On January 26, Republic Day, 2020, while protests simmered against Citizenship Amendment Act and National Regiser of citizens throughout India, a dozen North American cities also witnessed historic protests. Indian Embassies have been witness to protests in the past. But this time it was different.
In Washington D.C., 800 Indian Americans, many of whom had driven hours from neighbouring states, assembled at lawns on south side of White House. Marching towards the Embassy, they were supported by police who stopped traffic at junctions to let the kilometre long march pass. When they reached Embassy they were met by twenty to thirty supporters of CAA/NRC. Protestors report that pro-CAA/NRC rally appeared to be assembled by the Embassy as part of its duty towards the government. The disparity in numbers seemed to suggest that the Sangh Parivar’s juggernaut, on the roll since Narendra Modi came to power first time in 2014, might be losing steam in its most prosperous diaspora. In Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco, protests were held outside the Indian Consulates, with Chicago claiming the largest attendance of 3,000-4,000.
The spirit of the protests was remarkable. Creative placards and slogans were used by protestors. They sang national anthem and ‘Sare Jahan se Achcha..’ Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan said, ‘The CAA is an integral part of Modi government’s strategy of creating a stateless Muslim population, that can be profiled, treated as second class citizens, and imprisoned in massive detention centres already being built in India.’ She further added, ‘This project may start with Muslims but all caste oppressed communities are at risk as we are the communities in the crosshairs of Hindu nationalists,’ advocating, ‘The time to stop genocide is before it starts.’ If one were to ignore the location, one could imagine that the protests seemed to be taking place in India; the political speeches being made seemed grounded in Dalit and Muslim experience as well as authentically representing the angst of middle class Hindus who felt that the Sangh Parivar does not speak for their understanding of Hinduism.
Back in India Shaheen Bagh is multiplying. There are more than two dozen ongoing protests in Delhi. In addition, small groups of Muslim women hold nighttime candle light demonstrations between two protest sites and youth raise ‘Azadi’ slogans. The mood is celebratory. The atmosphere is remniscent of Durga Puja where every locality vies with the other in setting up their pandal. There are tents set up wherever a group of Muslim women have organised themselves to come out on streets. Photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad can be seen in almost every protest site indicating that people treat this movement as a second freedom struggle to free this country from forces which are bent upon taking away their freedom. Khureji site also has a portrait of Rohith Vemula, drawing inspiration from more recent icons who’ve sacrificed their lives fighting against forces which are a threat to democracy. The more elightened protests like the one at Chandbagh displays pictures of Fatima Shaikh and Savitribai Phule, two women who involved themselves in grassroots education of downtrodden communities for their empowerment.
But the real force of the movement is women who stay put at protest sites untill late in the night or early morning. They are determined to see the struggle through. Children can be seen sleeping covered by blankets and quilts next to their mothers. Reversing common practices, such as keeping women behind curtains in Jamat-e-Islami meetings, or not letting them speak when men are present, women are in the lead and men are playing supporting role. Young, educated women are in control of conducting the proceedings and men are standing on the side. Nobody would have imagined that India would see such a dramatic empowerment of Muslim women so soon. And it is empowerment in real sense as each of the women coming to the protest, unlike traditional political meetings where common citizens are there just to swell numbers, can explain why they are there. They are raising slogans, singing songs and sometimes also making speeches. Our democracy and Constituion, which at one point were under danger of being eclipsed by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, now seem to be in safe hands. The difference is now people don’t expect the leaders to protect them; the people have come together to protect the democracy and Constituion from leaders.
As the Bhartiya Janata Party or its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayansewak Sangh became more desperate for a win in Delhi elections, immeditely after being displaced from power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, its leaders, including a central minister, raised slogans which unleashed gun wielding young men on streets who tried to sabotage what has been a very disciplined struggle against CAA-NRC so far or create a situation which could polarise the votes in BJP’s favour at the last moment.
It is India’s misfortune that for the first time after independence an organisation has captured political power which ideologically believes in violence and inciting people to promote itself politically. The irony is that the Hindutva and the Western world constructs Islam as an agressive religion. Hindus like to perceive their religion as a messenger of peace to the world. But currently Hindutva is all fire and spite whereas Muslim women have become the country’s apostles of peace.
The non-violent anti-CAA-NRC are not going to disappear in spite of best efforts, including one that of dialogue, by the government. The ever enlarging protests are going to go on untill either the CAA-NRC go or the government itself goes.
(Sandeep is with Socialist Party (India). He would like to thank Sara Kutty for editorial help for this article. e-mail: [email protected])