A War With No Measure: The Indian State Against Its People

Swati Birla (Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Amherst; [email protected]), Ragini Jha (Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Rashmi Kumari (Department of Childhood Studies, Rutgers University)[1]

History has once again failed the people in India. The loss of a birth certificate in floods, a spelling error in the name recorded on the voter’s list — some quirk of fate resulting in a lack of documents to prove one’s status as an “original inhabitant” — has rendered 1.9 million people stateless so far.[2] This has happened in the wake of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a mandatory exercise that seeks to differentiate “citizens” from “non-citizens” on the basis of “appropriate documentation” or legacy data. Beyond the bureaucratic nightmare and the corruption unleashed, NRC also took an enormous monetary and mental toll on poor citizens faced with an uncertain future in the absence of correct documentation, the pressure of collecting documentation within the short timeline provided, as well as the costs and struggles of appealing NRC results.

The NRC has been followed by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which directly contravenes the language and spirit of the Indian Constitution, redefining the citizen on a religious basis. 200 million Indian Muslims now face the prospect of becoming potentially stateless in light of the CAA.[3] NRC-CAA dispenses with earlier precarities, and the age-old debate of whether Muslims are second class citizens in India; it simply erases their citizenship altogether.

Violence, sponsored by the State, has become the structuring principle of economic and social relations in India since the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took power in 2014. At the epicenter of the newest cycle of escalation has been the NRC-CAA, which has brought to the table the complete transformation of the Indian state and its constitutional basis, as well as a specific attack on the Muslim community in India.

The resistance to NRC-CAA has been answered by the deployment of Rapid Action Forces from the Central Reserve Police Forces, who have unleashed what is being quickly termed a “reign of terror” on Muslim neighborhoods. Extensively communalized police forces have gone on the rampage, finally taking over the work of the mob in earlier cases of pogroms and riots: entering and smashing homes and shops in Muslims neighborhoods assaulting people, men, women, and even children, smashing property, and looting, stealing cash and jewellery, and in some cases trying to blow up LPG cooking cylinders.[4] In a new low, reports have emerged of Muslim children being detained and taken into police custody, where they have been beaten, tortured, and sexually abused. Lawyers and political activists across India, and particularly in UP and Assam have been arrested under new and draconian laws such as the UAP and NIA acts. These activists, including Akhil Gogoi, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Sadaf Jafar have alleged serious human rights abuses and torture in custody.[5] The structural violence designed to exclude over 200 million Muslims from public, political, and economic life is nothing short of an overt and, as we detail below, subterranean war by any means possible led by the Indian State against its Muslim population.

The Failed Promises of the Indian State

The making of the Indian State, caught up as it was in the crisis and violence of Partition, was both an affirmation of secularism, liberalism, and equality, on the one hand, as well as an Othering of the Muslim as non-modern subjects that threaten the idea of secular, progressive India. Muslims have thus been seen as the underlying cause for the break-up of the territorial integrity of the nation. The Modi-Shah duo has brought about a serious qualitative shift in this post-independence project of a nation state, whether it be through the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the final “integration” of Kashmir into India, or through the proposed NRC-CAA.

After the Modi-orchestrated 2002 Gujarat genocide, in a matter of a week 2,000+ Muslims were killed and more than 5,000 houses and shops belonging to the community were burnt down.[6] A rhetoric was slowly built around the “Gujarat model of development” such that softer proponents of Hindutva, and even some towards the center, characterized the genocide as an aberration, and chose to counter-balance the mass murder with a platform of economic development. This amnesia was cultivated through an aspiration for “India Shining” and is complicit and implicated in the structural and vigilante violence against Muslims today.

As the crisis in governance and security has deepened, India has fallen precipitously on all welfare and development indicators since the Modi government took power in 2014. The country currently has the highest number (one-quarter) of undernourished people in the world, lagging behind war- and disaster-affected countries like Afghanistan and Haiti.[7] In an economy deeply dependent on agriculture and manufacturing, the calculated backing out of investments in basic infrastructure facilities such as water and electricity provision has doubled the unemployment rate, reaching a record 45-year high. Five million people lost their jobs between 2016 and 2018, and the beginning of the decline in jobs coincided with the decision to demonetize in November 2016 affecting over 80% of the economy. Demonetization stands as one of the clearest markers of this government’s absolute economic failure.

On the question of nation building and political authoritarianism, another set of numbers gives a clear sense of heightened state repression and increased militarization. While employment falls in all public sector jobs, the expenditure on military and police in India has increased three-fold. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as the topmost arms importer in the world, India has outpaced China in its military expenditure as compared to national income.[8] Indeed, the scales and intensity of conflicts at the boundaries is so high that the average rate of movement of Indian military, paramilitary, and special forces is about once every few months, converting entire towns and cities into garrisons punctuated by unmarked graves.

Political Hopes

India’s current situation cannot be understood as anything but a rapid descent into a long and dark night: the changes wrought, and systematic generalization of violence, have been too structural for us to pretend otherwise. The NRC-CAA process is really the crescendo in a process whose impulse is to effect a change in the nature of the Indian State altogether with an absolutist authoritarian imposition of the Hindu nation at a time of a vicious economic crisis, such that all recourse to law, constitution, political dissent, and alternative imaginaries is violently foreclosed.[9]

We are living through a nightmarish war that the State is waging against its people. The emptiness of the founding promises of this nation have become inescapable with the annexation of Kashmir. We are writing with a sense of urgency because the sheer magnitude of the crisis facing what is the second largest Muslim population in the world will not be a crisis for the nation alone; it will indeed affect the world profoundly.

The depth of this crisis forces us to raise three provocations for the reader, whether they be engaged in South Asia or elsewhere:

  • Despite the centrality of the Constitution in the protests and analysis about the NRC-CAA, it is clear that we need to have a coherent critique and alternative to the predominant form of the nation which has long been the horizon for self-determination and liberation: economic, political, and social. Until we do so, not only will we see a continuation of this violence in South Asia, but also the limitation of radical energies as they remain invested in the recuperation of this particular idea of the nation. The new spaces that have emerged through this struggle must force us to think of new imaginaries and ideals of remaking countries, boundaries, and nationhood along different lines;
  • The contemporary waves of peoples’ revolt — from Sudan to Chile, from Bolivia to Syria, from India to Myanmar — against the authoritarian exercise of economic and political power fuelled by corruption and sectarianism, reveal changing links between state and capital. A new symmetry between them is emerging. Attempts to exclude and govern the Enemy and the Unwanted (Surplus) have led to increased mobilization of resources by states, both spectacular and structural. In the face of this, we will need new modes of political refusal, and take lessons from simultaneously ascending struggles across the world which show no sign of giving out in the face of new mobilizations of capital, technology, and finance by state; and
  • As we write, we are deeply conscious of the experiences of the people of Bosnia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Syria, and the power and cynicism of the humanitarian geopolitical order. If these experiences reveal the futility of the politics of human rights and empathy, we know there is an urgent need to imagine and sustain a new basis for global solidarity politics, and new political imaginaries of being human, of liberation, and of justice.

As people, especially Muslims and women, are taking over the streets of India, the struggle is both within neighborhoods and on the streets as we redefine solidarities, envision new futures, and set out to create the political conditions to realize them. But the big question is, how do we build local and transnational politics that will build on the lessons of other places and other times but be audacious enough to craft the new languages and politics that our times demand?


[1] The authors wish to thank Ankit Sharma (Department of Sociology, UC Santa Cruz) for his comments on earlier versions of this piece.

[2] See the 2018 Citizens Against Hate report on the implementation of the National Register of Citizens, “Making Foreigner: Report on NRC Updation in Assam and the Risk of Mass Statelessness” (http://citizensagainsthate.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Making-Foreigner.pdf).

[3] Millions of others, such as women, children, disabled peoples, mobile populations and tribal communities, for whom documentation of name and lineage can be challenging, face similarly dire crises of proving citizenship in the absence of data.

[4] “Communal” in the Indian context refers to a rightward shift of communities to embrace ideas of Hindu supremacy.

[5] Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the National Investigation Agency Act (amended). Note, Sadaf Jafar was released on bail on 3 January due to failure of the UP police to bring any evidence against her.

[6] While the official toll was about 1,169, the reports by CJP (Citizens for Justice and Peace) and Sabrang approximated over 2,500 Muslim lives including the unidentified and missing ones. For a full report, see “Concerned Citizens’s Tribunal – Gujarat 2002” (https://www.sabrang.com/tribunal/).

[7] See the Global Hunger Index (https://www.globalhungerindex.org/results.html).

[8] See reports from Bloomberg (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-01/china-tensions-push-india-into-world-s-top-five-defense-spenders) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2017/state-major-arms-transfers-8-graphics).

[9] At the time of writing this article, Chief Ministers of 11 states, representing 56% of the Indian population, have announced their refusal to implement this Act in their states. Despite the massive opposition and protests, the BJP government has enforced the CAA from 10 January.