Citizenship Act protests: 'I wait in silence as my world falls apart'

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Spike in anxiety levelsImage source, Nikita Deshpande/BBC
Image caption,
Rikat Hashmi says she feels more anxious now as a Muslim in India

Rikat Hashmi, a Muslim student in Delhi, explains why she feels anxious about her future as an Indian Muslim.

Like many Muslims in India, I now spend my days wondering what the future holds for us.

Will I be denied a job because of my religion? Will I be evicted from my home? Will I be lynched by a mob? Will this fear ever end?

"Be patient," my mother tells me after a night of violence at my university campus - Jamia Millia Islamia - in the capital Delhi.

Students were allegedly beaten up, tear-gassed in the library and bathrooms, and terrorised to stop their protest against a controversial new citizenship law.

This law - the Citizenship Amendment Act - paves the way to citizenship for persecuted people from three countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it offers amnesty only to non-Muslim illegal immigrants.

Muslims have been excluded, and it's this discrimination that is at the heart of the students' protests.

But why did the police launch an assault on them?

They say it was because students torched vehicles and provoked a response, but where is the evidence against us?

Police say there was no firing, but what of those who lie wounded in hospitals?

Media caption,

Mohammed Tameen says police shot him at close range

I am studying for a degree in dentistry at Jamia university, and I've witnessed several peaceful protests during my time here.

I wasn't part of the protest on Sunday, which later turned violent. But I was a victim of the aftermath as police launched widespread attacks on students.

I remember howling in fear as the police approached our hostel. We switched off the lights and tried to hide. The night passed and luckily, we were saved. But here's what became clear: it didn't matter if you had voiced your criticism or not, because we were the target. We, the Muslims of India.

I remember waking up to the sounds of various Hindu devotional songs as a child.

We were the only Muslim family in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood in the eastern state of Orissa.

We always celebrated festivals together - they would apply henna on my hands during Eid, and my siblings and I went to their houses to celebrate the triumph of good over evil during the festival of Navaratri.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Students of Jamia Millia Islamia face off with police

Some of my Hindu friends would often come over to enjoy biryani, a popular dish of rice, meat and spices that is traditionally served in Muslim households.

There was no mosque in the vicinity, but my father wasn't too bothered by this since he wasn't a practising Muslim. My mother continued offering namaz (prayers) five times a day at our home.

I attended a convent school with a very large number of Hindus, and there was never a moment of religious difference.

Only once did a friend ask me about the myth that Muslims don't shower everyday, and I laughed it off. "We - I - definitely take a shower every day," I said.

Religion was a part of our lives, but I was never made aware of my identity as a Muslim. Until now.

Forces are out to divide us and I'm not sure if I can relive such experiences again.

We are increasingly being cast as meat-eaters, as rapists corrupting society, as terrorists defending Pakistan, as lovers converting Hindus, and as minorities who will take over the country.

In reality, we are on our way to becoming second-class citizens who must learn to live in fear.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Protests against the new citizenship law have spread across India

In one of his tweets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for calm during the protests against the citizenship law. He said: "This is the time to maintain peace, unity and brotherhood."

A day before, in front of thousands of people and dozens of cameras, he had said: "People who are setting fire [to property] can be seen on TV... They can be identified by the clothes they are wearing."

He didn't elaborate but this seemingly veiled attack on my religion has, ironically, only made me more religious.

I don't mean this in the physical sense. I was 16 when I started wearing the hijab.

I had moved to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to study in Aligarh Muslim University, and I came across many young women wearing the headscarf.

Read more about the citizenship law

It was an inspiring moment for me, and I decided to make it a part of my personality.

Today, at 22, I feel compelled to stand up and fight against the misinformation that is brazenly spread against my religion and my country's constitution. I want to voice criticism against discriminatory policies and the faltering economy.

But each time, I am rejected as "anti-national" or "anti-Hindu" and forced back into the shadows. I am told that I am "raking up the Hindu-Muslim issue" if I express my opinion against the government's policies.

We are living in a dangerous new era where religion and nationalism are intertwined.

Sometimes, I find people staring at me because of my hijab as I walk down the street.

It may be an irrational fear, but the atmosphere of Islamophobia is certainly spreading. I want to call this out, but it's happening within full view of the media and the government.

The ruling party blatantly espouses a Hindu nationalist ideology and some laws are now based on religious discrimination. Vigilante groups are being empowered to carry out hate crimes against Muslims.

In these extremely unfortunate circumstances, voices of dissent are slowly fading out.

This isn't the inclusive India I grew up in, and we deserve better.

We, the 200 million Muslims of India.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
About 1.9 million people in Assam were stripped of citizenship

The anxiety is building. We talk in whispers about how things could get worse with another law in the making that would require the entire country to prove their citizenship.

The home minister has promised the nation it will be rolled out before the next election in 2024.

But there's still hope.

Voices of support from across the country are rising above hatred and vile bigotry. Maybe it will inspire those who stand against us to re-emerge with reason and humanity?

For now, I wait in silence as my world falls apart.

I have been evacuated from the hostel and forced to go on vacation. My education has taken a hit. I can't travel to see my family as they live in another city where protests are boiling over.

So I park myself at the home of a local guardian, and recall my mother's words: "Be patient and hold on with all your strength."

As told to Pooja Chhabria, by Rikat Hashmi.