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.