excludes Muslims

Even as we were working out the logistics of getting to Assam, something shocking happened on the evening of December 15. Armed police stormed into a historically Muslim university campus in New Delhi and attacked students, who were demonstrating peacefully, with sticks and tear gas shells. At least two students were hospitalised with bullet injuries. By the next morning, the protests had spread nationwide, and we soon lost track of how many cities and states were reporting large-scale rallies. Something in the national psyche reacted to the images on social media of students being beaten brutally by the police, and for many Indians that was the breaking point.

As the protests grew, and the authorities shut down the internet in many states, including briefly in Central Delhi, the heart of the nation, it became clear to us that we needed to get to Uttar Pradesh as soon as possible. Some 24 protesters and bystanders had lost their lives there, although the police has claimed only one of those deaths so far. The state’s Hindu hardline leader, Yogi Adityanath, vowed "revenge" against the protesters who were being portrayed as violent. When we got to Uttar Pradesh, it was clear that several Muslim neighbourhoods had been targeted by the authorities, where reports suggested that the police had come in at night, looted houses and broken property.

Eventually, we managed to get to Assam, thanks to the fact that one of our reporters is an Indian citizen, and could bypass the government's special permit for foreign reporters. There, we learned that over 1,000 people whose citizenship had been declared doubtful were in six detention camps and the government was building a brand new one, which we were able to film.

Weaving together stories of students protesting in New Delhi, those targeted by the authorities in Uttar Pradesh, and those facing an uncertain future in Assam, our report attempts to provide a glimpse of how the new citizenship law has led to a determined resistance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. 

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