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Reclaiming nationalism at the turn of the decade

  • The Citizenship (Amendment) Act has spurred an unprecedented number of people to come out in protest
  • The protests have ranged from music and video to public readings of the Preamble to the Constitution

People have been asserting what it means to be Indian.
People have been asserting what it means to be Indian. ( Natasha Badhwar)

In the second half of December, when the spontaneous protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act began, it was hard to imagine how quickly we would find ourselves in an India that seemed to be changing every moment. The first news of protests began to pour in from university campuses and soon there were announcements of protests and rallies in multiple locations in various cities.

At the Karwan-e-Mohabbat—a collective of lawyers, film-makers, researchers and civil rights activists led by Harsh Mander—we received an audio recording of actor Naseeruddin Shah reading the Preamble to the Constitution and Carnatic singer T. M. Krishna’s rendition of the national anthem.

“The most stunning moments in the protests for me was that every day young people were collecting in public places and reading the Preamble and they were reading it in so many languages—in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu, you name it," Krishna told me. “For the first time, I saw the Preamble coming out of a textbook and being embodied in an act of questioning. That piece of paper with words became an act that gave meaning to the protests. We are reclaiming the relevance of those words.

“Another thing protesters were doing is changing the date of the Preamble to the date of the reading. It is such a subversive act of the moment. It really touched me and I contacted Naseeruddin Shah to discuss with him what we should do in this moment. We knew the Preamble had to be read and it seemed like an obvious choice to sing the national anthem along with it. We wanted to embrace the words for the meaning they embody."

The audio recordings were handed over to Aparna Roy, a senior editor in the Karwan media team, who got down to visualizing the diversity, dignity and solidarity expressed in the words of the Preamble and national anthem that are familiar to most people who have grown up in India. As a team comprising young people who had recently graduated from media schools and older professionals who had worked for decades in broadcast television, we had spent the whole year creating many short documentaries that seek to represent and revive India’s diverse and syncretic cultures. To tell stories that exist all around us but need to be heard and celebrated again. Roy spent a few days mining both the footage from the films as well as images emerging from the protests that were gaining visibility throughout the country.

When I first saw the completed edit, I was struck by how much each person seemed to be in communion—either with nature, their self or the God they worshipped. There was Amanullah Khan, the shopkeeper from Kunra in Chhattisgarh who plays the popular role of Ravan in his town’s annual Ramleela with great pride and delight. There was Georgina Lazar, the elderly woman who reads her Bible in Urdu in old Delhi’s Holy Trinity Church. There were people from the Char islands in Assam who have borne the worst brunt of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) processes. A transgender person in a red sari seemed to be celebrating the very act of being alive. Among these were interspersed visuals from the nationwide protests in which people were asserting what it means to be Indian, and to belong to this land, with a renewed energy. These images represented both the creativity of the protesters as well as the violent backlash from the state aimed at quelling the protests.

On the last weekend of 2019, we released the film online on our YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts with the usual combination of hope and trepidation. Within hours, the 3-minute edit had been featured on multiple online news sites and then replayed as a news segment on NDTV, where they invited Krishna to talk about the moment we find ourselves in collectively as a nation.

“When you hear the Preamble back to back with the national anthem, then you read the anthem differently. You realize that our culture and our Constitution embody the same values—of a universality of humanity and empathy for each other. There is nothing here to thump one’s chest about. Nothing aggressive about who we are, just inclusive in a gently assertive way," said Krishna, as we chatted after the video had found its audience online.

T.M. Krishna. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
T.M. Krishna. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“It’s amazing, humbling and deeply inspiring that a movement with unprecedented Muslim visibility is essentially about preserving the very idea of an inclusive India, with the Constitution and its Preamble being its primary guiding light," wrote Nadim Asrar, a journalist, as he shared the video on his Facebook timeline. A colleague from my team sent me a screenshot of these words.

I shared it with Roy, who has been a long-time colleague and friend. We sent multiple hugging emojis to each other to mark the success of an edit that we had slaved over and the beginning of whatever was lined up next.

In my conversation with Krishna, I found both words of caution as well as optimism. “Many of us who were born in the 1970s and live middle-class lives are the ones who have been totally detached from social or political action. The people on the margins have always asked difficult questions.

“The fact is every piece of art is political. Keeping quiet is a political act. Not engaging is a political act. We have to move beyond passivity and recognize ourselves as political beings.

“The diversity we are seeing in the protest is also marvellous. The one thing the protesters are teaching us is political imagination. Unless you can imagine, you can’t do anything new. The young people in their acts, in their thoughts, have shown us an imagination that inspires," said Krishna.

I spoke to him about the Muslim women who have been sitting in protest on a main road in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh for over 20 days now. Every day people from the rest of the city visit them to be inspired. The protests against the CAA and proposed NRC have also transformed into a celebration of solidarity. A renewal of what binds our collective cultures together.

“Many urban protesters are safer than those from minority communities," Krishna pointed out. “So many people are risking everything—their security and their lives. This is a moment that must spur us to reclaim our soul."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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