By Madhurita Goswami
Some Indian students are hitting Chicago’s streets to protest against an increasingly authoritarian government back home. But many students don’t want to get involved.
In December 2019, India’s parliament passed a bill that grants citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadis from Pakistan and Rohingyas from Myanmar were excluded from the bill.
At the same time, the government demanded Indian citizens provide documents to be included in a national registry of citizens. Most people don’t have the documents demanded, but the citizenship bill would effectively protect most people left out of the national registry from deportation or internment as long as they weren’t Muslim, said opposition parties and activists.
Echoing student-led protests in India, some Indian university students in Chicago are also rallying against the moves.
Last month, they along with a few Muslim organizations protested on Devon Avenue, where many South Asians live. There was another rally in downtown Chicago on Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day.
Nearly a hundred protesters, including American Indians and Indian students, turned up at the rallies. They brought posters and shouted “Stop the violence, stop the hate” and slogans in Hindi, saying “No matter what you do, we will get freedom.”
The protesters cut across religious lines, but experts and student activists said that supporters of the bill were largely Hindu and from relatively privileged backgrounds.
Tyler Williams, a professor of South Asian studies at the University of Chicago, said most Indian immigrants in the U.S. benefitted from the Indian government’s educational or employment programs and might not represent the views of the country’s disenfranchised classes.
He said students asked him why they should be concerned about the new laws at a panel discussion organized by Northwestern South Asian Solidarity, last month.
“If someone isn’t affected personally, it is difficult to understand why the laws might be an issue for someone else,” Williams said.
“I am privileged too but know what is happening is wrong,” University of Chicago graduate student Pratiti Deb, who was a speaker at the downtown protest, said.
Students who support the regime weren’t thinking, she said. “They are silent because on some level, they know they are wrong.”
Anuranjan Sethi, a Northwestern University doctorate student who attended the downtown protest, said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to create a fissure between Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus.
“If more students were from families feeling the heat of the current laws in India, there would be more participation (in the Chicago protests),” he said.
Abhraneel Sharma, a Northwestern University doctorate student who hails from Assam, said the protests weren’t tailored for all Indians. Assam opposed the citizenship bill but supported the national registry of citizens to stop undocumented immigration through India’s border with Bangladesh.
Some Indian students, who celebrated India’s Republic Day on Jan. 25 with a movie screening at Northwestern University, said they couldn’t attend the rallies because it was cold outside. A few also approved of Modi’s leadership.
Students, who organized a panel discussion on the citizenship bill at the University of Illinois at Chicago on Jan. 23, said they had reached out to all Indian student organizations on campus. However, only a few students were seen at the event.
“It’s difficult to be rigid in a university space. … but many students choose not to engage in debates,” University of Illinois at Chicago doctorate student Ritu Ghosh said.