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South Asian Americans protest India's citizenship bill

"The patterns of Islamophobic rhetoric, unlawful detention, surveillance and police brutality in India are chillingly similar to the treatment of black and brown people we’ve seen in the U.S.," one rights group said.
Image: Citizenship Amendment Act
Activists of All Assam Students Union and 30 other indigenous organizations participate in a torch procession against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Gauhati, India, on Jan. 11, 2020.Anupam Nath / AP

From student activists to CEOs to members of Congress, South Asian Americans are protesting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Citizenship Amendment Act, which attempts to establish a legal path to citizenship for Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist immigrants who crossed the country's border illegally, but excludes Muslims and certain other groups.

The law has led to violent protests across India, and now the diaspora in the U.S. is speaking out and drawing parallels between Trump and Modi as they ramp up for even more protests. U.S.-based activists say they are working to fight against discrimination based on religion.

There are planning demonstrations across the U.S. in late January, and Sunday has been designated as a National Day of Action. It will be a day for protests, speeches and a call for solidarity with Indian protesters against Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism and “fascism,” Thenmozhi Soundarajan, executive director of New York-based human rights startup Equality Labs, told NBC News.

“We are drawing a line in the sand: The diaspora will not be complicit with genocide,” Soundararajan said, fearing the Indian government’s law will cause even more violence among its citizens than it already has.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which operates on a Hindu nationalist platform, has repeatedly said the CAA is an improvement on the 1955 Citizenship Act. Formed in the wake of a newly independent India, it left thousands of refugees who crossed newly changed borders without a legal path to citizenship.

The BJP argues the CAA establishes that legal path, but only for certain “persecuted minorities” -- namely Hindus, Christians, Sikh, Parsis and Buddhists who entered India before 2015 from neighbors Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The bill’s language leaves out any mention of Muslims from those Muslim-majority countries, as well as groups like Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Buddhist refugees from Tibet.

Indians in the U.S. and Indian Americans who are speaking out say the CAA has undertones of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, first put in place in January 2017, which in its earliest iteration prohibited citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Lakshmi Sridharan, interim executive director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together, noted the global rise in Islamophobia. "The patterns of Islamophobic rhetoric, unlawful detention, surveillance and police brutality in India are chillingly similar to the treatment of black and brown people we’ve seen in the U.S.”

Soundararajan said she found it disturbing to see Trump and Modi share a stage last fall in Houston at an event titled “Howdy Modi.” The prime minister drew a crowd of 50,000 loudly cheering people in what became not just a celebration abroad for the prime minister but what amounted to a campaign event for Trump as well, Suchitra Vijayan, director of the New York-based research and journalism nonprofit Polis Project, said.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the U.S., with more than half counting themselves as citizens and more than two-thirds under the age of 18. Their influence is felt not only in the U.S., but on politicians in India who have benefited for decades from the group’s reputation, education and income in the form of repatriation.

Activists have said that the Sept. 29 “Howdy Modi” event seemed to many Indian-Americans to be a clear endorsement of Hindu nationalism by the Trump administration. In turn, the event also appeared to be an endorsement on the part of Indian Americans in attendance of the anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric Trump employs, Soundararajan said.

She and other activists are hoping to harness the power of the diaspora in a different way now with protests in cities with large Indian populations like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, speaking to editors at a company event in New York this month, decried the law.

In a statement last week, Nadella added: "I’m shaped by my Indian heritage, growing up in a multicultural India and my immigrant experience in the U.S. My hope is for an immigrant in India where an immigrant can aspire to found a prosperous startup or lead a multinational corporation benefitting Indian society and the economy at large.”

Members of Congress are also participating in public statements and protests as well. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in an op-ed in The Washington Post: “As a member of Congress and as an Indian American, I will continue to speak out on fundamental principles of democracy.” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told the India-West news outlet that he spoke out against Trump’s travel ban and the same principle holds for CAA. “Any legislation in a liberal democracy should be neutral on issues of race and religion,” he noted.

In part, what has spurred action from college students in the U.S. was also the police violence during protests at Indian universities in the wake of CAA. On Dec. 15, police forced their way onto the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University in Delhi, detaining and injuring hundreds of students. On Jan. 5, a masked mob claiming to be Hindu nationalists stormed onto the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s campus and injured at least 40 students.

Muskan Verma, an activist and junior at Bates College in Maine, said she and her fellow coordinators in the South Asian Students Against Facism movement, a loose organization of university students across North America, will be protesting on Sunday to send “a very strong message not just to the [Indian] government, but to the people protesting that they are not alone and that protests are not happening in a void.”

Verma and others like Middlebury student Akhila Roy, Loyola University of Chicago grad student Amrita Bhagia, and McGill University Apoorva Malepati grew up in India and the U.S. and want to shatter the perception that the Indian diaspora is unquestioningly behind Modi and the BJP, Verma said.

For these students, combating what is a global phenomenon of a “politics of fear” is crucial to their own futures as they are forced to think about what democracy really means in India and elsewhere, Verma said.