Sunday, January 26th, is Republic Day — the day India’s Constitution will turn 70.
Growing up in India, home to some festival every week, we were rarely enthused by Republic Day. Diwali brought lamps and delicious sweets, and Christmas promised rum cake and presents. Eid guaranteed lavish iftar parties. Among national holidays, Republic Day was typically dwarfed by Independence Day, with its passionate speeches, a poignant raising of the national flag and an obvious significance middle schoolers could understand. Republic Day often left us ambivalent, its nebulous relevance to a constitution hardly sexy enough to keep us engaged.
A decade later, much has changed. This Republic Day, along with millions of Indians, we will recite the Constitution’s Preamble, turning to this national symbol to protect its founding ideals — ideals that are fast being eroded.
Over the last several weeks, India has experienced widespread protests against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These have been sparked by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the first law in the country’s history that explicitly discriminates on the basis of religion. The law provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who entered India from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh and has been marketed by the government as a magnanimous gesture to persecuted minorities.
However, a closer look reveals more pernicious intentions. The law applies only to non-Muslim communities from three Muslim-majority neighbors, making clear determinations about which social groups are legitimate members of the oppressed, and about which religious groups are welcome in India. The plights of the Rohingya in Myanmar and of Uighurs in China, for example, are hardly considered worthy of the government’s care. Instead, Muslims have been tagged with the term “ghuspetiya,” or infiltrator. In a chilling moment, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah even described them as “termites.”
The CAA has been explicitly linked with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process that places the burden of proving citizenship on the individual. Millions in India who lack documents to certify their citizenship will fail this test. But the CAA creates a religiously selective safety net, ensuring that only Muslims can be rendered stateless.
These laws have evoked widespread anger and disenchantment against a government first elected on a platform of “acche din,” or good days. Millions of Indians have spilled onto the streets, braving harrowing violence from the state. Thousands have been detained across the country, and the police have acted with frightening impunity, making special targets of Muslims and students. Acts of violence have often been orchestrated in coordination with right-wing goons, and have been condoned by BJP leaders and multiple television channels as deserved treatment for “anti-nationals.”
But protests have continued unabated, forming new solidarities that cut across India’s many fault lines. The protests have often been led by women, epitomized by a 24-hour sit-in in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh that has entered its 42nd day. They have also seen India’s Muslims proudly assert their identity as Muslims and as Indians, declaring that the two can, and do, exist in mutual harmony.
Amidst the unity visible on the streets, the protests have been marked by their embrace of India’s national symbols: its flag, its national anthem and above all, its Constitution. Adopted in 1950, the Constitution brought together liberal ideas from across the world to establish India as a socialist, secular, democratic republic founded on universal adult franchise and a commitment to equality and human rights. It has been described as one of the world’s most ambitious experiments — but sadly, skepticism seems well-placed today.
Many of these ideals are under threat today, with Indian politics dominated by the right-wing BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They subscribe to a political ideology called “Hindutva,” which calls for India to be reimagined as a “Hindu Rashtra,” or nation. The RSS drew inspiration from the fascist movements in Europe in the 1930s, a legacy visible in their uniforms and in their rhetoric. For decades after Independence in 1947, the RSS remained a fringe group, its reputation battered after a member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Instead of entering electoral politics, it established thousands of “shakhas” or branches, starting its project of ethnocentric nationalism at the grassroots level.
These efforts have now come to fruition. The BJP came to power in a landslide victory in 2014, and was reelected last year on the back of a viciously Islamophobic campaign. The elections were also marred by the collapse of independent institutions like the judiciary, the press and the Election Commission, all bent by the incumbent government to its will.
Soon after its reelection, the government unilaterally abrogated Article 370, which gave semi-autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The state was split into two union territories, placing them under direct control of New Delhi. Political leaders were detained, curfews were imposed and phone lines were cut. Kashmir remains without internet since August — the longest internet shutdown in a democracy.
These events are not an aberration. Domestically, they resemble the culmination of a century-long majoritarian project that has now gathered steam. Internationally, the likes of Modi must be seen among a global tide of politicians forcing us to turn our backs on our shared humanity. The BJP has maintained close connections with the right across the world, from Likud in Israel, far-right parties in Europe and a wing of the Republican Party in the US. Fellow far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro will join Modi at this year’s Republic Day parade.
Together — if implemented — the CAA and NRC will render millions of Indians stateless, laying the stage for the largest forced displacement in history. We cannot ignore these protests, or brush them aside as another upheaval in a country far afield. Start by educating yourself and others around you. Mobilize on campus through Students Against Hindutva and join our teach-ins and the country-wide campus protests in March. Come to New York on Sunday to protest in front of the Indian Consulate. We can no longer afford to be apolitical.
For many protesters, recent laws have threatened their very right to have rights; for all of us, they strike at the very idea of India. The Constitution — and our imagination of it — protects this idea. It reminds us that India does not exist only in its institutions, that its meaning cannot be fully encompassed in physical dimensions. India also exists in our minds and hearts, and our memories and dreams.
Today, Independence Day carries a meaning that rings hollow for far too many Indians. The ideals our forefathers fought for are being denied by a frightening apparatus of divisive ethnonationalism. Like every ideal worth fighting for, an inclusive, free India will need another revolution. And this revolution will not only turn towards Independence Day for inspiration, but to its little sibling — Republic Day.
SURBHI BHARADWAJ is a senior in Pauli Murray College. RAM VISHWANATHAN is a junior in Silliman College. They are both on the executive board of Students Against Hindutva. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .