How magical these first few days of the new year are! How unsullied and scintillant with promise! We celebrate the coming of a new year because it gives us a brand new parcel of days to realise our hopes and dreams — a fresh slate, as it were, to write another, better, chapter of the story of our lives. No matter how disappointing the past has been, every January 1 dawns as a potential annus mirabilis — a blessed year when everything might go miraculously right. It’s a time when our audacity of hope, our belief in the possibilities of our future, is at its truest and most resilient.
This new year, the hope that’s usually centred on our individual lives seems to have metastasised into something vast and collective. Look around, and you will see that hope burning bright everywhere. It burns in the soft light of candles held aloft by those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, the twin instruments which threaten to upend the right to equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution; it burns in the unyielding eyes of mothers and grandmothers who gather every day at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh in biting cold weather to register their opposition to the divisive CAA-NRC; it flares in every ringing cry of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Isaai, aapas mein sab bhai bhai, and surges through every peaceful, democratic protest
against the citizenship issue that has been taking place across the country.
The protests may have been great or small, spontaneous or well organised. They may have been massive demonstrations such as the one in Kochi on New Year’s Day, or a gathering of people agitating against alleged police excesses against CAA-NRC protesters. But what drives them all is the hope that the idea of India is too powerful, too precious, to be ground underfoot. What drives them is the belief that citizens can come together to resist a law that violates the secular, egalitarian, pluralistic ethos of the country and force the government to withdraw it.
And witness the people who have raised their voices against the amended citizenship law. They are common folk, students, women, the elderly — indeed anyone who feels they must stand up against a legislation that discriminates between people on the basis of religion. Their spirit, resoluteness and purity of intent (though the government has sought to devalue them by calling the protests politically engineered) have, in a sense, sparked a virtuous cycle of hope. They have, in turn, drawn in the cynics and the naysayers who throw up their hands in resignation and despair. For hope is infectious. It is also exhilarating and enticing. It is not for nothing that every mass movement against injustice springs from the hope that, ultimately, the people will triumph.
It is too early to tell if the protests against CAA-NRC will swell into a sustained mass movement. The Centre is clearly determined to push ahead with the two instruments to fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants and disenfranchise the rest whom the state machinery deems “illegal”. So, it’s doing its best to quell the protests. Peaceful protesters have been carted off by the police, Section 144 of the CrPC (which prohibits the assembly of four or more people) has been slapped in several places and internet service suspended in multiple states. The police have beaten up students, children have allegedly been raped in custody, 20 people have been killed in Uttar Pradesh, many injured, and hundreds have been summarily arrested.
Whether the current horrors further stiffen the resistance to CAA-NRC or whether the protests lose momentum in the near term, what’s certain is that people have woken up to the hope that it is possible not to acquiesce, it is possible to fight for their rights. In a 2017 essay titled “Protest
and persist: Why giving up hope is not an option”, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.”
The protests over citizenship will continue to reverberate. And they will likely change India in more ways than we can imagine today.
Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi