Names of those killed in protests on an India Gate artwork on 11 Jan 2020. Image: Sanjeev Yadav

Walls – physical, digital, bureaucratic – are going up all over the world, dividing citizen from citizen. The very notion of citizenship is being questioned and restricted. India is no exception but the rising death toll and extensive unrest in Delhi shows that ordinary people are prepared to risk their lives to stand against this onslaught.

Three intertwined provocations – the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) – introduced by the Hindu supremacist BJP government of Narendra Modi have brought us to this point.

The CAA, passed in December 2019, stripped away the secular underpinnings of the Indian constitution by defining citizenship in terms of religion. Sold by the BJP government as a welcoming gesture to refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it extended only to religious denominations such as Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Muslims and atheists were specifically excluded.

This Act allows those non-Muslims, long-settled in Indian border states like Assam, who have been made stateless by the NRC because they did not have the right paperwork, to claim citizenship. The NRC, which was carried out in 2019 in Assam, left nearly two million people stateless, many of whom were Muslims. The government has announced its intentions to roll it out across India in 2020. This is widely seen as a measure to root out Muslims and detain or deport them.

The NPR, which lists people resident in an area for more than six months, forms the basis of the NRC and will be used to issue the deeply unpopular identity cards. Many non-BJP states, like Kerala and Bengal, have refused to carry out the NPR.

Women have played a central part in what began as largely peaceful protests across the country but became ugly when the police responded with unwarranted brutality or stood by as Hindutva mobs with the backing of the government attacked Muslim mosques, homes and shops.

The Independent Women’s Initiative produced an 80 page report, based on first-hand accounts of 18 women who experienced police brutality at Jamia Millia Islamia University where it all kicked off in December, the day after the CAA was passed.

A 30-year-old self-described ‘home maker’ Abida says "What decided it for me was that we saw the police attack girls." With fear in her heart, having never participated in a protest before, she got caught up in the violence, protesting, "We are housewives, not terrorists."

A 21-year-old photo journalism student, Afreen, who had initially attended the protests to take photos for her portfolio describes how the police lathi-charged (using batons) the peaceful demonstrators who pelted stones in self-defence but were then teargassed by the police. When the women decided to hide in the library, the police followed them and threw tear gas shells into the library to literally smoke them out.

Aysha Renna, a 22-year-old history student, who stood up to the police and their batons to protect a fellow male protestor briefly achieve worldwide fame as the face of the student protests. She was asked if she felt scared at that moment, "Actually, this Hindutva agenda targeting us is the scariest thing and we are facing that. So, now why do we have to be scared of this police or their police lathi? The cause is right. We have to do it now."

When two women displayed an anti-CAA banner from their apartment balcony in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, a mob of 150 people, including their landlord, gathered on the street and stormed up the stairs, threatening to break in if they were not let in. They were blockaded for seven hours and finally escaped under police protection. One of them, Surya Rajappan said, via email, "We are privileged, educated young professionals living in the heart of the national capital of the country, and if this is what we had to undergo for exercising our rights, I shudder to imagine the atrocities being perpetrated on the defenseless and voiceless millions across Kashmir, UP and interior India…"

Romila Thappar, distinguished veteran historian who joined the protests at the age of 88, commented on the mob yelling "Jai shri Ram" (Victory to Ram, a Hindu god) and "Mother and sister fucker" as they descended on the protestors, "Is this Hindutva Hinduism in which sexist abuse and the glory of the deity are coupled?" Via email, she observed that, "it was the action of a fascist government and we have to come to terms with the fact that we are now under fascist rule."

After a week of violence, the death toll in Delhi stands somewhere between forty-two and forty-seven. Prime Minister Modi was slow to speak out. When he finally did, he limply called for calm instead of condemning members of his party for their inflammatory comments and actions. In the affected areas of the city, an uneasy calm hangs heavy in the air.