While tens of thousands of students protest a controversial law, experts say the ruling BJP, a majoritarian government, could go to any lengths to suppress the agitation.
On December 14, as students at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi took turns to speak against a controversial law that discriminates against Muslims, there were differences within their ranks.
The hot-blooded younger lot would take the microphone to ask people from nearby Muslim neighbourhoods to join the protest. The senior, mostly doctoral students, insisted that they focus on how the government has undermined India’s secular constitution instead of making it a religious issue.
Six people have been killed in clashes with police over the weekend and student leaders fear the government is finding excuses to put down a non-violent movement as videos of police brutality make the rounds.
“This is basically the Kashmir formula being implemented here. The government knows it can do whatever it wants and get away with it,” says Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, an Indian security expert.
Earlier this year, New Delhi unilaterally revoked Muslim-majority Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, after imprisoning most of the region's leadership.
“There wasn’t a major blowback as initially feared. This has emboldened the government and it thinks it can contain any situation,” Routray adds.
But the disputed Kashmir territory has been under a constant communication lockdown with internet services suspended and hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground to deal with agitation.
“This law is just to deflect attention from other issues where government is faring poorly,” says Routray.
As student protests gained momentum, spreading across several parts of the country, Modi urged caution.
"Violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing," Modi said on Twitter.
"Debate, discussion and dissent are essential parts of democracy but, never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos."
Last week, the Indian parliament approved changes in a law that allows Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist and Parsi immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship.
The amendment, which according to some reports benefits some 31,313 people, doesn’t cover Muslim refugees from Myanmar or the Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil community, reinforcing fears that the Modi government is undermining India’s status as a secular nation.
“This is against the fundamental tenets of our constitution, which gives equal rights to every community,” says Ziya Us Salam, a journalist and author.
“It will divide the country on religious lines.”
Critics view the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as part of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's larger goal of excluding what the government calls "illegal immigrants", a dog whistle intended for its Muslim minority, from the country.
A large section of Indians, who believe in equality and secularism, fear that the CAA is part of another controversial bureaucratic measure - the National Register of Citizens (NRC) - that earlier this year made around two million people stateless overnight in the state of Assam.
The NRC requires residents of the northeastern state to furnish documents of their ancestors to be enlisted as Indian citizens. Those who aren’t able to do so are struck off the register. Some of them are Hindus, who make up the support base of Modi’s BJP.
Now the CAA lets them apply for citizenship while Muslims won’t be able to do the same, strengthening the argument that the exercise has been a way for BJP to pacify its constituency of hardline Hindus.
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah made matters worse by suggesting the NRC will be extended all over the country, raising fears that the exercise to prove citizenship will be used to target Muslims.
But the spontaneous protests, mostly led by student activists, has put the Modi government in a tight corner, experts say.
“Perhaps the most encouraging thing in all of this is that young people have found their voice. These protests haven’t been engineered by some politician,” says Salam.
“People are coming out on the streets in small cities such as Araria, Mangalore and Udaipur.”
At Jamia Millia, which has become the epicentre of demonstrations, classes have been suspended as hundreds of students joined rallies for the fourth day on Monday.
“It’s important we continue these protests. If a precedent is set where the government feels it can have its way then it you don’t know what it might do one year down the road,” a student protester from New Delhi told TRT World.
Despite repeated attempts, no one from the Modi government was available for comment.