How a leaderless anti-CAA stir is mobilising volunteers, doctors & lawyers

A sit-in protest at Delhiā€™s Shaheen Bagh, where women have been leading the protest since December 15. Photo: Somesh Jha
Students running to safety in a fog of tear gas, police swinging lathis on them, and young men being hustled away into police vans and taken into custody.

 

These images of hapless students from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University have now become synonymous with the anti-citizenship law protests that began with the police bursting into the library of the university on December 15.

 

Days later, when violence broke out in the National Capital’s Daryaganj area as protesters clashed with the police, and dozens of students, including minors, were detained and injured, the word spread quickly.

 

Twenty nine-year-old lawyer Mishika Singh’s phone went abuzz as messages about protesters being injured and detained poured in from everywhere. By midnight over 50 pro bono lawyers had arrived at the Daryaganj police station, ready to provide legal assistance to those arrested.

 

“By 7.30 pm, we had got to know that the situation had become bad and I was among the first few lawyers to reach the Daryaganj police station,” says Singh.  “The police wasn’t letting us meet the detainees, which is a statutory right.”

 

By then, Singh had already formed a group on messaging platform WhatsApp by the name “Lawyers for Detainees”, which now has over 250 volunteers.

 

Driven by a sense of public service, some lawyers went to the house of the metro magistrate, who issued late-night directions to the Daryaganj police station to let detainees meet lawyers, release the minors and to provide medical aid to the injured. Following suit, some other lawyers went to the Seemapuri police station, where too the protests had turned violent, the same night and got a similar order passed from the relevant magistrate at 3 am. They managed to get all minors and some adult detainees released.

 

In what can be said as a citizen-led crowd-sourced movement, a diverse group of citizens, including lawyers, doctors, civil rights activists, artists and students from across institutions and religious groups have joined hands to drive or aid the anti-citizenship protests, especially in New Delhi.

 

Since December 19, when Singh-led the “Lawyers for Detainees” communication group was formed, it has been helping out those who have been detained in other parts of the country as well. It has now expanded its role to providing legal aid to bridging the information gap by passing on updates through Twitter and WhatsApp about the instances of violence during protests, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

 

There are over 250 young lawyers either helping or on standby in New Delhi alone, where hundreds of people have been detained in the past few days. They have been helping victims in filing petitions in courts, accompanying them to police stations in different parts of the city, and, in some instances, even offering monetary support for legal proceedings.

 

Lawyers though are not the only ones heading into the maelstrom. Doctors, psychiatrists and trauma teams too have pitched in.

 

Medical volunteers with an ambulance stationed at UP Bhawan earlier this week Photo: Somesh Jha
When Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, national president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum (PMSF), saw a social media alert related to injured protesters being detained at Daryaganj on December 20, he rushed to the police station accompanied by two more doctors.

 

“We provided first aid and gave pain relief to the detainees and police both,” Bhatti said, who formed a group of 30 doctors who were willing to volunteer during citywide protests.

 

The PMSF, a group of doctors and medical students, arranges ambulances on protest sites along with medical volunteers for assistance. This though has not been without consequences for the volunteers.

 

“At Assam Bhawan recently, the Delhi Police had detained two of our volunteers. The Indian Medical Association had to intervene and it issued a strongly-worded letter saying how medical facilities are available even in war zones,” he said, adding the daily expenses of Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 for first aid and treatment is being met through crowd-funding.

 

This trend is not confined to Delhi. Sonali Vaid, who didn’t want to disclose her present location for fear of her safety, has formed a page on Twitter known as the “Medical Aid Support”. Through the Twitter handle, Vaid sent out a distress message last week asking for volunteer doctors at Shaheen Bagh, where women have been leading protests since December 15.

 

Now heading into its third week, the protests have been notable not just for the huge number of people willing to defy authorities but also for the way support has poured in from different quarters. To shield themselves from the biting cold that Delhi has been witnessing, tents have been erected at Kalindi Kunj Road at Shaheen Bagh where protesters have parked themselves permanently. “People are mostly suffering from cold, fever, and some have even sustained bruises. Two people are on hunger strike for 13 days now. They need to be checked upon,” Vaid said.

 

Two Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) students — Aasif Mujtaba and Sharjeel — are coordinating the Shaheen Bagh protests. People from across the city have been making contributions in kind at the protest site. Everything from a stage microphone to speakers to posters has been crowd-sourced. Even the electricity connection for the tent, where organisers screen films through a projector, is being supplied by a nearby shop.

 

At these sites students turn up with posters and placards bearing all kinds of messages, some inspired by revolutionary slogans and influential quotes. A daily gathering of protesters has also been taking place at the Jamia University since December 15. People are chipping in with whatever they can. Shefalee Jain, an artist, is making portraits of protesters since December 21 and exhibiting them outside the campus.

 

There are groups on WhatsApp and Telegram to help protesters coordinate, spread awareness and to connect with lawyers, doctors and civil rights activists. The groups are used to share key information related to first aid, protest venues and even tips to protest in a “smart” way (taking a cue from protests taking place in other parts of the world, in particular Hong Kong).

 

A volunteer compiled a 12-page cheat-sheet, through Google Doc, to respond to misinformation on the Citizenship Amendment Act on WhatsApp, which is estimated to be used by 400 million Indians. This, a 24-year-old student said, is a “communication strategy” to interact with people who are opposing the anti-CAA protests on WhatsApp, which is being widely used to spread “disinformation”.

 

A user on Instagram who goes with the name “sodonechilling” has been helping young protesters to post “good morning” messages on their family WhatsApp groups. The user shares an image with a greeting and a message saying why joining the cause is important and it seeks to act as a bridge between the young and the old.

 

Lawyers are compiling evidences of violence that has erupted across the country due to protests for the purpose of petitioning the local courts and even international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

 

A joint forum of students and alumni of the Jamia University have started a grass-root level awareness programme through door-to-door campaigns that are being organised in and around Okhla, a Muslim-dominated area, to educate residents about the “negative impact” of the CAA.

 

The protests are remarkable in the way women have taken the lead in Delhi and Bengaluru. “We wanted to offer a safe space for people to get into a dialogue, exchange information and help each other out in this movement,” 28-year-old Samia (name changed), who created one of the WhatsApp groups, said.

 

What’s unique about these protests is that they have been largely leaderless. “There are three different trends. One is people joining from the Northeast cutting across religion, second is the Muslim community cutting across regions and third is the youth cutting across both religion and region,” Swaraj Abhiyan President and activist Yogendra Yadav, who has joined a number of such protests in Delhi, said.

 

It’s a groundswell of opposition led by many unknown faces driven by conviction. “You don’t need a face when the whole community is united,” said the 30-year-old IIT student Mujtaba who has been at Shaheen Bagh for two weeks now, his first public protest in life.



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