The morning of Thursday, December 19, the declared date for India’s nationwide protest against the National
Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), is a tense one. Two protests, one originating at Red Fort and the other at Mandi House, are already in the news, for all the wrong reasons. Before 11 am, the official time for the protest at Red Fort to begin, reports of students being detained and packed off in buses begin making the rounds.
The protest at Mandi House is being organised by Left parties and student-led wings such as Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and AIl India Students’ Association (AISA). Soon, reports of protesters exiting the Mandi House Metro station and immediately being hauled into buses begin to come through too. Meanwhile, protesters from Gurugram are stuck in a 10km-long traffic jam. During this chaos of updates and upheavals, 20 Metro stations around Central Delhi have been shut down. The intention is clear. The police, under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is trying to discourage protest.
But the deterrence fails. Jantar Mantar, an iconic protest zone in the heart of Delhi, becomes a natural point of convergence. Those who were detained at Red Fort, those held at Mandi House, those simply following updates, all make their way to Jantar Mantar. The crowd doesn’t stop pouring in till 5pm. Despite patchy mobile network, internet shutdown and network jammers, people manage to converge.
In the last few days, social media has exploded with calls for more protests. And the scenario at Jantar Mantar is exactly that: an organic meeting of like-minded individuals fighting what they perceive as oppression. “If change has to happen, we have to carry on the idea of what it means to be modern, free and secular citizens. Everyone should be out here on the streets,” says Dipta Bhog, a women’s rights activist.
Thousands of protesters, young and old, chant slogans that are not limited to CAA and the NCR. Jantar Mantar comes alive with calls of Azaadi! — freedom for Kashmir, freedom of expression, freedom for women, freedom for farmers. Where is the employment? Where is economic growth? Universities are not battlegrounds. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians are all one…
While some express themselves by writing slogans and drawing graphics on Parliament Street, others protest with posters in their hands and slogans and songs on their lips. While the tipping point was the violence reportedly inflicted on students at Jamia Millia Islamia by Delhi Police the preceding Sunday, the voices here are raised against a host of regressive and oppressive practices.
“With the NRC and the CAA, we will be easier to target,” says Sarah Ali, a 21-year-old former student at Miranda House. “But seeing the people here, most of whom are not even Muslim, gives me some hope of India still being a secular democracy.”
The police and Rapid Action Force remain ready throughout the demonstration, posted on both entry and exit sides of Jantar Mantar. They’re passive, as the uniformed men lean against their barricades, but armed with rifles. A large water cannon stands right behind them, the monstrosity ready to charge towards slogan-chanting, foot-thumping, answer-seeking protesters. But the opportunity to use it doesn’t arise, not this time.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Karnataka announced the imposition of Section 144 in parts of the state and the whole of Bengaluru starting December 19, a heavy khaki presence marks the streets leading to Puttana Chetty Town Hall — a place that has often seen citizens coming together to express their dissent or solidarity.
Protesting against the CAA, they had come in twos and threes, and had no idea that hundreds would show up. Tuesday’s protest ended with 11 of them being hauled into police vans and taken away. Released in about two hours, some joined protests happening at another site, Freedom Park (ironically a former central jail and also one of the state’s first gallows).
“It’s scary to know that Section 144 has been imposed but we know we have to go out there. It’s important to be on the right side of history,” says Mrinalini Komandur, a student at the National
Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Having spent a semester in Singapore recently, Komandur has newfound appreciation for India’s acceptance of opinions that may be contrary to the establishment’s.
“The implications of CAA are so widespread that none of us can afford to ignore it. The government seems to think that these protests will just die down and calm will restore and people will accept what’s to come. But the only way to put pressure on the government is to keep these protests going,” she says.
Understanding how the worst affected may not fully comprehend the ramifications of the Act, the students of her college drafted a pamphlet of commonly-asked questions in Tamil, Kannada, English and Hindi. These were distributed earlier this week during a candlelight march in Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru. They are also forming a committee to file a petition in the apex court. “Our petition, like several other petitions that have been filed, will challenge the constitutionality of the CAA in the Supreme Court,” she says.
The students of Jadavpur University (JU) have decided to continue their agitation till the CAA is withdrawn. It’s semester time at the university, but students are dividing their time between studies, examinations and protest marches.
While they have decided to protest on their campus, they are also collaborating with other colleges. “We have received communication from students of Harvard and Oxford universities expressing their solidarity,” says Debnath Debraj, general secretary of the Left-leaning Students’ Federation of India (SFI). The graduate student in the Bengali department says the opposition to CAA is because it contradicts the secular principles of the Constitution and because the idea of citizenship based on religion cannot be tolerated. “We are in talks with other colleges and universities across India to launch an organised pan-India students’ movement against CAA,” says Debraj.
Ashavari Bhattacharya, a graduate student in the history faculty, says, “After CAA was passed, some of my friends have started taunting my friends from the minority community telling them that they will now be sent to Pakistan. This is so disheartening.”
On the night of Wednesday, December 18, police officials took away over 20 students from University of Madras who were protesting the CAA and NRC. One of the policemen asked the students whether they were worried about getting arrested. “We told him that we are more afraid of CAA,” responded one student.
Hundreds of students assembled at the Madras University campus near Marina Beach on Monday and many stayed back at night raising slogans against the CAA and the police action at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. The police did not charge them and even offered them food, say students.
The University declared the campus and hostel shut from December 18 to 23. “If they allow us inside, then we can try to organise the protest again,” says Arur T Elakkiyan, a political science graduate student. He said that the aim is to focus the protest peacefully and non-violently within the campus.
The relevance of the Act and NCR in Tamil Nadu is different from that of Northeastern states, especially in the context of Sri Lankan Tamils, says Ragu Prasath, another student at Madras University. “After 75 years of Independence, if we need to stand in queues to prove that we are Indian citizens, it is a shame,” he says.
Students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM), who usually keep their distance from political statements, also conducted a demonstration on their campus earlier this week.
Since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill became a law, no day has passed without protests at Osmania University, Hyderabad Central University, Moulana Azad Urdu University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Nizamia Tibbi (Unani Medical College) and other campuses. So far these student protests have remained peaceful and within the confines of their campuses. Some demonstrations were also held by the Forum Against CAB and NRC beginning November 26, the Indian Constitution Day.
But the voices became louder after the Delhi Police entered Jamia Millia Islamia and allegedly roughed up students last Sunday. Students in Hyderabad Central University burnt copies of the Bill at the university entrance each day. Osmania University students blocked roads for two hours while burning copies of the Bill on the day it was passed in Parliament. On Wednesday lawyers joined the anti-CAB protest by staging a protest inside the Hyderabad High Court premises.
Kiran Kumar Vissa, who heads Citizens against NRC and CAA, a civil society forum, says that all the poor and the underprivileged who do not own property, and not just the Muslim minorities, will be impacted by the Centre’s CAA and NRC. “Though Union ministers are telling the people that they should see the CAA and NRC separately, the government’s real intention is to combine the two at the time of implementation. How can anyone believe their assurances that citizens will not be harmed?”
Syed Salim Pasha, Osmania University student activist, says, “We all feel threatened by the government’s action as it is trying to change the fundamentals of the Indian Constitution. It will not stop at CAA. These protests also mark the unrest being built among the student community over a period of time. We will continue our protests. We are planning to hold a public rally on December 23.” Adds M Sreecharan, vice president, Hyderabad Central University Students’ Union: “From the day the citizenship Bill
was passed, we have been staging peaceful protests on the campus after taking permission from the police. We want to continue peaceful demonstrations as non-violence was our biggest weapon in the freedom struggle. We will continue our peaceful protests till these demonstrations turn into another freedom struggle.”
Shaik Umer Faruq Quadri, president, Moulana Azad National
Urdu University Students’ Union, adds: “We keep the campus gates closed all the time for our safety because police have made attempts to enter the campus even though we have been protesting peacefully. In Assam a father got NRC enrolment while his daughter was denied the citizenship. They might do the same thing to the rest of us in India.”
Police excess was also seen in Ahmedabad when students and faculty members from top institutes like Indian Institute Management Ahmedabad (IIM A), National Institute of Design (NID) and CEPT University gathered to express solidarity with JMI students. On Monday, citing lack of official permission to hold such protests, Ahmedabad Police detained some students, academics and prominent citizens who had gathered outside IIM A.
By Thursday, protests had spread across the city. Students have been skipping classes to take part in city-wide protests with support from the faculty. “Holding a protest was urgent and we have gathered in front of IIM-A to discuss the future course of action even as some of us have gone to the police seeking permission to hold the protest,” says Mansi Shah, faculty member at CEPT University.
While the institutes have not issued official comments, students and faculty members have come out in support in their personal capacities. Faculty members and students from IIM A have joined their peers from IIT Madras, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Bombay, IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, IIM Calcutta, XLRI Jamshedpur, FMS Delhi and AMU, among others in signing a letter protesting the Act.
“As citizens and members of the academic community, we write to register our protest at the recent enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The Act is discriminatory and violative of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. It is inconsistent with the cherished values of equality under law and secularism. It institutionalises preferential treatment based on religion which is in direct conflict with the inclusive spirit on which our nation was formed,” the letter reads.
Amidst lack of police permission and institutional support, students from across campuses are now holding silent vigils on their campuses even as debates over CAA and NRC are being held to generate more awareness. “We have been looking at innovative ways to protest and planned rallies where we will take charkhas to Gandhi Ashram as a silent and non-violent protest,” says a Gujarat Vidyapith student.
IIM A faculty member Reetika Khera, who was part of the protest held on Monday and Tuesday, says, “Apart from the questions on the CAA raised in the letter, it is distressing to see the violent response of the state to democratic dissent. Further, the NRC (which will follow the CAA) has already been shown in Assam to be an expensive, futile exercise, with terrible human costs. It will affect all of us, but the greater burden will fall on the poor.”
— Vinay Umarji