People’s march against CAA & NRC

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Students at a protest rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Kolkata on December 21. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

Students of Mumbai raised their voice against the CAA and the NRC and the police atrocities on the Jamia Millia campus. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

In Chennai on December 23, DMK president M.K. Stalin along with senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram, MDMK chief Vaiko and Left party leaders at the forefront of a protest rally. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

Rabeeha Abdurehim of Pondicherry University refused her gold medal at the convocation in protest. She was asked to leave the hall before the President entered the hall. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Former Mayor K. Ashraf, who was injured, being removed from the scene of protest in Mangaluru on December 19. Photo: H.S. MANJUNATH /THE HINDU

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens have snowballed into a mass movement across India. Significantly, students are spearheading it in many places.

West Bengal

A different tune

By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

IF the motive behind the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was to divide society on the basis of religion, what it managed to achieve was to unite people of different communities and social backgrounds in protest and outrage. In West Bengal, for days at a stretch, students, non-political organisations and social rights groups rallied in protest, stealing the thunder from political parties.

“What is outrageous is the inherent hypocrisy in this law. It goes against the spirit of the Constitution. It is not really about helping people but triggering a divisive and discriminatory sentiment that the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] hopes to capitalise on politically. I don’t want to be someone who just stood by and let it happen, and I realised when I hit the streets that I was not alone,” said Andy Ghosh, an advertising and marketing professional who took part in the protest rallies. Although Kolkata was the epicentre of the protests, similar protests took place across the State.

The State erupted in violence on December 13, and for several days parts of Bengal burned as public and private property was vandalised, railway stations were demolished and trains set on fire. The agitators set up road blockades and stopped trains and buses. For several days rail connectivity to north Bengal was cut off. As the situation spiralled out of control, the State government suspended Internet activities in several regions, including the districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur and parts of North and South 24 Parganas.

There were also mischief-mongers wanting to fish in troubled waters. The police nabbed six non-Muslim youths, dressed in lungis and skullcaps, for pelting stones at trains, clearly to malign a particular community. The boys were seen changing their clothes at a railway station and throwing stones at passing trains.

The violence began to subside after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself hit the streets in protest against the CAA. “As long as I am alive, I will never implement the CAA or the NRC [National Register of Citizens] in the State. You can dismiss my government or put me behind bars, but I will never implement this black law,” she said. For three consecutive days, Mamata Banerjee led protest rallies on the streets of Kolkata and Howrah. By an official order, she stayed “all activities regarding the preparation/updation of the National Population Register [NPR]” and chalked out a full protest schedule to be followed by her party until January 1.

With her high-pitched resistance, Mamata Banerjee has once again placed herself at the centre stage of national politics as the most vocal opponent of the Narendra Modi government. “I would request the Prime Minister to give up his government’s stubborn attitude and concede to the protests taking place all across the country,” she said. She even sent a Trinamool delegation to Uttar Pradesh to visit the family members of those killed during the protest. The delegation, however, was detained at the Lucknow airport. On December 23, Mamata Banerjee wrote to the Chief Ministers of States ruled by opposition parties saying: “Let us create peaceful and meaningful opposition to these unholy efforts by the Centre and save India’s democratic soul.”

Her sustained campaign even prompted a reaction from Prime Minister Modi. Referring to Mamata Banerjee’s statement on December 19, when she demanded a United Nations-monitored “gana vote” (plebiscite) on the CAA, Modi said at a rally in New Delhi: “Didi went straight from Kolkata to the UNO. Yet a few years ago, the same Mamata Didi was demanding on the floor of Parliament that infiltrators from Bangladesh be stopped from entering the country, and those who are oppressed and seeking asylum be helped…. Didi, what has happened to you now? Elections come and go, why are you so scared?”

Mamata Banerjee backtracked on her demand the next day, saying what she wanted was an “opinion poll” on the issue conducted by non-political experts. Responding to Modi’s attack, she said on Twitter: “Whatever I said is there in public forum, whatever you said is there for people to judge. With #PM contradicting #HomeMinister publicly on Nationwide NRC, who is dividing fundamental idea of India? People will definitely decide who is right & who is wrong.”

The BJP has been organising counter-rallies welcoming the CAA. On December 23, BJP working president J.P. Nadda led a rally in Kolkata. “This Act is about giving people citizenship. Not taking it away,” he said.

For all the grandeur and pomp of the rallies of the two warring political parties, the BJP and the Trinamool, it was the march of the common people, particularly students, that had the maximum impact. On December 22, a massive students’ rally from different universities and colleges marched towards the BJP headquarters in Kolkata. Similar protests by students were seen in the districts as well. There was singing, rapping, poetry recitals and brief speeches. The messages in the posters of the protests added wit and colour. “Baby Don’t hurt me Namo!” said one placard, referring to the hit song of the 1990s “What is Love”.

Protest, laughter and solidarity

One thing was clear: the young of the country, the nation’s future, had risen up in revolt; their weapons were words of peace, solidarity, unity, laughter and song. Within the big rally, there would be small groups sitting in a circle singing songs of protest and larger groups in which people would be making short speeches or simply voicing their feelings.

A Muslim protester, whose religious identity could only be distinguished from the person next to him by the cap he was wearing, said this was the India that he grew up in. “When the CAA was passed, we Muslims felt helpless and alone but not any more. Our whole country is behind us. When I die I will ask Allah to allow me to be born here again,” he said, addressing a gathering of marchers. Someone from the crowd jokingly pointed out that in Islam there is no concept of rebirth, to which the man replied with equal good humour: “That’s all right. I’m also a Bengali.” There was laughter and applause.

The spirit of unity and camaraderie was infectious. Itinerant vendors were seen distributing their products like peanuts and lozenges for free; some gave bottled water to the chanting students. As the young protesters marched along certain streets, elderly people came out of their homes or stood in their balconies, smiling down at the protesters and waving to them encouragingly.

“Simply registering protest on social media is not enough. This kind of battle has to be fought on the streets. It is a unifying act that brings together different communities,” said Drishadwati Bhattacharya, a third year English student at Jadavpur University.

A section of the students and staff of the university refused to let the Governor and Chancellor of the University, Jagdeep Dhankar, into the campus when he went to preside over the convocation ceremony on December 24. At the ceremony, Debsmitha Chowdhury, a gold medallist in International Relations, collected her M.A. degree, her gold medal, took out a copy of the Bill and tore it up. She later reportedly said that her protest was not just against the CAA but the overall discriminatory, anti-student policies of the Modi government.

With the ruling party and the Chief Minister herself leading the political resistance against the Centre, it was not the police that the non-political protesters had to worry about but goons allegedly affiliated to Hindutva organisations. On the night of December 22, a number of activists, mostly college-going girls, belonging to the group Feminists in Resistance (FIR) were viciously attacked in south Kolkata by a group of men armed with sticks. The women had just finished a door-to-door campaign urging the residents to protest against the CAA.

Darshana Mitra, a lawyer and one of the FIR activists who was taking part in the mobile campaign, told Frontline: “They threw one of the girls on the ground and beat her up and hurled another one on to the road; a passing vehicle very narrowly missed her. They were chanting Jai Sri Ram and telling us to chant along with them.”

A police vehicle dispersed the attackers, but one of them was apprehended by the protesters and taken to the police station. It has become clear that the Hindutva forces, which are hoping to come to power in West Bengal in 2021, are now concerned over the growing protests in the State.

Maharashtra

Show of solidarity

By Anupama Katakam and Lyla Bavadam

MUMBAI is known for its electoral apathy, with voter turnout hovering around 50 per cent at best in any election. So it was surprising to find Mumbaikars coming out in large numbers for the rallies against the CAA across the city.

The first rally against the CAA was held on December 19 at the historic August Kranti Maidan, where Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement. There were close to 25,000 people who attended the demonstration that went on late into the night. Some of the posters were striking, for example “Bure din wapas lao” (Bring back the bad days, a take on the BJP’s slogan acche din, or good days). A girl wearing a hijab and a bindi was holding a placard saying: “What offends you more, my hijab or the bindi with my hijab?”

Organised by several smaller political parties and citizens’ groups, the protest was initially planned as a march down Marine Drive to August Kranti Maidan. The Mumbai Police, however, did not give permission for the march. But this did not stop people from gathering. Students, activists, intellectuals, politicians, corporate and government employees, concerned citizens, large contingents of women, members from minority communities and a few Hindi film personalities lent their support to the protest. The Bollywood actors Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhaskar and Javed Jaffery and the directors Saeed Mirza, Kabir Khan and Nikhil Advani were part of the gathering.

Before beginning her speech, the activist Teesta Setalvad made the crowd recite the Preamble to the Constitution of India. “I would say that was the most chilling and poignant moment in the rally,” said Abhimanyu Ghia, an executive with a private bank. The film-maker Anand Patwardhan, the rights lawyer Mihir Desai and several Left leaders led the crowds in chanting anti-CAA slogans. The noted freedom fighter G.G. Parikh, 94, also participated in the demonstration.

Essentially, the protesters said the CAA was communal and discriminated against Muslims. Several protesters said the Act was a smokescreen to cover up the government’s inadequacies. “They came in on the plank of growing the economy, instead they have exposed their fundamentalist and Hindu Rashtra agenda,” said Rajeev Advani, a Bombay High Court lawyer. “We voted them thinking they were a better alternative to the Congress. But they have failed us.”

A supporter of Modi, an investment banker who is from a minority community, said: “I am deeply disappointed with this government. We thought they would need more time to bring change and that is why we gave them our mandate in 2019. But they are not interested in addressing the real issues. A few measures that have been introduced only cater to a small percentage of the population. It does not have long-reaching benefits.”

Said Shivraj Dange, 75: “After the Emergency this is the darkest times I have seen. It is heartening to see this demonstration because it is part of our fundamental rights to be allowed to dissent..”

“The demonstration made me realise that at our core, Indians are still secular. Without a BJP in power, it is almost like we can breathe again,” said Shiraz Irani, a restaurant owner in south Mumbai. “Things are changing. We can feel it.”

The success of the August Kranti rally enthused citizens in other parts of the metropolis. Within days, massive rallies were held in Dharavi, Thane and Kalyan. Other parts of Maharashtra also saw demonstrations, including Nagpur, a BJP bastion. Unfortunately, the one held at Beed turned violent. Reports say that 104 people were arrested and 12,000 booked in Maharashtra for inciting trouble at rallies.

Two rallies

Mumbai saw two rallies on December 27 that were separated in more ways than just the 5 km distance between the venues. About 15,000 people gathered at Azad Maidan, chanting secular slogans and calling for an end to the CAA and the NRC. At around the same time, a rally in support of the CAA and the NRC was held at the August Kranti Maidan.

The anti-CAA rally, called the Inquilab morcha, was organised by the students-led Joint Action Committee for Social Justice. The mood at the rally was one of determination but not aggression. The comedian Varun Grover read from his poem: “Tanashah aakar jayenge hum kagaz nahi dikhayenge [Dictators will come and go but we will not present them with our documents].” Grover said: “The NRC is not a Muslim issue like everyone is making it out to be. It is an issue for every Indian.”

The heartening aspect of the rally was the extent of student participation. The youth-fuelled protests across the country as well as the attacks on students in Delhi seem to have had a galvanising effect. The presence of Umar Khalid and Afreen Fatima of Jawaharlal Nehru Univesity, Hammada Rehman from Jamia Millia Islamia and Maskur Usmani from Aligarh Muslim University gave further impetus for a coming together.

Explaining that the original NPR was being distorted by the current regime, Umar Khalid said: “The earlier NPR did not require you to give details of the date and place of birth of your parents, but in this present form that is the first filter… the government will try to delegitimise real concerns by fuelling violence but we will not resort to violence.”

Fatima said the movement against the CAA had thrown up another suppressed issue. “Muslims are being seen as bogeymen. It has become an existential crisis for us. We need to reclaim our space and celebrate our identity. The idea of India allows us to celebrate our identity.” The lead organiser and Tata Institute of Social Sciences PhD student Fahad Ahmad said all they were asking the government for was a dialogue with those who were apprehensive of the new law. The same thought was expressed by the Archbishop of Bombay.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias said in a statement: “Religion should never be the criterion for citizenship of a country. Nor is violence a solution when there is a difference of opinion. It is necessary that the government dialogues with those opposing the Act and come to an agreement about the way forward with justice, equity and fairness. There is no harm in backtracking, changing course if this is necessary for the good of our country and our people.”

Trade unionist and Communist Party of India (CPI) member Milind Ranade said there would be an all-India trade union protest on January 8 to “guard the Constitution”. He added: “This government blames Nehru for everything, but it is anti-poor and anti-labour.”

Rally in favour of CAA

The other rally that was held on the same day was in support of the CAA and the NRC. It was organised by the Samvidhan Samman Manch, a BJP outfit, and drew about 6,000 supporters.

Former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis used his time on the platform to attack the Shiv Sena, saying: “The Sena was until recently against Bangladeshis who had infiltrated into the country. They wanted to throw them out, but now the Sena has gone quiet on the issue because it has developed a love for power.”

His statement exposed the true motivation behind the CAA and the NRC. A similar rally was organised by the Manch on December 21, two days after a successful anti-CAA rally.

Tamil Nadu

Rallying forces

by Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Peaceful marches, rallies and demonstrations marked the mass protests that swept across Tamil Nadu against the CAA. Waving the tricolour and singing the national anthem, the protesters, including students and activists and members of political parties and civil society, poured out onto the streets. They also called for people from all walks of life to mobilise themselves against the Act, which excludes from its ambit Sri Lankan Tamils who have been living in Tamil Nadu for decades.

Students from almost all colleges and universities and other higher educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, the University of Madras, Madurai Kamaraj University and Pondicherry University staged protest marches and dharnas, which spread to the streets. The police entered the campus of the University of Madras in Chennai to forcibly remove a group of students who has resorted to a sit-in for more than 18 hours. As the stir threatened to gather momentum, the State declared holidays for all educational institutions.

Jakob Lindenthal from Dresden in Germany, who was doing a master’s in the Department of Physics at IIT Madras on an exchange programme, was among the protesters in Chennai. The 23-year-old German student became the cynosure of all eyes after a picture of him carrying a placard went viral on social media. It said: “1933 to 1945: We Have Been There”, a reference to Nazi Germany. Since he was in the country on a student visa and its rules do not permit “any sort of political engagement”, he was asked to leave the country immediately by the Bureau of Immigration’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office in Chennai. He left for Amsterdam via Delhi on December 24.

In Pondicherry University, a girl student created a flutter at the convocation function when she refused the gold medal that she had earned for outstanding performance in her studies. A student from Kerala, Rabeeha Abdurehim, a postgraduate in mass communication at the School of Media and Communication, was to receive her degree and gold medal from President Ram Nath Kovind at the function. She told the media that officials, whom she could not identify, had come to where she was seated in the auditorium and asked her to leave it immediately just before the arrival of the President and without giving her any reason. She was wearing a hijab at that time. “No one told me why I was sent outside,” she said. She said the reason for her removal could be her active participation in the recent agitations against the Act. “I was allowed to enter the hall only after the President had left,” she said. Although she accepted the degree from another dignitary on the dais, she refused to accept the gold medal to show her protest against the Act and dismay over the way she was treated. It was also in “solidarity with students who faced state oppression across the country”, she said. Another gold medallist from the same school, Karthika B. Kurup, boycotted the convocation function in support of the nationwide protest.

Besides students, Muslims in Tamil Nadu poured out in their thousands, mostly in Tier II and III towns such as Tiruchi, Madurai, Coimbatore, Vaniyambadi, Ambur, Vellore and Tirunelveli, to express their opposition to the Act. These demonstrations morphed into a broader platform, with activists, lawyers and like-minded members and organisations and political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) joining them.

The DMK spearheaded a series of protests in all the districts. Its December 23 rally in Chennai, led by party president M.K. Stalin, in which major political parties took part, saw a huge turnout. A day’s fast was organised by writers, cine artistes, activists and the public in which DMK Member of Parliament Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, veteran CPI leader R. Nallakannu and others took part. The actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiyam, too, opposed the Act. It has filed a petition against the Act in the Supreme Court.

The ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) stood embarrassed as 11 of its MPs voted for the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The opposition said that had those 11 MPs not voted for the Bill, it would have been defeated in the Upper House. Stalin called it an act of betrayal. In an interview with The Hindu, an AIADMK member of the Rajya Sabha, S.R. Balasubramaniam, said that his party was under pressure to vote for the Bill. An embarrassed Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami issued a statement saying that the opposition was politicising the CAA issue and asked people not to believe rumours. He said that it would not affect any Indian citizen and that his government had urged the Centre to provide dual citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils in India.

Since all forms of protests against the Act were banned, the Tamil Nadu Police’s response to them was to indiscriminately slap hundreds of cases against protesters across the State. The Chennai City Police alone registered cases against around 6,000 protesters, including Stalin, the actor Siddharth, the musician T.M. Krishna and VCK leader and MP Thol. Thirumavalavan.

Karnataka

Spontaneous protests

by Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed and Ravi Sharma

IN Karnataka too, as elsewhere across the country, the custodians of the law reacted aggressively to the spontaneous protests against the passage of the CAA. Mangaluru, historically a cultural melting pot, was the focal point of resistance. That the most violent crackdown occurred here and in the wider coastal region of the State, an area that has proved to be a Hindutva bastion, was not unexpected with the BJP ruling the State.

Coastal Karnataka, consisting of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts, has been a Hindutva stronghold for some time. Dakshina Kannada district, which includes Mangaluru, is the pre-eminent commercial hub of the region. While the proportion of the Muslim population in the area is significantly higher than in other parts of Karnataka, the community here is also relatively more prosperous and enjoys higher literacy levels. Naturally, the area is an influential centre of Muslim identity politics. It was obvious that the B.S. Yediyurappa government would closely monitor the protests.

In order to maximise impact, Muslim organisations such as the Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (SKSSF) synchronised their protests with the all-India protests that were slated for December 19. The SKSSF is an influential Muslim student body in coastal Karnataka affiliated to one of the factions of the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, a body of Islamic theologians based in Kerala. The administration imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in most urban centres of Karnataka for three days from December 19. In effect, protests were declared illegal even before they occurred. Despite this, thousands of people turned up to protest in different parts of Karnataka, including Bengaluru, where the historian Ramachandra Guha was detained while participating in the protests at the Town Hall.

In Mangaluru, when it became clear by the evening of December 18 that Section 144 was being imposed the next day, the SKSSF withdrew its call for a protest. But by then information about the protest had gone out, and by 2:30 p.m. the following day, a few hundred youths gathered near the State Bank of India in central Mangaluru, the de facto venue for such events in the city.

According to a journalist with a Kannada daily who was present at the location, the gathering was peaceful until the police resorted to a lathi charge. “In the confusion, a few journalists were also attacked even after they showed their identity cards,” he said. Videos released by the Mangaluru Police on December 25 purportedly showed protesters hurling stones at policemen near the protest venue. According to the journalist: “This happened only after the police began their lathi charge.”

The protesters fled towards the old part of the city called Bunder, a Muslim ghetto that is under the jurisdiction of the Mangaluru North police station, which the police claim was being surrounded by the protesters. It was around 4:30 p.m. when the Mangaluru Police started firing tear gas shells and live rounds. A video of this scene has emerged which shows two policemen firing at fleeing protesters. A senior police officer is seen telling his subordinate that “10 shots have been fired but no one has been hit”. P.S. Harsha, Commissioner of Police, Mangaluru City, refused to acknowledge these videos in a press conference held the next day.

In this firing, Abdul Jaleel (49), a worker in the fish market, and Noushin Kudroli (24), a welder, both daily-wage workers, succumbed to bullet injuries before they could be taken to hospital. In statements to the media, Jaleel’s family said that he was not part of the protests and was returning home with his two children. He was shot in his left eye and dropped dead in front of his children. Kudroli’s friend, Mohammed Hanif, also said that he was returning home from the welding shop where they worked when a tear gas shell burst in their path and in the thick smoke, Kudroli was shot in the chest.

Police barge into hospital

The closest hospital to Bunder is Wenlock District Hospital, but the deceased were taken to the Muslim-managed Highland Hospital along with the injured victims. Shocking visuals from CCTV footage emerged over the next few days. The police were seen entering the hospita and, barging into wards, even the Intensive Care Unit.

Speaking to Frontline, Dr Srinivas Kakkaliya, who is practising in Mangaluru, said: “The fact that the injured were taken to Highland Hospital and not Wenlock Hospital even though it was closer proves that a significant section of the minorities in the city have lost confidence that they will be treated properly in the government-run hospital. Second, even in war zones, hospitals remain neutral safe zones, and it is highly condemnable that the police entered Highland Hospital without permission from the hospital authorities.”

On December 22, Chief Minister Yediyurappa met the families of the two deceased and announced compensation of Rs.10 lakh each. This decision did not go down well with a wide section of the BJP leadership, many of whom had stridently called the protesters “criminals”. Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, a senior north Karnataka leader of the party, demanded that the compensation be withdrawn as the deceased were not patriots. Other senior BJP leaders like C.T. Ravi, Minister of Tourism, also opposed the Chief Minister’s gesture and warned that “protesters should not test the patience of the majority [community]”. The Mangaluru Police also filed a first information report against the deceased along with 75 other accused under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 143 (punishment for unlawful assembly) and 147 (punishment for rioting).

On December 25, Yediyurappa withdrew the ex-gratia offer to victims’ families and said: “We have not decided yet to give the ex-gratia to the family members of those killed in the police firing because giving criminals ex-gratia is an unpardonable crime in itself.”

Chandan Gowda, a political commentator and a professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, said: “I don’t recall any other political leader promising ex-gratia and then withholding it for any reason whatever the pressure on the Chief Minister might have been. The gesture is not noble.”

While Yediyurappa has ordered an investigation into the events in Mangaluru by the Crime Investigation Department, opposition parties in the State, including the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), and Muslim organisations in Dakshina Kannada have demanded a judicial inquiry into the events that led to the two deaths in Mangaluru. Although protests in Bengaluru drew the most attention, and while Mangaluru was where the crackdown was at its most brutal, significant protests were also organised in Mysuru, Kalaburagi, Belagavi, Hubballi, Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Chikkaballapura.

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