Hundreds, mostly Indian Americans, gather in the State Capitol rotunda on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 , in St. Paul, to protest against policies in India they say target and discriminate against Muslims. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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ST. PAUL — Malcolm Nazareth felt the need to drive 70 miles from his home in St. Cloud, Minn., to the state Capitol Sunday afternoon to protest what’s happening in his native country.

 

Nazareth, like the roughly 400 others who showed up with him in St. Paul, is alarmed by what he described as India’s slide into “a fascist state.”  

“I simply had to be here,” he said. “It is important that people in India feel there are diaspora Indians around the world who are going to stand in solidarity with them and who are willing to use their clout in the corridors of power around the world.” 

Recent developments over immigration in India sparked Sunday’s protests, which also occurred in more than two dozen cities across the U.S. on the same day India celebrates its independence. 

Last month, India’s parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which allows a pathway to citizenship for immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excludes all Muslims from eligibility. 

Critics say the law violates India’s own constitution, which bars discrimination based on religion. 

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government also recently released a National Register of Citizens in the country’s northeastern state of Assam. Nearly two million people in Assam, many of them Muslim, were not on that list and must prove their citizenship by showing documentation that their family has been living in India before 1971. 

If they can’t prove their citizenship, they face being sent to detention centers, six of which are operating in the region with at least four more planned for construction. 

The Indian government has maintained that the new citizenship law adds important protections to persecuted religious minorities from Muslim-majority countries. 

Critics fear that the NRC will be imposed on a national level and be used in tandem with the CAA to escalate the crackdown. Islam is India’s largest minority religion, with more than 170 million followers. 

“The whole scenario bears a stark resemblance to the events that led to the Holocaust,” said Sadia Tarannum, one of the organizers of Sunday’s rally. “It wasn’t with gas chambers at first. It started with the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that deprived Jews of their citizenship in Germany, which led them to be sent to detention camps.” 

In December, scores took to the streets in India and clashed with police while protesting new citizenship law. At least 22 people died. Government officials in Uttar Pradesh state responded by temporarily banning public gatherings and blacking out the internet. 

“The possibility of a nationwide NRC is terrifying,” Madha Fraust-Nagar, a local writer and activist, told a crowd gathered on all three floors of the Minnesota Capitol’s rotunda. “Only a very small proportion of Indian citizens of any demographic actually have access to documents that can provide proof of status dating before 1971.” 

Even those who can find the necessary documents aren’t automatically in the clear. The government has rejected documents with spelling errors in peoples’ names for citizenship proof, according to Reuters

It’s something that was on Akheel Mohammed’s mind when he mentioned his father and brother, who both currently reside in Hyderabad, India. 

Even though they have access to documents proving their Indian citizenship, Mohammed told Sahan Journal that he fears his family could still end up in a detention center over errors.

“There are 14 different ways to spell, ‘Mohammed,’” he said. 

Mohammed, a board member of the Minnesota chapter of the Indian American Muslim Council, was one of the dozen speakers who addressed the rally Sunday. 

“Today, they excluded Muslims and tomorrow it could be Christians, or it could be Buddhists, or it could be Sikhs,” he told the crowd at one point. “I request all of you to speak up against this draconian, inhuman, anti-secular law.”

The clashes over India’s new citizenship law follow the country’s controversial military occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir, which it did by force in August. 

During speeches and a march outside the Minnesota State Capitol on Sunday, gatherers frequently chanted “azadi,” the Urdu word for freedom. 

Lubna Khatoon, a Muslim and Indian-American who came to show her support, said she hopes Congress will take note of the protests. 

“I think there are a lot of politicians in India who are doing good and are speaking up,” Khatoon said. “But other foreign powers and other large countries can really help them portray that message.” 

The Trump administration has not taken a direct stance on India’s new citizenship law, although it has called in general for the protection of minorities and religious rights. President Trump and Modi have embraced each other’s politics and even headlined a rally together last fall in Houston.

Tarannum said she hopes Sunday’s series of rallies on the issue will help Congress pass a resolution from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from the state of Washington, calling for the end of religious persecution in India. Tarannum added that the United States should consider economic sanctions against India to pressure the government into changing course on the issue. 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...