The attacks on two Delhi universities reveal Modi’s targets: Muslims and their allies
In the middle of December, Delhi police tried to shut down university protests against the religiously discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) by caning Muslim students into submission. Police officers smashed their way into the library at Jamia Millia Islamia university (where I teach history), trashed bookcases and beat the students inside, badly damaging the eyesight of one in the process. They threw teargas grenades into the reading room to force students out. Their excuse was they were chasing violent demonstrators who had taken refuge in campus buildings.
Last week, Delhi police also assembled outside another educational establishment. This time the police remained decorously outside the gates of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India's most well known, cordoning off the campus as masked goons armed with iron rods and improvised bludgeons ran riot inside. They broke into a hostel reserved for women students, inflicted head injuries on the president of JNU's student union, who is a woman, and attacked faculty members who tried to protect them. Some 20 students and teachers were hospitalised. After three hours of thuggery the police entered the university at the vice-chancellor's belated invitation but made no arrests because the criminals had mysteriously slipped away despite the police cordon.
The Delhi police was the common factor in the two assaults, in the first instance as perpetrator and in the second as auxiliary. The force reports to the home affairs minister, Amit Shah, prime minister Narendra Modi's right-hand man. Jamia and JNU are centrally funded universities that have attracted the violent displeasure of Modi's government for different but related reasons. Taken together, these reasons define the ruling Bharatiya Janata party's majoritarian project - its reason for being.
The attack on Jamia was triggered by the BJP government's determination to snuff out protests against the CAA, which excludes Muslim migrants from the amnesty given to others from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Having smuggled into law a religious test for citizenship for one class of migrants, the government hopes to press its advantage further by forcing Indians to prove their citizenship to a latterday inquisition, the National Register of Citizens. The NRC is the citizenship act's evil twin; those who aren't able to document their claim to being Indian before the tribunals of the NRC will be cast into limbo - but non-Muslims among them can hope to be rescued by the CAA's amnesty.
Undocumented Muslims will have no such recourse; they will be interned and deported as Amit Shah promised in the speeches he made all over the country. This destabilisation of Muslim citizenship is a great prize for a majoritarian party such as the BJP which sees India as a Hindu nation, Hindus as its natural citizens and Muslims as potential fifth columnists with extraterritorial loyalties. Jamia was brazenly attacked by the police of this would-be Hindu nation because the government was confident that making a violent example of a Muslim university would play well in public.
It had good reason to be confident. Modi had won an absolute majority in parliament for the second time in 2019; the supreme court had awarded the site of a mosque demolished in 1991 by Hindu mobs, led by BJP leaders, to Hindu litigants who claimed it was the god Ram's birthplace; the government had successfully reduced India's one Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, into two Delhi-administered union territories, and the citizenship amendment bill had been expertly ushered through both houses of parliament with hardly any resistance from a divided and demoralised opposition.
Against the odds, this attempt to shock Indian Muslims into submission by brutalising a Muslim university backfired - for two reasons. First, the assault galvanised Muslims all over the country into spontaneous and sustained resistance to the CAA and NRC. Second, the police atrocities in Jamia led to huge demonstrations of solidarity in colleges and universities all over India and sparked a fire of resistance, against the furtive bigotry of the CAA, which continues to burn.
The BJP has long believed that its anti-Muslim project has two enemies: Muslims, and those non-Muslims who see Muslims as equal citizens under the constitution. The Delhi police made an example of Jamia as a warning to India's Muslims. When that didn't go according to plan, the same police travelled several miles across the city to help make an example of a university that the BJP sees as the institutional incarnation of the secularism that might yet thwart its dreams of a Hindu nation. Since majoritarian parties are constitutionally incapable of empathy, the BJP understands JNU's brand of secular solidarity as a form of Hindu self-hatred.
For the better part of Modi's first term in office, there has been a running battle between JNU students and central government, a David and Goliath standoff that has turned student politicians into national figures. But the BJP's loathing of the university is obsessive and wildly out of proportion to the threat that its students and teachers pose. Stung by the pan-Indian support that Jamia's anti-CAA protests have provoked, Modi's government seems to have concluded that it was all JNU's fault. Otherwise it is hard to believe that a dispute over accommodation charges - the last source of conflict between JNU students and the authorities to make headlines - could goad a national government into risking complicity in this violent charade. The only other explanation for the attack is that it was an attempt to turn attention away from the anti-CAA protests by giving people something else to be outraged about.
It's hard to predict what lasting effect the assaults on these two universities will have on Indian politics. A party that controls the state will generally outlast spontaneous civil society movements that lack political leadership. For the moment, though, the passion (and existential panic) that has powered this campaign against sectarianism seems to have deranged Modi's leviathan.
The writer is an essayist and author who teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi.