A mob attack on a New Delhi campus gives fresh impetus to nationwide protests against a controversial citizenship law.
Students across India are demonstrating against an attack at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday when masked men wielding sticks and iron rods beat up teachers, students, and activists gathered on campus. Protests have been held in the cities of Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
The violence at JNU has been condemned by senior officials such as the country’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman, both graduates of the university. But troubling questions remain about the breakdown of law and order in the capital, the brazen stifling of free speech, and a climate of intimidation.
Police complicity? As independent Indian news outlets such as Scroll.in reported, New Delhi’s police largely stood by as a mob entered the JNU campus and attacked reporters and activists. There are competing claims over who was responsible for the attacks, a sign of how divided India has become. Several reports from the scene identify the attackers as members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The group denies involvement, instead of blaming the violence on left-wing activists.
But as Scroll.in points out, one explanation for why Delhi’s police allowed the violence to unfold could be that they report to India’s home ministry, which is run by Amit Shah, the president of the BJP. Officials haven’t yet offered their own explanations for why the streetlights outside JNU went out during the attack or why the police didn’t do more to stop the violent mob that showed up.
What’s next? As we have explained before, the countrywide protests stem from concerns over a controversial new law that provides a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from nearby countries. Coupled with a proposed register of citizens, it could undermine the country’s secular foundations. While the unrest is an embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government—this past December, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled a visit to Guwahati because of violent protests in the state of Assam—the BJP shows no signs of backtracking on the law.
It remains to be seen how long citizens can maintain the protests. Nationally, Modi remains India’s most popular leader, in part because fractured opposition parties have been unable to present a viable figure to rally around. Two other factors may tip the balance. The first is the elections. In early February, Delhi voters will pick a new state government. Modi’s BJP was routed in the 2015 election, and another loss in the capital would be chastening.
More substantially, the issue India’s government may worry about most is the economy. Unemployment remains at a historic high, and growth slowed in the last quarter to just 4.5 percent. Rising fuel prices, especially after the killing of Iran’s military leader Qassem Suleimani, will further affect India’s economic bottom line. Kaushik Basu, a Cornell University professor and India’s former chief economic advisor, warned last week that India could be in for a “bad shock” if there is a crisis in the global debt markets. What doesn’t help, Basu said, is a divisive national mood that “erodes trust” in the country’s institutions.