NEW DELHI — Atithi devo bhava, a Sanskrit phrase that means a guest is equal to God, is bandied about with a great deal of exuberance in India. But on 23 December, a 24-year-old German exchange student was not only expelled from the country after he attended a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), but he was given just eight hours to pack his belongings and leave.
“It was totally untransparent,” said Jakob Lindenthal in a recent conversation with HuffPost India. “Looking back, it was an experience that I will pass on to people who have to deal with authoritarian institutions wherever it may be in the world.”
Lindenthal, who grew up in Bavaria and studies physics at the Dresden University of Technology, came to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras in July 2019. At a protest in Chennai on 19 December, he held up a sign that read, “1933-1945, We Have Been There.”
“What I was trying to say is that between 1933 and 1945, when Europe was destroyed, there was not a long way to go,” he said. “In 1933, it was not visible that all this would happen in the next 12 years. I feel that Indian democracy is at a critical point where there are lots of dangers to it.”
Almost a month after his ordeal, Lindenthal spoke to HuffPost India about the sign he held up at the protest, the hour-long session in which he was grilled by an Indian official, the questions she asked him, and why foreigners expect so much more from India and its government.
“In 1933, it was not visible that all this would happen in the next 12 years. I feel that Indian democracy is at a critical point where there are lots of dangers to it.””
Why did you want to join India’s CAA protests?
Most of my friends were strictly against it. They told me about what was happening but I was also following the news. I started to read up on how it could be used in connection with the NRC (National Register of Citizens). I really like the Indian Constitution and I liked the way Indian democracy started out as secular to unite all these ethnic and religious groups in India. I felt this law was really threatening this secular character. So, I decided to join my friends. They were going to protests so I said I would come along.
Did it cross your mind that joining the protest might jeopardise your visa?
It did. I had gauged this was the harshest reaction that I could face, but I was not expecting it. In most western countries, participating in demonstrations is part of student life. It is seen as normal and nothing that would exceed your rights as a student.
You held up a sign that read, “1933-1945, We Have Been There.”
Looking back, this sign was a side note. The sign that I felt was more important was on the other side of the placard. That read, ‘No democracy without dissent.’
Did you feel this was a fair comparison? Some people compare the Modi Government to the Nazi regime. Others feel it is diluting the experience of the Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany.
I was not drawing a direct comparison between Nazi Germany and the Indian government today. What I was trying to say is that between 1933 and 1945, when Europe was destroyed, there was not a long way to go. In 1933, it was not visible that all this would happen in the next 12 years. I feel that Indian democracy is at a critical point where there are lots of dangers to it. But that does not necessarily mean it all would end in a nationalist disaster. In my opinion, there are still ways to stop this at an earlier stage. That is what I was trying to express through that sign.
You were trying to say that India is going down a dangerous road.
Exactly. If 1 is a perfectly working democracy and 10 is the Nazi government in the1940s, India is at 4 or something. But the road is not one way. It is not irreversible. We can go back to secular India as well.
Tell us what happened.
On 21 December, I received an email from the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) that I should come to the office. They did not mention a reason. I was also contacted by IIT Madras that I was to go to the FRRO office on Monday. I tried to follow up but they would not give me any details. When I went on Monday (23 December), the official kept asking me about my political opinions. We touched upon the topic of the CAA protests. She asked me about my opinion on immigration and freedom of speech. Clearly, they knew that I had been there. It felt like they were checking on my opinions. I had never been in that sort of situation. In Germany, that kind of thing does not happen. I thought that it was an academic discussion that was initiated by the official because she was just interested. I had no idea why she was asking all this. So, I was giving her very fairly honest answers. We disagreed on some points. She was engaging in the debate. I felt like why should we not have an honest debate. It was held in a fairly respectful manner.
After some time, she said that she needed to do some paperwork for my registration extension and sent me out for ten minutes. She was apparently talking to fellow officers. She called me back in and told me that I would have to leave the country immediately because I had violated the visa rules and the Indian government felt that my stay in India was inappropriate. Basically, she said that I was misusing my visa.
That sounds frightening.
In a way it was. It was totally untransparent, what they wanted and what they were aiming at. Looking back, it was an experience that I will pass on to people who have to deal with authoritarian institutions wherever it may be in the world.
She was not transparent about why you were called in for a meeting.
They said they called me because my registration was about to expire because I had not registered online. I had never received a letter or email asking me to do so. So, I was really surprised because I did not know about the procedure. But the coordinator at IIT Madras told me everything was fine and I did not have to worry. So, I was surprised to be called in for that reason. But even before we went into that discussion, she had started asking me what I did in my free time and afterwards she really scrutinised my political opinions.
“She had started asking me what I did in my free time and afterwards she really scrutinised my political opinions.”
But the real motive for calling you was not this online registration. You were misled.
That could easily be but I cannot prove it. In the East German socialist dictatorship, that was a very common method. To probe people for their opinions by calling them in for different reasons and slowly letting the conversation slide into a more critical field and try to gather evidence of their political opinions.
What did she ask you about immigration? What opinion did she offer?
She was asking how I was viewing Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. When I was criticising the flaws of the NRC when it was implemented in Assam, she was asking me if I was somehow saying that India did not have the right to have a register of its citizens. She was playing the developing country card. She was asking me why I was critical while Germany has a working registry of its citizens. I tried to tell her that I was not critical of the purpose itself but the way it was implemented. Looking back, I feel some of those questions were trap questions where she could get the clearest position of how I viewed the problem.
“Looking back, I feel some of those questions were trap questions...”
What did she ask you about free speech? And what were her opinions?
She asked whether I thought that everybody could just express their opinions freely… foreigners? If I was from abroad, would I be able to demonstrate in Germany? I told her that it was generally not a problem as a foreigner to demonstrate in Germany. You don’t have an active right to demonstrate but it would not be illegal to attend a demonstration. Perhaps the police might prevent you, but they could not detain you or evict you.
What she said was that freedom of expression should be limited down to people who are informed. She was saying this was necessary to prevent violence and keep people from spreading fake news. I was saying this could be sort of true, but in a democracy it is difficult to judge who has a valuable opinion and who should be heard. As long as people don’t call for other people to commit crimes or illegal actions, they should be allowed to express themselves freely. Who is there to say which opinion is informed and whose opinion should not be heard?
“What she said was that freedom of expression should be limited down to people who are informed.”
What else did she want to know?
When we talked about the CAA protest, it was not very intelligent on my side to say I had witnessed one. She inquired who had taken me there. She wanted to get names. I did not give her. I did not want to expose people who simply make use of their civil rights.
“She inquired who had taken me there. She wanted to get names.”
Did she praise the Modi government?
Not actively. Not the way nationalist trolls and conservative people in India do it. She said the register of citizens was necessary. She doubted my right to question it even though I think it has many technical flaws. She was clearly defensive of the government. She was clearly defensive of limiting demonstrations. She said that only those people who were well-informed should speak up and those people who were protesting against the laws were not well-informed.
“She was clearly defensive of the government. She was clearly defensive of limiting demonstrations.”
At this point, did you not guess they knew you were at a protest and that is why you were being questioned?
Yeah. But I had barely slept over the weekend. I was really tired and exhausted. I guess I’m generally not used to being questioned about my opinions and then it being used against me. That is not what you grow up with when you live in a democracy or a liberal society. I was a bit naive there.
“That is not what you grow up with when you live in a democracy or a liberal society.”
How long was this interaction?
I think it was close to an hour or so. Then, they made me wait for 10 minutes and called me back in. When she presented me with the order to leave the country, I was shocked. I took a few seconds to gather myself and to argue against it. I think we argued for another 20 minutes. She asked me whether I was willing to sign a written apology. I agreed at that point. She told me that she would speak with the other officers again and I could come back after the lunch break. But then she reconfirmed the order. She referred to our discussion. They had collected what my convictions were and it supported their decision. After that I asked her what my legal rights and options were, but she refused to make a statement on that. I called my consulate but they were not very helpful. They just gave me a list of lawyers to contact. Since it was already 3:30 pm by then, I did not contact any of them. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know who would be competent.
“I asked her what my legal rights and options were, but she refused to make a statement on that.”
How soon did she ask you to leave?
She said that I had to leave immediately. I asked her to clarify what ‘immediately’ meant. She said I had to leave within the day, in another eight or nine hours. She told me that if I was not able to comply with that I could possibly take the next day. But she also said that if I was not complying then they would deport me. I did not want to risk being deported. After the meeting at the FRRO, I raced back to the campus and packed my things. My friends brought my bags to the airport. I raced back to the embassy to present them with my booking confirmation and collect my passport.
“She also said that if I was not complying then they would deport me.”
They took your passport.
They took my passport and kept it until I presented them with the booking confirmation.
Even if they told you to leave, they could have extended you the courtesy of giving you the day to pack your bags and say goodbye to your friends.
Of course. But their goal is to intimidate people who are against them. For them, there is nothing like constructive criticism. It’s only for them or against them. I was not surprised by how they behaved but it was not nice.
“For them, there is nothing like constructive criticism. It’s only for them or against them.”
Your own government did not raise this with the Indian government.
In my opinion, really bad human rights violations are never brought up in western countries because of economic interests. If it would damage relations with India, why would they speak up for an exchange student who was not harmed, but just sent away from the country for a minor issue?
It’s not a minor issue.
If you take a single case, you can easily play it down. India is an important trade partner worldwide. No western government has really taken a stand when the communication blockade in Kashmir happened, when the violent clashes at JNU happened. Why should it take a stand here?
Do you feel hurt and disappointed at your own government as well?
Not really. I got the moral backing from my University. They told me that there are a lot of problems with authoritarian governments in lots of places in the world. I felt they behaved a fair and friendly way towards me. They have also taken over the official communication with IIT Madras. So I’m out of the game there, which I think is good because I don’t have to fend for myself. But I felt disappointed at the German consulate in Chennai. I gathered a few opinions on the consulate in the course of talking to a few people about the incident. I think the perception among Germans in India is that they are fairly incompetent and not to be seen as someone who really supports you. They could invite you to pleasant dinner parties but that is all.
“I felt disappointed at the German consulate in Chennai.”
They just gave you a list of lawyers to reach out to.
Yes. The person I spoke to in the consulate was German and she could not give me any advice. She just told me that this is India and you have to follow whatever the Indian authorities say. I mean that is clearly not true because authorities can err and authorities can break laws. I know they could not immediately assess my situation. But giving a list of lawyers to someone who is really in urgent need of support is a little like throwing a life jacket off a container vessel when someone is swimming next to it and struggling to survive. At that moment, I felt very alone.
“At that moment, I felt very alone.”
But you say that you are not disappointed with the German government.
Of course, I’m disappointed.
Did you feel that you had violated the rules of your visa?
As far as my understanding goes, student visas are issued with the sole purpose of pursuing course work in India, which, in my opinion, would not limit me from participating in protests as long as it does not affect my academic performance. In Germany, no student would define themselves as a political activist just because they casually attend a demonstration. You can interpret the rules in one or the other direction, but, in my opinion, the legal situation was not that clear.
Do you regret having attended the protest?
On the personal front, I was disappointed that I was made to leave so early because I made good friends. I also felt that I was letting down the people who were protesting by just going away. So personally, it was a disappointment and I regretted it. But on the other hand, when you look at the whole situation, they want to put pressure on people who attend those protests. I’m not sure I could have supported the protests in a way that would have not led to my leaving India. If we decide that we won’t do it again then they reach their goal of scaring people. I would not say that I regret it.
So, you don’t regret it.
It’s some sort of grey area. There is no black-and-white answer. Of course, it was unpleasant being sent away. It hurt me personally because I had to leave behind people. But on the other hand, I feel there are people in India who face much worse consequences if they go to protests. They would be fired from their jobs and stuff like that. A lot of people are being arrested and beaten up. I would not go as far with my self-pity to say that I regret it and I would love to be back at one of the most privileged elite colleges and therefore not show my political opinion. That would be a pretty blunt thing to say in my opinion.
In your own country, there is a shift towards the right, the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiment, people from the far right getting into Parliament.
Yes. I also went to protests against those people over here. How they try to rewrite history or view history in a different context nowadays by saying for example, the Nazi rule was only 12 years, and we should consider it as 1% of a 1,000 year long history. Of course, I’m opposing them. And that was one of the key reasons that I went to the protest (in India). If these laws were being passed in Germany, I would go and protest. So why should I sit and do nothing when I would be on the streets if I was in Germany?
“If these laws were being passed in Germany, I would go and protest.”
You can protest in Germany without fear?
In most cases, yes. There is police violence, there are violent clashes, but not as frequently as in India. Most demonstrations happen peacefully and without restrictions.
What do you think of India when you came and what is your impression now?
My overall impression has not changed. I knew about the great potential and the great people that I would meet there. I had been there in 2018. I knew about the huge social divides. I was expecting India to be more liberal, especially in the south. I was not expecting state authorities to be this authoritarian. In Germany, we have the same. Sometimes, you have a liberal government, but the administration backing them actually never changes so they can still be very conservative and slow down the implementation of laws and regulations that aim at making society more open in different ways. I was surprised to see how big the divide between the liberal middle class and the government is. Since India is a democracy and many people in India are very conservative, and many of them are also socially deprived, they can easily be lured into supporting populists like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. I was not aware of how powerful this system is. That’s a new perception.
But overall, I have lost nothing of my love for the country and the diversity of its culture. I was really impressed to see how well diversity works in India. I’ve actually taken that home as an example for Germany. That is also why I was so concerned to see this law being passed and how well-planned the actions of this government against the system of diversity are.
“I have lost nothing of my love for the country and the diversity of its culture.”
You were expecting India to be more tolerant.
I was expecting the Indian government to be more tolerant. With my friends — some are even supporting CAA, some did not have an opinion — there were discussions with professors, but it was held in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The government does not accept criticism from anybody, especially not from foreigners. I was surprised by that.
The Indian Express reported that the Indian Embassy in Germany has asked you not to use your visa.
It’s half true. In my first communication with the Indian embassy, I was told preliminarily not to use my current visa, which is technically still valid. There has been no clarification as to whether the immigration authorities will actually let me back into the country. I contacted the embassy last week and I’m still waiting for their response. It was a general request at first, but now I have a call from IIT Madras that they would take me back. Now, I want to know whether it is possible. I’m waiting for their reply.
Interestingly, they did not cancel your visa.
I don’t know why. Personally, I think they wanted to keep as little trace as possible in the records. If you don’t keep official traces and no paperwork, you can always deny that such a thing ever happened.
After everything that happened, you want to come back?
I do. Academically, it does not make a difference. But personally, I do want to come back. I have good friends there. I was ripped out of the middle of a very nice and promising exchange year. There are a few things to consider. But a diplomat in my family feels that he would not have too many security concerns for me.
“I was ripped out of the middle of a very nice and promising exchange year.”
If you do come back, you know you’ll be coming back to the same protests and you will be tempted again…
Oh, I do. That is a point that I have thought about. I would first clarify the legal situation because it is not yet clear whether what I did was actually against the visa rules. There are also other options to support those who protest against CAA.