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Indian student activism sets an example for U.S.

While the U.S. is caught in its own fascist nightmare, other countries are dealing with their own. One such case is India, the world’s largest democratic republic, with over 800 million voters. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, has a cult of personality, cultivating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the right-wing Hindu-nationalist party that is currently dominating India — as a personal army.

In Dec., the BJP government passed a bill called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 to provide a pathway to citizenship for refugees and migrants that have fled Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The key distinction is that the CAA provides a pathway to citizenship for Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh refugees, but not Muslim ones. The BJP justifies this by stating that Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are Muslim-majority countries.

The CAA is related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which requires that Indian citizens provide documentation to prove their citizenship. However, the NRC is only implemented in Assam, a state in east India that borders Bangladesh. The register became an issue when many citizens themselves didn’t have proper documentation and were labeled “foreign.” Despite this, the BJP government intends on implementing the register for the entire country.

There is no need to talk about the bill in any depth or the dynamics of religious politics in India. It’s very clearly wrong and is a dangerous move designed to target Muslim minorities and set the precedent to target others. The overtly fascist move sparked large-scale protests from Muslim universities, but expanded to many other universities in India when students were attacked and detained for the initial protest. It’s a far cry from the U.S., where students only seem to protest when their own bubble is directly affected. Even then, many campuses don’t seem to care.

The stress culture or workload in the U.S. is not preventing large-scale mobilization. Indian universities are notoriously difficult, with intense workloads and harsh grading systems. What differs between India and the U.S. is that student activism in India is often backed by political parties on both the national and state level. Unlike U.S. political parties, the Indian political system values the contributions of younger voters, which prompts them to engage more.

In the U.S., many Republicans hold a condescending belief that younger generations have a “lack of understanding” of the world, so young people’s political views are belittled. The Democrats have their own struggles, having a tough time connecting with the desires and views of younger generations. In contrast with India, even with the culture of respecting elders and the ageist philosophies of elders knowing better, there is an understanding that the younger generations comprise a significant portion of the voters, so it’s best to engage with them.

With that being said, the BJP has also weaponized student activism, which is fracturing the key demographic. This is nowhere more than at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a prestigious humanities university and hub for student activism. The primary group on campus is the JNU Students’ Union, which has been outspoken against the CAA and the NRC. On Jan. 5, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attacked students and teachers associated with the student union on campus with rods, sticks, and acid. ABVP is a right-wing student group backed by the BJP, and associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu-nationalist, volunteer paramilitary group.

While political violence in India is not uncommon, a targeted attack like this was different. The BJP had been working to set themselves up as untouchable, and this attack marks a notable instance of an attempt to silence groups critical of the government’s policies. This has backfired, as universities across India showed solidarity with JNU students, and the calls from students against the Modi government’s fascist tendencies has grown louder.

A good chunk of the media in India has been focused on the discussion of the BJP’s facilitation of political violence, directly or indirectly. The direct targeting was what made people notice, but the BJP’s role in facilitating that political violence had already been there. It took the JNU attack for the implicit call to violence to be a subject of discussion.

The U.S. is currently in a similar position to that of India. Hate crimes and right-wing terrorist attacks, such as the Tree of Life shooting and the attack at the Unite the Right Charlottesville, are rarely associated with conservative politics by the media and the general public. That would require the Republicans to acknowledge their own passivity in addressing it as well as how the rhetoric espoused by President Trump that emboldened and inspired these attacks. It’s scary that it will take something like an organized, targeted attack on Trump’s critics or something worse before this discussion is even relevant.

A significant factor in the growing radicalization of the right-wing is the weaponization of social media, which is becoming a tool for fascists across the world. The Republicans have set new precedents in the spread of disinformation, through their own platforms on Twitter and other social media, their approval of outlets like Brietbart and Fox News, and their attacks on journalistic integrity. They add their rhetoric on top of it to play themselves off as victims or saints. Simultaneously, the disinformation leads to political violence while undermining whatever integrity is left of the nation’s political system.

India faces a similar issue now. The ABVP organized the JNU attack through WhatsApp. The app, owned by Facebook, has been used to spread disinformation about issues like Kashmir and the CAA. Facebook’s involvement is important. In the U.S., the company has been very hands-off in handling disinformation. But in India, Facebook is practically nonexistent. Disinformation has also spread beyond the BJP, and the government has to shut down the internet at points in their authoritarian attempt to control the situation. But it is still an advantage for the BJP, and it has helped them cultivate a façade of infallibility.

Ultimately, the goal of fascists is to create hopelessness and undermine our faith in institutions to gain power and control. Both the BJP and the Republicans look like they’re succeeding, rallying around nationalism and religion. It feels hopeless, and the current sense of despair is disheartening. For students in the U.S., it doesn’t help that the political system refuses to engage with us. But, we should take inspiration from the students in India who are standing in solidarity with their peers at JNU. They are fighting for a better future as the fascists try to take it away from them. We should be doing that more intensely. If the political system doesn’t engage us, we’ll engage it.