Is secularism a law in India

The end of the protest culture in India - does secular India still have a chance?

Indian politics shows no interest in translating student protests into bureaucratic processes. That creates resignation and is dangerous for the greatest democracy in the world

The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is one of the most renowned universities in India. Its alumni include Nobel Prize winners and heads of state and government. It has only been half a year since India's most famous university was attacked and devastated by several thugs - an attack on the spirit of the university. More than 40 university members were injured, some seriously. The incident received wide, global audiences, sparked national protests, and yet came as no surprise.

Where intellectuals of all stripes once debated, there has been a bitter ideological struggle for years. Since the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi re-entered government in 2014, many academics have feared the erosion of the secular pillars of the Indian constitution. For seventy years this secular constitution kept the heterogeneous country together in the spirit of secularism and the founding father of the Indian state Jawaharlal Nehru. A stable democratic foundation for a religious society.

Although the BJP is a comparatively young party that was only able to celebrate significant political successes at the national level around the turn of the millennium, it follows on from an ideology steeped in tradition: the dream of a Hindu-dominated nation-state India (Hindutva). The party is traditionally closely networked with the radical Hindu and anti-Muslim cadre organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Cultural and identity issues of social coexistence dominate the political debate in India and - although the Indian constitution is laicist - find their way into legislation. At the level of the so-called Personal Law For example, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have set their own religion-compliant laws.

In India, secularism is not understood as a strict separation of state and religion, but as an inner, distant and respectful attitude towards the diverse religious influences on one's own multicultural society. With the Hindutva policy, the BJP was able to successfully establish itself as an opponent to the traditionally secularly oriented Congress Party.

The university as an ideological battleground

The traditionally demonstration-loving students of India have been fighting this battle for cultural identity for years. The JNU has repeatedly become the center of protests critical of the government. The university is considered a stronghold of the intellectual left in India and quickly came into confrontation with the current government.

With demonstration marches, rallies, human chains and public lectures or debates, the members of the university manage to mobilize against government policy and to draw attention to the discrimination against minorities. Many students complain about the lack of real opposition. So it is they who now have to take on this role.

On the other hand, members of government-affiliated student organizations like to highlight the infrastructure projects of the BJP government. The cultural hegemony of Hinduism does not exclude other religions, but rather forms a common shield against the westernization of South Asia. Every Indian should stand up for an ambitious and self-confident India.

An attitude that speaks from the conservative society of India. Many progressive students also come from traditional families and only became politicized on the JNU campus. The campus is still a special place for many alumni. A forest in the heart of Delhi, which protects against the omnipresent smog and the fast pace of the metropolis, but above all against the pressures of society.

This shelter is now in danger. Where caste affiliations, family constraints and permeability were discussed in the past, identity and culture are now being contested. Since politicians have verbally attacked the JNU and introduced repressive methods such as increasing tuition fees, the tone has also become rougher among the students.

Demonstrations and a wave of violence

At the end of 2019, a reform of the naturalization law triggered a massive wave of protests. The reform enables refugees to naturalize more quickly. However, these immigrants can only benefit from the reform if they are not Muslim.

In addition to numerous derogatory remarks by government representatives, the Interior Minister repeatedly referred to Muslim immigrants as "termites", a new citizenship register is causing concern among many Indians. In the state of Assam, such a register has already rendered more than two million people - mostly Muslims - stateless because they could not prove their place of birth.

In addition to the JNU, the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in Delhi formed a center of the protest movement. After the student protests against the naturalization law across the country were taken up by the most diverse sections of the population, the situation escalated: On December 15, 2019, the JMI was stormed by the Delhi Police using tear gas and batons.

More than 200 people were injured and two students were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. On January 5th, 2020, a protest event on the grounds of the JNU was attacked by 200 masked, allegedly Hindu nationalist thugs and students and lecturers were targeted. Despite numerous emergency calls, neither the police nor the university's security service intervened for hours.

But neither the wave of violence nor the state reception for the American President Trump could slow the protests. As more and more people showed solidarity with the students and the protest movement, the situation escalated more and more. In this situation, the conflict was frozen by a new crisis, the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has been smoldering under the surface since then, was preserved through the lockdown and is now returning to the students.

Although the pandemic has frozen the academic-ideological conflict, the government's crisis management created new problems. If the BJP has so far been able to rely on uneducated sections of the electorate, its reputation may have suffered considerably during the crisis. Anger has grown in the population. The only question is whether the students can channel the displeasure and mobilize it as strongly as at the beginning of the year.

Protests are only made where there is hope

A look at history shows that protest is quite capable of provoking change. For example, West German history can also be told as a protest story, as the sociologist Niklas Luhmann emphasized in the 1990s. Protest is urgent, it forces a society to grapple with problems and to react to them. Laws, norms, committees and institutions become protests - if society can translate them into bureaucratic forms.

The politics of the largest democracy in the world shows no interest in translating student protests into bureaucratic processes. Even before the lockdown, she reacted with violence and intimidation. This is not only problematic from a democratic-participatory perspective, it actually calls for an increase in the semantics of protest.

Since the protest is unsteady and has to motivate its fellow campaigners again and again, it tends to exaggerate anyway. All that remains for the students is resignation or increase. Two alternatives that will hardly help the multi-ethnic state.

These counterpoles vividly describe the current mood on the JNU campus. As the pandemic continues to worsen, the ideological battle for India's cultural identity threatens to break out again. Although the BJP government pleaded unity during the crisis, opposition students were arrested in the shadow of the lockdown.

But in this situation new protests are a tightrope walk. While the increase in protest semantics is blocking a way into the institutions and squandering solidarity among the population, the recognition of the new status quo is tantamount to resignation.

Does secular India still have a chance?

While the anti-Muslim policy of the BJP came under heavy pressure at the beginning of the year, it can quietly stabilize in the wake of the pandemic. Due to external threats and the simmering border conflict with China, the Indian government is also able to divert attention from the internal political conflicts and to reposition itself internationally.

Just a few months ago, human rights organizations such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International fundamentally criticized the Indian government's naturalization policy, but the global attention economy has continued to move since the beginning of the pandemic. It is the universities where the ideological struggle is resumed, where students defend themselves against the creeping perpetuation of a Hindu nationalist policy.

The coming protests will show whether secular India will get another chance. So far, the academic-secular protest movement could hope for a lot of sympathy through its non-violent demeanor and clear arguments, but protest always has a tendency to violence. The unambiguousness of the act leads to acts of jumping over, but in the long term can obstruct the way back to the institutions.

Nevertheless, one often hears on the JNU campus that something has to happen. The hopefuls of the academic-secular protest position themselves between resignation and radicalization. But their voices are getting quieter. (Christian Hobbie)

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