For more than 50 days, thousands of activists in New Delhi have sipped tea, sang songs, created art, and shared their stories with their children. And they have done it all from the middle of a major highway through the city.
But as votes were counted from the weekend’s local legislative elections, the protesters—most of them Muslim women—fell silent and refused to speak, India’s ABP News reported. The election results sent a powerful message of their own to the Hindu nationalist ruling party, which has stirred contention in the country with policies perceived as anti-Muslim.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the general election in May but has lost several state elections since then. The BJP only secured seven of the 70 seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, which makes laws for the metropolitan area of New Delhi. The local governing anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party won 63 seats. For the past five years, the Aam Aadmi Party has emphasized policies supporting the poor, including fixing public schools and providing healthcare and electricity subsidies.
“This shows that in this toxic atmosphere of hate and division, what people really want is a stable and compassionate government,” said Priya Dutt, a former member of the Indian Parliament.
As a central aspect of its campaign, the BJP lashed out against the protests that began in December over the Citizenship Amendment Act. The law will fast-track the naturalization of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan because of religious persecution before 2015. Protesters criticize the law for making religion a basis for citizenship and for excluding Muslims, especially Rohingya refugees who left Myanmar, also known as Burma, en masse in 2017. Nearly 30 people have died since the protests began.
Farhana Nahid, who attended the protests with her daughter and granddaughter, told the BBC the law is discriminatory. She said she brought her family members along so “if I am not around they could take the struggle forward,” and then asked, “Why is the government isolating Muslims? We want [the law] to be scrapped.”
BJP members ramped up their anti-protest rhetoric ahead of the New Delhi vote. During a rally on Feb. 2, Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, called the female protesters “terrorists” who should be fed with “bullets, not biryani.” Biryani is a popular Indian rice dish that originated in Muslim communities.
At another address late last month, Parvesh Verma, the BJP’s member of Parliament for West Delhi, warned voters the protesters would enter their homes and assault and kill their women.
“If the BJP comes to power on 11 February, you will not find a single protester within an hour,” he said. “And within a month, we will not spare a single mosque built on government land.”
The campaign has already incited violence against protesters. New Delhi recorded three shootings at protest sites. At two of the attacks, gunmen shouted Hindu-nationalist slogans.
Neelanjan Sircar, a political scientist at India’s Ashoka University, told Agence France-Presse that Modi’s party employed “political polarization” to attempt to clinch a victory.
“The strategy is quite clear in that sense, but it’s a very dangerous game,” he said. “These are not wounds that heal easily.”