Opinion | Bengaluru shows you why it’s time to lose your protest virginity
- The state government has announced the imposition of Section 144 in Bengaluru and parts of Karnataka till 21 December midnight
- On Sunday, many Bengaluru techies attended their first-ever protest, making the simple act of protest a cause
Sabeena and Nasir looked distinctly out of place. When I first saw them sitting next to each other, they kept exchanging glances. Nasir looked at her, eyebrows raised, almost as if he were asking, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come?" But as the tempo picked up and the crowd swelled, they relaxed. When I looked next, they had changed position. She was sitting on the step below him, resting her back on his knees as he rested his arms on her shoulders. If you had seen them now, you never would have guessed they were protest virgins.
The techie couple attended their first-ever protest at Town Hall in Bengaluru just a few hours before thousands of concertgoers packed into a 50,000-capacity stadium in Navi Mumbai and waved their lit-up cellphones when U2’s Bono reminded them that “India gave the world its greatest gift—ahimsa" and performed a song by that name.
While Mumbai embraced a feel-good moment about living in the birthplace of non-violent protest, an evening of terror commenced for students in Delhi and Aligarh as police entered their campuses armed with batons and tear gas. In the next couple of days, almost 50 colleges, from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, to Banaras Hindu University, had protested against the police action at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Many dramatically diverse narratives unfold simultaneously across our country every day but once every few years, we find ourselves in a moment when many of these stories fit perfectly into each other. Suddenly, the Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad was perched on a car outside the old police headquarters in Delhi, saying, “They thought that if students get beaten up in Jamia and AMU, only Muslims would protest? That’s not true, the whole country will protest."
Sometimes, the simple act of protest grows to become a cause. It’s great when it happens at the end of the year, that time of reflection, of looking back at ourselves as a nation. In a year bursting with bad news, India certainly needed some Christmas cheer.
Right now it certainly seems like many Indians—the rainbow of protests stretched from the North-East to Kerala—understand that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) may forever alter the DNA of this secular democracy.
Azad was also responding to Narendra Modi’s remark (made at a political rally in Jharkhand) that “those creating violence can be identified by their clothes itself". The prime minister’s comment was interpreted as a communal one, reinforcing a stereotype that Muslim citizens have endured in post-independence India.
As Rakhshanda Jalil says in the introduction to her latest book, But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim: “With time I have understood that the speaker is trying to give me a back-handed compliment. Since I don’t look like a Muslim, I am ‘okay’, I am not quite one of ‘them’—the bomb-throwing, beef-smuggling, jihad-spouting Muslim of popular imagination." Jalil adds that far from camouflaging her identity, she wants to celebrate being Indian and Muslim.
“If you keep silent now, you will be that person who kept quiet when their country was burned down," says Ajmal Khan, assistant professor at Ambedkar University, on his Facebook page. Khan also expressed his anger and anguish in a poem titled Write Me Down, I Am An Indian. “Write me down/ I am an Indian/ This is my land/ If I have born here/ I will die here/ Write it down/ Clearly/ In bold and capital letters/ On the top of your NRC/ that I am an Indian," the poem’s last stanza reads.
At Bengaluru’s Town Hall, web developer and history buff George said this was his first protest in two decades. “I just felt like this (CAA) was the start of something bad," he said. “When you codify prejudice, it no longer operates as just isolated incidents of discrimination." He added that the CAA reminded him of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany. “Once these laws were in place, the bureaucrats just followed orders."
Lakshmi, who runs a library for the children of ragpickers, said she was there because the CAA and the NRC will directly impact the families with whom she works. “These two things are not so much anti-religion or anti-community but anti-poor. When it actually comes down, it is an attack on poor people," she said, adding that it’s the worst thing to be Muslim and poor in India today.
It’s not like our fault lines disappear in these times. Who really understands which moments unite a nation? Where were these protesters when Kashmir needed them? Even though we appear united, it can often seem just a mirage.
At the Bengaluru protest, students from Assam stood uncomfortably alongside Muslim protesters who had answered the call of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (Aimim). “Do you want to move to that side? This side is the religious protest," one organizer said, approaching a group of us who didn’t “look" Muslim.
For now I am focusing on the magical images of people reading the preamble to the Constitution at India Gate; the break for namaz-e-isha during a protest in Jamia; the women students who rescued their male colleague from a police beating; the three-four women perched on a wall lost in their own private protest high; women everywhere, actually; and the sheer number of citizens who have hit the streets.
And yes, Sabeena and Nasir, who for years chose stoicism over public expression of any emotion, keeping their chin up when landlords said, “Sorry we don’t want to rent to Mohammedans," and friends said, “Oh you must want Pakistan to win this cricket match." Sabeena says people often behave differently with her before and after hearing her name because “you don’t look like a Muslim".
The couple has finally found the courage to step out publicly and say, stop this stereotyping. How’s that for some Christmas cheer?
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.