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Opinion: Anti-Muslim violence in India requires resistance from its diasporic community

International patriotism: the power and privilege of protesting thousands of kilometres away from home
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AANYA BAHL/THE VARSITY
AANYA BAHL/THE VARSITY

Indians in Toronto, this is my direct plea to you.

The story of my patriotism is one that was written for me before I came into this world. They say a baby can hear its mother’s thoughts in the womb, and so I credit my love for the homeland to my biological mother; her longing for home was passed onto me through the complexities of nature and nurture.

I was born in the city of Mumbai to a woman who flew halfway across the world from the United Kingdom while eight months pregnant just so that I could take my first breath on Indian soil. Unfortunately for her, I would live in five different countries by the age of 18, with India only constituting a small portion of that time.

But like my mother, in a far away land my heart yearns for my country, my homeland, my vatan. A slow smile etches on my face every time I hear Hindi, Urdu, or Punjabi dance on the tongues of Torontonians, and I make numerous trips to Indian food joints all over the city, still searching for that perfect taste of home. My first-year dorm room even had the Indian flag proudly displayed on the wall, the tricolour’s bold gaze calling the attention of any passers-by. 

Regardless of my geographically scattered upbringing, I am as patriotic as they come. My country has given me so much — a culture, a sense of belonging, a pride for my people — and I am eternally grateful. It is out of this love, this devotion, that I condemn the actions of my country. Indians, if you’re reading this, wake up. Your people need you.

The past few months’ political turmoil, in the form of anti-Muslim violence, has set India ablaze. Hindus form the country’s majority religious group, while Muslims constitute a sizable minority.

Last year, the governing right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced a new Citizenship Amendment Bill — which later became the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. According to this bill, the Indian government would accept any refugees from surrounding countries, and eventually let them assimilate and become Indian citizens — provided that they were not Muslim.

The announcement of this act sparked a series of national and international protests and demonstrations, including some here in Toronto outside the Indian Consulate.

For the first time, the definition of Indian citizenship was on religious grounds. “WE THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC” the preamble to the Indian constitution reads. How secular are we now?

The aftermath of Modi’s bill wasn’t just contained to ideological disparities. A series of riots broke out across the country — violence knocked on doors, hoping to rear its ugly head. Universities and students, in particular, were hotspots of dissent that the Indian government — through its police forces — so desperately tried to quell.

This tumultuous series of brutality reached its climax during US President Donald Trump’s recent two-day visit to India, during which severe riots broke out on religious grounds in Delhi. Hindu men attacked Muslims, destroyed mosques, and set fire to Muslim homes and stores. But apart from a few pangs and tugs on heartstrings at the sight of bloodied streets on various social media platforms, what did this have to do with me? I have a degree to earn. I have a life to live. What could I possibly do?

As a brown woman, the idea of privilege is still one I’m wrapping my head around. In Toronto, I’ve faced varying stages of racial discrimination, from micro-aggressions to full-on harassment on public transport. Compared to the average white man, I have no privilege, no power — or at least that’s how it seems sometimes.

But you know where I do have power and privilege? Where I don’t feel singled out? Back home in India. Why? For the sole reason that I was born into a Hindu family. My Hindu identity, coupled with my geographic location, so removed from the epicentre of violence, is what makes it absolutely necessary that I speak up now.

“What’s the point?” you may ask. It’s not as if holding up a makeshift sign outside the Indian consulate on a cold winter morning will do anything other than give you a mild-to-moderate risk of frostbite. Even with 10, 100, or 1,000 people, you won’t make that much of a difference. Your noise is a mere whisper compared to the thunderous roar of those back home, in the face of the fire, braving the sticks and stones of a biased and religiously charged police force. You can’t do anything of substance.

To that I say: you’re wrong. Information is a powerful tool — wielded correctly, it can change the world. Equally as powerful as information is privilege, of which those of us in Toronto, far away from home, have plenty. Here, we can afford not to care about the fabric of our country hanging on by a thread. Here, we can afford not to care about our Muslim compatriots, having to choose between their faith and their lives. We can afford to switch off our phones and our computers, muting our news channels so that our minds can be rid of the problems our home is facing.

The reasons we can afford to do all this are privilege and distance. It’s easy to forget about our country — to dissociate from the problems with which it is currently ridden, but I’m asking you not to. With this privilege comes power. Power that our country needs. Power that will keep the momentum going. What we can’t afford to do is let that momentum die.

We have so much impact, even if we’re not physically present in India. Talk to your non-Indian friends about what’s going on in Delhi. Keep the conversation alive. If possible, talk to your family. Ask them about their beliefs. Challenge them. Because soon, India’s fuel will run out. The bonfire of dissent will transform into an ember, slowly dying into a scattering of ashes as remnants of a country that was once a magnificent, brilliant flame.

And as you sleep soundly at night, the Indian government will keep watching as mobs and police forces indulge in vigilantism, wreaking havoc on those of a different faith. It is your silence that will enable the Indian government to maintain its silence. So show solidarity whenever you can, in whatever capacity you can. Resist the urge not to care.

Indians. Wake up. Your country needs you.

Aanya Bahl is a second-year Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Physiology, and Spanish student at University College. She is The Varsity’s Science Correspondent and the Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society.