Anti-CAA protests in Chennai: Back to battle

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Members of various Muslim organisations marching towards the State Secretariat, protesting against the CAA, the NRC and the NPR, at Chepauk in Chennai on February 19. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

On the fifth day of the agitation at Washermenpet in Chennai on February 18. Photo: R. RAGU

After a brief lull, anti-CAA protests intensify in Tamil Nadu, with Muslims replicating the Shaheen Bagh agitation in north Chennai.

PROTESTS against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, have picked up pace in Tamil Nadu after a lull. Agitations and rallies had rocked the State following the passage of the Bill in Parliament in December 2019.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were in the forefront, guiding the agitation in the initial phase. Muslims across the State and organisations representing the community took the protest forward emulating the sit-in by Muslim women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.

In the second week of February, Muslim women started a sit-in at Old Washermenpet in north Chennai. The agitation remained a low-key affair, confined to a small group of women and youths who converted a couple of narrow lanes as their protest venue. But after the Friday prayer on February 14, the crowds swelled to thousands, prompting similar protests not only in other areas of Washermenpet but in other parts of Chennai and in other cities, municipal towns and town panchayats in the State. These protesters were not led by any particular leader and they were not affiliated to any political party or ideology. Women and youths were in the forefront of the protest.

As the number of protesters started multiplying, people in other cities and tier-II towns in the State joined the protests, and political parties started participating in them. Leaders addressed the gathering at Old Washermenpet. They reassured the protesters, who were predominantly Muslims, that they would stand by them. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswamy assured the protesters that his government would stand by the minorities although it did not initiate a move to pass a resolution against the CAA on the floor of the Assembly, which is in session. The Assembly Speaker turned down the opposition’s request for a resolution on the CAA. The Chief Minister defended the February 14 police action against protesters at Old Washermenpet. Many protesters, including women, were injured. He claimed that the protesters had turned aggressive by attacking the police with water bottles, footwear and stones.

On February 19, thousands of people poured out on to the streets in Chennai in protest against the police action at Washermenpet and the All India Anna Dravida Munnentra Kazhagam government’s refusal to pass a resolution in the Assembly condemning the CAA. The protesters had earlier announced that they would take out a rally and lay siege to the Assembly from February 19 demanding a resolution against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR).

Raising slogans such as “Inquilab Zindabad”, waving the national flag and singing the national anthem in chorus, the protesters, gathered under the newly floated Federation of Tamil Nadu Islamic and Political Organisations and took out a rally to lay siege to the Government Secretariat in Chennai. In other towns, thousands of protesters attempted a blockade of the respective District Collectorate. On February 18, the Madras High Court denied protesters permission to lay siege to the State Assembly building. But they went ahead with the march they had planned, amid heavy police deployment.

People who took part in the rallies and protests showed restraint and never confronted the law enforcement agencies anywhere in the State. In fact, volunteers and the police, according to eyewitnesses, worked in sync to ensure a peaceful protest. Many leaders addressed them at the end of the agitation. They said that the protests would continue until the State government took the initiative of passing a resolution against the Act in the Assembly.

The recent spate of protests pointed to a sharp increase in their frequency compared with the ones in the past, and they certainly were widespread and intense. Muslims were dissatisfied with the way the State government handled the CAA issue. They said they would continue their peaceful agitation against the Act, which they claimed was a “regressive” one.

Meanwhile, the protest at Old Washermenpet continued with no respite. It turned into a “social agitation” with people from all walks of life expressing their solidarity with the agitators and participating in large numbers. Volunteers came forward to distribute food and water to the agitators. Besides, a steady stream of speakers and artists started visiting the site to keep the people engaged. A young couple got their marriage solemnised at the protest venue.

Women protesters, however, feel traumatised. They demanded that the police who were responsible for the February 14 violence be brought before the law. In fact, after the police’s botched-up action in the night to break the agitation, the protest gained more vigour and momentum. “Still many of us are nursing our injuries. More than physical injuries, we are suffering mentally. The police manhandled many of the women in their attempt to break the agitation. Our children are terrified,” a women protester told Frontline.

Many of them could not figure out what prompted the police to resort to brutal force. “We were peaceful and orderly. We did not cause a traffic snarl. Our neighbours, both Hindus and others, provided water and food. Why should we indulge in violence at a peaceful gathering?” she asked. Said Jannathul Pradesh, one of the woman injured in the violence, “I told the cops not to beat us and the children. But they were inhuman and did not listen. Many women suffered injuries.”

Many women participants contacted by Frontline said male police personnel outnumbered women police personnel on that day. The only excuse they had was that the protesters were not given permission to agitate. Nowhere in Tamil Nadu permission was granted in writing to hold agitations; they were allowed unofficially, said a senior political party functionary.

Tamil Nadu grabbed national attention in the anti-CAA protests when a bunch of young activists expressed in January their dissent against the CAA through “kolams” (drawing with rice flour) in front of their houses. A few youngsters belonging to the Citizens Against CAA group included slogans against the CAA in their kolams in Chennai on December 29, 2019.

The City Police detained eight youngsters, including five young women, for the anti-CAA kolams, inviting widespread condemnation. This encouraged people in other States to draw kolams to register their protest against the Act.

The DMK collected two crore signatures from the public against the CAA and sent them to the President of India.