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What ongoing Indian protests say about the country’s secular identity

Mass protests continue in India over a new citizenship law the government says will protect non-Muslim immigrants -- but critics see as a thinly veiled attack on Muslims. Many of the demonstrations have remained peaceful, but in some areas, police beat back protesters and the government shut down mobile internet services. Lisa Desjardins talks to Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In India, political unrest continues, after a citizenship law passed Parliament earlier this month. It expedites a path to citizenship for religious minorities living in India, but excludes Muslims.

    Today, thousands turned out nationwide to protest the new law.

    "NewsHour" correspondent Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look at the rule opponents say discriminates against Muslims.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Across India today, a physical and digital clamp-down, in New Delhi, scenes of police beatings and pushback, as officers tried to contain protests against the nation's new citizenship law.

    Elsewhere, mass demonstrations, like this one in Kolkata, were largely peaceful, though communications are spotty. The government again shut down all mobile Internet services in several cities, all of this a clash over the identity and a citizenship law the government says protects non-Muslim immigrants.

    But, to opponents, the law is a thinly veiled attack on Muslims and a move toward making India a religious Hindu state.

  • Abhijit Mukherjee (through translator):

    Until they withdraw the Citizenship Amendment Act, the rallies will continue to take place. These protests will continue. This is our right. The constitution of the country is impartial. There is tolerance.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The new law focuses on India's Muslim neighbors, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and non-Muslim immigrants from those countries.

    It protects six religious groups. Importantly, this comes as India is undergoing a national registration, asking every person to prove citizenship. That means non-Muslims without paperwork can get citizenship, but Muslims without documents may be in legal trouble.

    The resulting protests have left at least 23 people dead, thousands arrested, and now more charges of police violence. In Northern India, the BBC reports that Muslim families in several towns say police attacked their homes, destroying cars, smashing property and beating teenage boys.

    Security video in that region last week shows Indian police smashing cameras during protests. India's popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a Hindu nationalist, and defends the law as protecting his country, but opponents say it rips India's multicultural fabric.

  • Irshad (through translator):

    Our country has unity in diversity. People of different religions live here together, and it is known for this in the world.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    India, home to 1.4 billion, is wrestling with its own power and people.

    Let's take a closer look at the issue now with Alyssa Ayres. She's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia during the Obama administration.

    You know, I want to first start by gauging this moment in India. As we just had in our story, we are now seeing reports that police themselves may be attacking Muslim homes, particularly in the province of Uttar Pradesh. Many people know that as the home of the Taj Mahal.

    What do you make of these reports of police violence? Is this a new phase, a new concern? What does this mean?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    It is disturbing, absolutely.

    Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state. This is the size of a country, about 200 million people. It also has a larger Muslim minority population, about 20 percent of the state.

    And the reports that have been coming out over the past couple days, with some video, suggests that police are really overstepping the bounds of just mere crowd control. We're seeing reports of property destruction, that police are destroying cameras, so they can't be seen.

    Again, there may be cases of crowds that get unruly, but police should be in the business of crowd control, not trying to damage homes of individuals. So this is a real eye-opener, I think, for a lot of people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You have recently been in India. What is your sense of the state of tension there?

    I mean, India is known for its multicultural fabric, but it's also highly flammable, that fabric. What is your sense of the tensions now, especially between Hindu and Muslim there?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    I think what we have seen happen with the protests that have taken place across the country, in many different cities across the country, very peaceful protests, as your package showed, we are really seeing Indians, in fact, largely young Indians, stand up and say, here's who we are and here's who we don't want to be.

    People are standing up for a constitutional principle of secularism. In some of the protests that we have seen in India, people are reading out parts of the constitution. That's an incredible thing.

    You see crowds of tens of thousands of people all together focusing on the constitutional principle of secularism and equality before the law. So there are tensions in India. There have been longstanding tensions in India between Hindus and Muslims.

    But I think what this particular issue has highlighted is that there are a large number of people in India who want to see their country retain its secularism.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You have talked specifically about young people.

    And I know you have followed this country and this region for decades. How significant are these protests? It's not the first time we have seen large protests in India over issues. But how significant you think these are, the scale of them, and the involvement of young people?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    I think this is the history of the present at the moment, right? But maybe we will know more about the scale once we have passed through this moment.

    But it does seem that these protests are being located in universities, being student-led, student-organized in many cases. And it's quite an inspirational thing to see young Indians standing up and saying that they want to see their country evolve in a particular direction, and they want to see it remain true to its constitution.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And secular.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    And secular.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Prime Minister Modi, of course, is someone who is sort of at the center of all of this.

    He ran and won, in part, on his economic and jobs agenda. But, of course, he's also known as a Hindu nationalist. He talks a lot about having sort of Hindu pride and wanting the identity of India to be Hindu.

    What do you think these protests do for him? Or do they cause problems, questions about what he's doing, in terms of his political strength in India?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    He enjoys a single-party majority in the lower house of Indian Parliament. So the protests don't affect his single-party majority.

    However, it has — now we have seen, at the state level, his party has last several elections recently. So they are no longer as dominant both at the federal government, as well as throughout many states of India as well.

    So we're seeing people make different kinds of choices in the parties that they want to lead at the center of the country for their own states. And, in some cases, they are opting against the BJP at the state level.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Which is Modi's party, the BJP.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Which is Modi's party, exactly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


  • Alyssa Ayres:

    So, the other thing I would note is that the first government that Prime Minister Modi led — he was elected in 2014 — his platform in 2014 was very focused on economic growth, good governance, in contrast to what had been a series of corruption scandals taking place from 2011 forward, the previous government.

    And his economic plans haven't quite panned out. India is facing an economic downturn. They're not seeing the growth levels that they need to employ this large youth demographic, 10 to 12 million people coming of work force age every year. And India is facing some severe issues economically within the financial sector. It's trickling throughout the economy.

    So what you have seen with the new Modi government is a real shift of emphasis towards the cultural, the religious, nationalist agenda. And I think what these protests show us is that many young people in India are saying, this is too much. This is not who we want to be.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations, also an author, former State Department, thank you very much.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Thank you.

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