Indian Americans came out in large numbers in several cities across the U.S. to protest against India’s citizenship laws, Jan. 26. The protests, held as part of a “Day of Action,” and organized by the Coalition to Stop Genocide, a broad alliance of Indian Americans and U.S.-based civil rights organizations and activists, coincided with India’s 71st Republic Day.
The Coalition to Stop Genocide includes dozens of organizations, including Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Equality Labs, Black Lives Matter (BLM), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR).
Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council, who attended the protest in Washington, D.C., told India Abroad that an unprecedented number of Indian Americans from all religious faiths and backgrounds and from all walks of life gathered in more than 30 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
Indian American Muslims were joined by were scores of Sikhs, Hindus, Dalits, and several mainstream Americans, he said.
Ahmed said Indian Americans marched in solidarity with people protesting on the streets in India; with the women of Shaheen Bagh, with people who died and who are subjected to daily police brutality and torture.
According to a press release issued by the Coalition to Stop Genocide, protesters came in buses, in cars, and on foot, and braved the cold “to urge their government to take action against the purveyors of hate and bigotry.” Holding placards and banners they demanded that the government of India repeal the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
“The CAA is an integral part of the Modi government’s strategy of creating a stateless Muslim population, that can be profiled, treated as second-class citizens, and imprisoned in massive detention centers already being built in India,” a Coalition to Stop Genocide press release quoted Dalit rights activist and founder of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan as saying.
“This project may start with Muslims but all caste-oppressed communities are at risk as we are the communities in the crosshairs of Hindu nationalists,” she said, and added, “We are marching in force globally to stand as a united diaspora to say to the Indian government stop the genocidal CAA. The time to stop a genocide is now, before it starts.”
In Washington, D.C., protestors gathered at the Ellipse, on the south side of White House and then marched to the Indian embassy, where Indian officials had barricaded the Gandhi statue. Singing “Saare Jahan se Accha” and some waving Indian flags, and chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” they called on President Trump to pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the CAA.
The protestors also called on the State Department to “heed the recommendation of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and impose sanctions on India’s Home Minister Amit Shah.
They also called on the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to designate India in the U.S. International Freedom Index as one of the 10 countries engaging in blatant and gross religious freedom violations.
Ahmed told this correspondent that as the protest reached the embassy, they were greeted by a few CAA supporters. He said the embassy tried to drown out the sloganeering and speeches of the protesters by playing loud music, but the crowds were huge and that didn’t last for long. “Slowly people at the embassy dispersed,” he said.
According to Ahmed, there were no confrontations with those inside the embassy, however, a few of them did try to intimidate the protesters, he said. Rasheed said the peaceful protests were a democratic and civil expression of dissent.
Similarly, protesters in San Francisco, California, were also faced with CAA supporters. However, they were few in comparison to the scores of people rallying against the CAA, the NRC (National Registry of Citizens) and the NPR (National Population Register), Raju Rajagopal of Hindus for Human Rights, told India Abroad.
“Never seen such a large group of protesters,” he said, and added that the San Francisco protest included “lots of Muslims, women, children, young representatives from South Asian and secular groups and some Ambedkarite groups. Rajagopal noted that since the counter-protesters seemed to be coming from inside the embassy, he wondered if the consulate was colluding with the CAA supporters. “That could be very dangerous,” he said.
He said that those in favor of the Modi government and its policies, were only talking about the CAA and not about the NRC or the NPR, which he said are the elephants in the room. “They are using CAA as a façade,” he said, and added, considering the premise of the CAA, “who can object to it.”
Participants in other rallies in New York, Chicago and Houston told India Abroad that there were no counter-protests at these locations.
Several activists and progressives addressed rallies across the country.
In D.C., Arjun Singh Sethi, a civil and human rights activist and an adjunct professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, bemoaned that “today ideologies of fascism, authoritarianism, and Hindutva supremacy are consuming India.”
He said that the draconian CAA and NRC in Assam and in Jammu and Kashmir, in the aftermath of the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, providing special status for J&K, were manifestations of the fascism and authoritarianism being fomented by the Hindutva supremacists.
Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, who addressed the D.C. rally, said that the brutal crackdown by the government in India on anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests has created a situation in which women in large numbers have come out on streets to challenge the divisive-communal-fascist agenda of the government.” He said: “It gives hope that democracy and Constitution can ultimately be saved by the common people from a government which is bent upon destroying them.”
J.P. Singh, professor of International Commerce and Policy at Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, in his Facebook post, wrote that anywhere from a 1,000 to 15,00 people attended the “massive patriotic protests in the nation’s capital. “Happy Republic Day, India! Your people believe in you even if your government doesn’t,” he wrote.
“The embassy had buses parked on Massachusetts Avenue in such a way as to block the entrance and then blasted patriotic songs at us at high volumes. As far as I could tell, the patriots were in protest! We sang the anthem, we stood up for secularism, and we were peaceful. The Indian state could learn from us,” he wrote.
A few hundred miles away from the nation’s capital, in New York, nearly 4,000 people including journalist Aatish Taseer, IAMC Boston president Amin Zaman, anti-war activist G.N. Saibaba, Gautam Mehta and Sunita Viswanath of Hindus for Human Rights, activist Habeeb, IAMC New York president Khaliq Imran, Board of New York president Mufti Burhanuddin, Stefan Shaw of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and social activist Suha Syed, attended the protest outside the Consulate General of India in New York.
Sunita Viswanath of Hindus for Human Rights told India Abroad that what makes these anti-CAA protests, both in India and the U.S., unique, is that they are leaderless and decentralized, “much like Occupy Wall Street.” Viswanath, who just got back from India, where she attended a few protests, said that these rallies are wrongly being characterized as Muslim rallies. “That’s not true,” she said.
“What is true is that their [Muslims’] citizenship is being targeted,” she said, and added, “Every kind of person can be seen at these rallies,” both here and back home in India.
Viswanath said the reason behind such large number of protesters is because people realize that if today it’s the Muslim community, tomorrow it could be them.
“There is a deep intuitive understanding that this has gone too far,” she said, adding that those who will be hurt the most from these laws are the poorest of the poor, the marginalized, and the illiterate.
Viswanath said that although she doesn’t know where this will lead to, all she knows is that “the spirit of India is screaming out.”
Speaking at the New York protest, Viswanath condemned Hindutva ideology as a supremacist ideology. She denounced the lockdown in Kashmir and persecution of Muslims elsewhere in India.
At the New York protest, the Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, who quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told those gathered that “We are called to speak for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation(s), for those it calls enemies, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” He said “the CAA makes an enemy of India’s own precious people damaging the pluralistic democracy that has existed since 1947 and has been such an inspiration to the world.”
David Fishman, a board member of the Holocaust Center of Nassau County, reminded the protesters that the Nazis killed six million Jews in the Holocaust and warned that the world should not remain silent in India.
“I am here with you because the events in India are dangerously reminiscent of the events in Germany in the 1930s. History repeats itself and those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat itself,” Fishman declared. He specifically condemned the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
According to a Press Trust of India report, the largest gathering of anti-CAA protestors was held in Chicago. Indian Americans gathered in large numbers, the report said, adding that they formed a several mile-long human chain.
Shahid Iyalas, who attended the Chicago rally, told India Abroad that several students and members of the community and people of all religions and faiths participated in the Chicago rally.
Students from India attending universities in the Greater Chicago area were particularly disturbed by incidents at Jamia Milia Islamia University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he said, and showed up in large numbers to stand in solidarity with fellow students back home.
Like in Chicago, students made a large part of the protest held in Boston. Braving cold temperatures and freezing rain, students and representatives from the Indian community staged a 24-hour protest at Harvard Square.
Through songs, poetry, speeches, and the reading of the preamble of the Indian Constitution they urged the Indian government to repeal the citizenship laws.
TwoCircles.net reported that Suraj Yengde, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University, “urged the audience to challenge the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy at the heart of Hindutva.” He pointed out that a monolithic Hindu identity suppresses the identities of Dalits, Adivasis, and many other communities with distinct traditions and histories.
Addressing the rally in San Francisco, IAMC president Ahsan Khan said the rally of Indian Americans represents an extension of the massive unrest in India against the ruling BJP government for its relentless attacks against the secular Constitution. “Indian Americans and people of conscience in the U.S. are seeking accountability from the Hindu nationalist regime that wants to turn Indian Muslims into foreigners and render them stateless,” he said.
“The current regime is taking India backwards,” he said, adding that in time like these, “unity in diversity is our essence.”
Similar protests were held in Minnesota, Indianapolis, Toronto, Montreal, Seattle and Houston.