It is difficult to describe India these days. I start to write each morning and by evening everything has changed. In the years I have lived here, only once have I seen anything like what is happening now. That was in 1990 during the first flood of protests against India’s version of affirmative action. In those days, as a young mother with children to bring up, and without phone or television, I was not paying such close attention. Yet even I was aware that feelings were running incredibly high. Schools were closed for months; courts shut down; transport was disrupted. For three unforgettable days, a curfew was imposed in our city and in many others. (A curfew sounds harmless when it’s happening somewhere else. If it’s happening in your own town, it feels sinister.)
These days most Indians are more politically aware. Even the poorest families have TV, and almost everyone has a cell phone. WhatsApp and Twitter are powerful organizing tools: crowds can be summoned in a matter of minutes. But that alone does not explain the scale of the protests against the government’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which makes Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan eligible for citizenship, but excludes Muslims. The new social-media platforms have helped channel the anger, but they don’t explain the feeling of fear and dread so many Indians now wake up with every morning. Many people here are beginning to realize that, with the rise of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), the basis of India’s democracy is in jeopardy. The country’s constitution, for which so many gave their lives, is being violated by its government. Indians are incredibly patriotic citizens. Here in the world’s largest democracy, the Freedom Struggle is still a living memory for millions. And the average person—like my own husband—feels personally responsible for what their parents and grandparents fought and died for.
Most Indians want to trust their leaders. It is natural for people who have ousted a foreign power to assume that a government of their own can be believed. But in August the crackdown in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, set warning bells ringing more widely than ever. Today, nearly five months later, restrictions on daily life in Kashmir are still in force. Phone service is curtailed, internet access almost nonexistent. Schools have been closed since the crackdown began and people are largely confined to their homes.
I recently met two Kashmiris who appeared to have been traumatized by the events in their region. They were nervous, disoriented. Both social workers, they spoke in low voices about the confusion, frustration, and depression many Kashmiris are experiencing. They spoke of people with chronic illnesses who can’t buy the medicines they need, of the anxiety of not knowing how relatives are faring. They described shops empty of all but the most basic supplies. The Indian media reports that all is now well in Kashmir: everything is normal and daily routines have resumed. No internet and no phones, true, but that’s just for the people’s own safety.