Protest against CAA

‘CAA is a threat to marginalised communities’

Print edition : January 17, 2020

ON December 26, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi lent its voice to those against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). It was party leader Prakash Ambedkar’s first public call against the controversial law.

The police estimated a gathering of about 3,000 people, many of whom had travelled from neighbouring districts to oppose the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the CAA. The protest was held in central Mumbai’s Dadar where Prakash Ambedkar and his son Sujat addressed the crowds from a makeshift platform, telling them that the new law would target Muslims as well as marginalised communities such as Adivasis.

Prakash Ambedkar said that it was his responsibility to alert marginalised people about the impact the new law would have on them. “Is this law against Muslims? Yes, it is. But it is also against 40 per cent of the Hindus. If you don’t have land, you don’t have proof,” he said and went on to tell the crowd that the CAA was a plot by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh to stay in power. “If you speak against them, they will send you to the detention centre as no one in India has ‘proof’,” he said.

The crowd represented a variety of people from those who have been marginalised by their caste and their poverty to those who have been set aside because of their gender. The mood was one of anger fuelled by anxiety. Mirroring the confusion and rage of the crowd was a ritualistic flagellation at the start of the rally. This was done by Dombaris, a nomadic community. Many of them are street artistes and performers. The ritual flagellation, a means of earning, involves a drum being beaten and a half-dressed boy smeared in turmeric whipping himself with a thick rope while calling on his gods. Dombaris, like many of the others at this rally, are a denotified tribe.

In 2016, the Maharashtra government said that denotified and nomadic tribes had to produce proof of address from 1961 if they wanted to obtain a caste certificate and to avail themselves of government schemes. “First, we had to prove our caste. Now we may have to prove we are Indian. Where does this end?” asked a woman who gave her name as Vimala. Prakash Ambedkar said that 16 per cent of the population of Maharashtra belonged to denotified tribes.

Laxman Gote, a marginalised farmer from Pen district, said he was around 70 years of age but had no certificate to prove where he was born. “We spend our lives trying to eke out a living from land that doesn’t even belong to us, a god that doesn’t favour us with rain, landlords that misuse that power over us… we vote for the government—it is our mai baap [literally, parents] and now our mai baap is asking us if we are really their children. What does one do in such a case? We live in fear for many things and now we have to add to our fears with this new law.”

Also represented at the rally were people from transgender communities. Disha Sheikh, a transgender leader, spoke to the gathering: “Modi and [Amit] Shah will have to have at least four more births to understand the pain of being transgender. I got my citizenship in 2014 [a reference to the 2014 Bill that recognised transgenders as a third gender]. Before that I was nothing and unrecognised. Even now very few of us have official ID cards. Now the government can get after me to say that I did not exist before that and so I am not a citizen. This is all just a game. They don’t want us to ask questions about their failures and so they try and silence us by asking questions about us —whether we are valid.”

Referring to the notorious detention centres, Prakash Ambedkar said that only denotified tribes understood what this was like because they had been incarcerated in such centres under colonial rule.

Berating the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party for not including marginalised peoples in their fight against the CAA, Prakash Ambedkar said it was the exclusion of these communities that forced him to hold a separate rally.