“Casteist, sexist, anti-gay! Mr. Modi go away!” around 100 students and members of the Yale community chanted on Thursday, protesting the Indian government’s recent policies that target minorities.
Many of the protestors were dressed in black with white chalk smeared across their faces. The chalk is an inversion of the brightly colored powder traditionally thrown during Holi and a symbol of Modi’s policies stripping India of its vibrant diversity. The protest, titled “Holi against Hindutva,” was organized by the Students Against Hindutva group at Yale, and occurred on Cross Campus Thursday afternoon. Holi is an annual Hindu festival. This year it begins on March 9 and ends on March 10.
The protests are part of a nationwide student movement that aims to oppose Hindutva fascism, an extreme form of Hindu nationalism in India. Similar protests occurred on over 20 college campuses across the United States and England including Harvard University, Cornell University, Princeton University and the University of Oxford.
At the protest, several spoke out against the Modi administration, the National Register of Citizens in India and the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which created a path to citizenship for immigrants that excluded Muslims. Student speakers included protest organizer Ram Vishwanathan ’21, Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 and Shreeya Singh ’21, the movement’s founder and the political chair of the Yale South Asian Society.
Several months ago, Singh wrote an open letter supporting U.S. House Representative Pramila Jayapal’s condemnation of communications blockade in Kashmir and the repeal of Article 370 which had allowed Kashmir to have its own constitution. She gathered signatures from over 25 universities nationally and established a network of people cared deeply about the issue.
“Through that, we realized that we had built this network of people who deeply care about this issue and wanted to act on it on their campuses,” Singh told the News. “The idea [behind the protests] is to get conversations going on our relative campuses.”
At the protest, Singh spoke about the history of Hindutva and the policies that have been passed against Muslims, Kashmiris and Dalits — all ethnic-religious groups in India — by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. She also emphasized that this fight does not just belong to the South Asian community.
“Do you need to be Indian to care about what is happening in India? Or do you need to be human?” Singh asked the crowd after listing numerous abuses of human rights that have occurred under the Modi administration against minority groups. “Choosing empathy is not anyone’s loss. It’s all of our victory.”
Singh hopes that the protests will get the South Asian diaspora to engage more with events on the subcontinent and also to inform the larger American population.
“The battle is not changing the minds of people who have already made up their minds,” Singh said. “Rather, it is targeting and getting conversations started with people who do not know anything at all about what is happening in India and educating. And through that, getting people to raise their voices once they actually understand the issues at hand.”
Singh, who is majoring in history and South Asian studies at Yale, was born in India and has an intimate connection to the region. She traveled to India over winter break just as the discriminatory policies were being rolled out by the government. From her interactions with people there, she said she felt something “had to be done.”
Because they have spoken out, Singh and the other organizers have faced criticism and cyber attacks from opponents. They have experienced doxxing — the publication of private information — and other modes of cyber intimidation.
Vishwanathan, a junior at Yale from India, helped Singh organize the protest. He said that the protest is a response to the discriminatory policies of the BJP-controlled Indian government, which passed the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.
“For the first time, it created strata for gaining citizenship that was intensely linked to religion,” said Vishwanathan, “It was the first time citizenship was ever linked to religion in India.”
The government is also expanding the National Registry of Citizens. According to Vishwanathan, this would cause the burden of proving citizenship to fall on citizens rather than the state. It would disadvantage both Muslims and people who do not have the means to acquire the necessary documents, he said.
“[The BJP], in particular, seeks to erase [the] dream of India being a multiethnic, multireligious, multi-linguistic state,” Vishwanathan said. “As students at Yale, we have the power not only in just what we say or how we stay it but where we say it from.”
Ather Zia, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of “Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir,” also spoke at the event. She mentioned the long legacy of violence in Kashmir — a region claimed by both Pakistan and India — reaching all the way back to the execution of several Kashmiris in 1931.
“Kashmir is part of this problem that is unraveling in South Asia at the moment,” Zia told the News. “I am a researcher of the region, I live in [the] region and I know what that brutality looks like. The face of occupation needs to be unmasked.”
Zia read a poem to the crowd called “We are a republic of solidarity,” which she felt expressed the need to be mindful of each other’s histories but also act because “we do not have time to lose.” She expressed her appreciation for the protests making people more aware of the current situation in South Asia.
“Sharing knowledge is how things begin to unravel for people who don’t know what’s happening,” Zia said. “It’s very important for these gatherings to happen so that the powers who are being tyrannical at the moment know that there are people gathering together in solidarity. They might be smaller solidarities, but I’m sure that if we keep on going and have this momentum, it’s going to be bigger and your generation might be the one that sees a better future than the one we saw.”
Attendee Oscar Wang ’23 came to the protest after hearing about it from his friend Iman Iftikhar ’23, another organizer. Although Wang himself has no direct connection to India, he saw parallels to human rights abuses in his own country.
“I’m from Beijing, and there are concentration camps in China right now that are being used to detain Muslims,” Wang said. “We’re responsible for standing up against injustices in other parts of the world especially when there isn’t a lot of discussion in the mainstream media about it.”
Wang also drew parallels between India and the United States, mentioning human rights abuses that concern “migrant children at the border, undocumented immigrants and police violence.” He expressed his appreciation for the South Asian students who spoke about their individual families and experiences in India.
Narendra Modi was elected as prime minister of India in 2014.
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