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The curious case of a Palestinian flag at an Indian anti-Modi protest in New York

Palestinian teen shows support for protesters, calling Indian and Israeli premiers part of 'wave of authoritarianism'
The level of brutality towards students has sent tremors across India and around the globe (Azad Essa/MEE)
By in
New York City

It is a chilly and wet evening in New York City. A flurry of snow in the late afternoon has left sleet on the sidewalks, trees heaving with wedged icicles on branches, and drivers gingerly navigating the slippery intersections.

Around 250 protesters, covered in beanies, draped in scarves and many dwarfed by their oversized jackets, assemble under a scaffolding outside the Indian Consulate-General office on the corner of 64th Street in Manhattan to protest against recent developments in India.

'I brought the Palestinian flag to show solidarity with the Muslims in India, and the Kashmiri people, because they are, like us, occupied and oppressed'

- Ahmed, 15-year-old protester

Late last week, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind signed into law the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that excludes Muslim migrants and refugees living in India from becoming citizens.

As part of a series of recent interventions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the law is seen as the latest attempt to undermine the rights and status of Muslim citizens, and turn India into a Hindu state.

Indian students in over 50 universities in 25 cities have taken to the streets to reject the move. Their protests has been met with a fierce crackdown, including the storming of universities, the use of tear gas and even live fire.

On Wednesday, protesters, made up of mostly Indian students from in and around New York City, said they had come to register their dissent with Modi's government, not just over the CAA but also over plans for a controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) so far only implemented in the border state of Assam.

Another issue mentioned was the government's policies in Kashmir, where India's consul general in New York last month suggested that India should imitate Israel's policy of building settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"We organised this protest as a way to channel the anger and frustration we felt as the successive waves of news hit us," Sayantani Mukherjee, one of the organisers of the protest, told MEE.

Mukherjee also compared attacks by security forces on student protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University to the 1938 'Kristallnacht' Nazi attacks on Jewish businesses and shops in Germany.

"All of us organisers grew up in India and went to Indian universities. We felt helpless that we weren’t back there fighting in the trenches with our fellow students and comrades," said Mukherjee.

"This government has long been testing the elastic bounds of public morality since 2014, but it seems as though the recent passing of the CAA and the attacks on Jamiaa and AMU have finally woken people up to the reality of the Hindu Rashtra," she added, using the Hindu word for nation.

On Wednesday, similar protests also took place in London, where some 1,000 students from the South Asian diaspora turned up to show their solidarity with students in India.

In NYC, protesters like Fahiz Abdul, 26, from the Indian state of Kerala, said he had come to say that the actions of the Modi government would not be accepted by the country's people.

"What Modi has done, has hurt my soul," Abdul said. "It is a second partition."

Another protester, 23-year-old Ashabul Khan from Bangladesh, said that though he was not from India, it was impossible not to be disturbed by the images of libraries and universities being stormed by police officers.

"Besides, what happens in India will impact Bangladesh and the rest of the region. We cannot stand idle," he said.

india protest CAA NYC
 The fear is that once the Modi government introduces the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the new law would be used to subject Muslims to harassment  (Azad Essa/MEE)

Protesters held banners of BR Ambedkar, a respected intellectual who campaigned from the 1920s to the 1950s against India's discriminatory caste system, and posters that read: "Would you really be happy in a Hindu Rashtra?" and "India against CAA and NRC". 

They chanted, sang and called for freedom from tyranny.

Between the cacophony of voices, and the home-made posters and banners, a youngster with his head wrapped in a keffiyeh scarf, delicately unfurled a Palestinian flag and held it firmly in front of his chest, before joining a chorus of chants denouncing the new citizen act and the India's descent into authoritarianism.

It is among the very few flags at the demonstration.

Asked why he had brought a Palestinian flag to the protest, Ahmed Khalidi*, 15, of Palestinian and Russian heritage, said he had a different reason for attending.

He said that not only do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi resemble one other, but the fact that they are working together made him feel that he had to get involved.

"They both use religion and ethnicity as a tool to distract from what it is really going on. They are both part of this wave of authoritarianism that is gripping the world," he said, holding the flag as it collapses a little in his arms.

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Raising it back up, he added: "I brought the Palestinian flag to show solidarity with the Muslims in India, and the Kashmiri people, because they are, like us, occupied and oppressed."

As darkness set in, Khalidi requests that his name is changed. He also asks MEE not to show him with his flag.

"I don't want it used against me, later," the soft-spoken Khalidi says.

Protests against the new law in India have continued despite the government's attempts to outlaw the assembly of people, cut the internet and use intimidatory tactics to keep people at home.

Organisers in New York City say the work to challenge Modi's policies has only just begun. They, too, agree that the struggle is more than merely Modi.

"Modi, [Donald] Trump, Xi [Jingping], [Jair] Bolsonaro, and Netanyahu are reading from the same playbook. They are borrowing from each other when it comes to economic and social control, and on the literal technologies that [allow for] the implementation of their colonial policies," said Mukherjee, the student activist.

"If the right-wing has been able to achieve internationalism in this sense, then we as subjects of fascist regimes must build deeper and stronger international alliances."

"It has taken far too long and far too many dead bodies, but it seems as though most people are no longer wish to be complicit in this regime through their silence."

* Not his real name.