When agitation takes new shape

Protests aplenty, but is it a movement? Time will tell

When agitation takes new shape

Protesters raise slogans during an anti-Citizenship Act protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi

Aditi Tandon in New Delhi

The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that emanated from the compounds of Jamia Millia Islamia in the national capital last Sunday have now spread far and wide. Diverse sections have thronged public spaces to support what began as a student agitation, but now appears like a larger movement.

Across Indian cities, leading personalities like historian Ramachandra Guha and activist Harsh Mander, and scores of politicians have courted arrest as the police prevented them from marching against the law, citing prohibitory orders.

The crackdown in Karnataka, New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat has not kept the crowds from swelling and seeking withdrawal of the legislation — something Union Home Minister Amit Shah has categorically rejected.

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Reports now suggest that groups of Indians abroad too are mobilising support against CAA. On Friday, an outfit called People’s Alliance against the Indian CAA gave a call for simultaneous protests outside the Consulate General of India’s office in Toronto. Facebook posts by participants say they agitated against “religious bigotry and institutionalised discrimination in India”. In a telling giveaway, the poster this Alliance used for mobilisation bore images of hijab-clad Jamia students Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Ayesha Renna, whose videos saving their male friend from Delhi Police had gone viral.

Now faces of the anti-CAA protests, Ladeeda and Ayesha, both from Kerala, hope justice will be done to their colleagues who sustained injuries during the police clampdown. Though not much is known of the girls, a quick inquiry reveals that Ladeeda has been associated with the Students’ Islamic Organisation and has been consistently critical of BJP’s policies. So has Ayesha Renna.

Back in Delhi, Jamia students received support of counterparts in Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, IITs and IIMs, as the youth stood in solidarity against police action. The new agitation has subsumed the previous one the JNU students’ union had been spearheading for over 60 days against the hike in hostel rents and fresh utility charges.

“Our fight for affordable education will continue, but the agitation against CAA is equally important. As youth, we cannot let India’s secular credentials be sacrificed. Hence this solidarity,” says Aishe Ghosh, president, JNUSU, a union the JNU administration does not recognise.

JNUSU has now given a call for national protests against CAA on January 8 under the banner of the All India Forum for Saving Public Education and says the agitations will also raise issues related to increasing lack of affordability of higher education.

Understanding the angst

Conversations with a cross-section of protesters reveal that the anger is not targeted at CAA alone. At Jantar Mantar, youngsters from Progressive Artistes League painted a collage questioning the Narendra Modi-led BJP government on a range of issues — from the abrogation of Article 370 and rising unemployment to child malnutrition and shrinking safe spaces for women.

“We will continue to raise our voices. The aim of education is to change society. The government wants to demonise campuses. We will not let our Muslim friends be discriminated against. We also want to ask the PM whether he can tell from my clothes that I am a protester,” Srijan Chawla, a Jamia student at the Jantar Mantar protest, said on Friday, reacting to the PM’s recent statement that one can tell the protesters from their clothes.

Srijan stood with her Jamia friend Pareen Fatima, who asked, “For years I have heard taunts that Muslims are anti-national. Has anyone checked my family background to conclude this? Please tell me what wrong have we done?”

Across India Gate, Jantar Mantar and other protest sites in the capital, anxieties over CAA seemed to subsume past and underlying anxieties over the scrapping of J&K’s special status and the building of Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

“These agitations are not about one issue alone. There are many misgivings. We do understand what the government plans by implementing CAA and then an all-India National Register of Citizens. Does it have enough avenues for resident Indians? Should it not first secure the livelihood of those who are already here?” asks Faiza Fatima, another Jamia student.

While the agitation spreads, it’s evident that many protesters do not know fully the contours of the subjects under discussion. Many students out on streets feel CAA is for perpetuity and would allow non-Muslim minorities to immigrate to India at will citing religious persecution. Myths about NRC persist with the government clarifying only last week that fears around NRC are unfounded as the process has not even begun, nor the relevant law drafted.

Students divided on issue

After Congress president Sonia Gandhi said in a video message that her party stood with the just struggle of students across IITs and IIMs against CAA and NRC, IIT-BHU alumni Ravi Teja said, “I think it is a very wrong way of using the credentials of premier institutes. The fact remains that IITs and IIMs condemned the police action against Jamia students. I personally have read the CAA and have no problems with it. As for NRC, it’s not even here. We should protest if the NRC process, as and when it is laid down, excludes Muslims. But the current agitation seems political and I severely condemn the violence.”

Students across IITs voice concern over anti-CAA protests turning bloody with IIT-Delhi’s Krishan Kumar saying, “IIT-Delhi students protested only against the police brutality against Jamia students. We did not protest against CAA or NRC. Nor do we support violence in the name of student agitations. CAA has been passed and we hope the government implements it well and not like it implemented demonetisation.”

A similar opinion came from Abhishek Srivastav of IIT-Kanpur, who said most students around him actually support CAA. “The problem arises where you have not read the law. I also want to make it clear that IIT-Kanpur students had expressed solidarity with Jamia on the issue of police entry into campus and police attack on students. I do believe that student agitations should not be politicised.”

As a range of opinions emerge over CAA and divisions appear palpable, a section of academics feels the government should be worried about growing student resistance to its policies.

Historian Mridula Mukherjee feels the police crackdown on students is the biggest self-goal of the BJP government. She cites history to conclude that student movements are a bad sign for the establishment.

“CAA protests have come at a time when consciousness in the student body is growing and students are already angry over the declining job market, shrinking space for dissent and expensive higher education. Let us remember that the student body is not communal and can see through the divisive agenda. Let us also remember that youth are the backbone of all mass movements. All major mobilisations of the Indian freedom movement were led by students. Bhagat Singh was politically aware as a 13-year-old and had been executed at 23. During Quit India movement, school-goers took out processions. If I were the government, I would be very worried today,” Mukherjee says.

Whether the ongoing anti-CAA protests grow into a mass movement or fizzle out, only time will tell.

Politicians jump in

Even as civil society organisations gave a call for anti-CAA protests across India on December 19, politicians jumped on the bandwagon. CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s D Raja, Swaraj Abhiyan’s Yogendra Yadav, and Congress’ Ajay Maken and Sandeep Dikshit were among those detained. The Congress top brass, missing from Thursday agitations, came out a day later to express solidarity, even as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused the party of fear mongering. AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra visited India Gate twice, while West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee kept the heat on. A notable absentee all week was Rahul Gandhi, who was in South Korea on an “official invitation”.

Counter-campaign gains ground

Counter-campaigns supporting CAA have also begun, with a march being organised at Central Park at New Delhi’s Connaught Place and some lawyers of Tis Hazari court gathering in the capital in favour of the legislation. A petition titled #IsupportCAA has also been floated.

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