Voices loud and clear

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on January 09, 2020 Published on January 08, 2020

Reading corner: A makeshift library outside the Jamia campus   -  REUTERS/ANUSHREE FADNAVIS

Different parts of Delhi have reverberated with the sounds of protests against new citizenship laws in the past several days

As you step on to the road in front of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, you’ll see an unusual sight. A long stretch of the road is blocked off on one side. Artists are engaged in painting the walls with large slogan-bearing pictures that touch on current issues, specifically the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The paintings are not only on the walls, but the road itself is covered with murals, paintings and slogans. Somewhere along the way you’ll hear speeches and slogans interspersed with songs and poetry.

You’ll see a crowd of people collected around the speakers; they’re listening, applauding, supporting. They’re interested. What’s at stake is their lives, our lives; what’s at stake is the Constitution, the secular foundations of this country.

These are protests against the CAA and the NRC and they have been on in the Capital for over three weeks.

Jamia isn’t the only place where the protests are taking place. For the last several days, different parts of Delhi have resounded to the sounds of such protests. Some of these are centralised — a march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar, for instance — and are organised by many groups working together, as happened last week on the birthday of social reformer Savitribai Phule. But many others are local, organised by residents, students and others. They take different forms.

On a cold but sunny Sunday last week, local people from a number of upper middle-class South Delhi localities organised peaceful marches. Other parts of the city also held simultaneous marches, and it showed formidable coordination between organisers. All of them were young, none of them experienced in this kind of organisation, but remained deeply committed. Slogans were shared, strategies worked out, speakers discussed and knowledge gained.

Once together, people read from the Preamble to the Constitution, held up the Indian flag and sang the national anthem. In different ways, they fiercely and proudly reclaimed the nation and its founding principles. Rejecting the accusation of being anti-national, they claimed the nation they knew India to be, not the travesty it was being turned into by the right wing.

The road in front of Jamia reflects all these concerns and much more. At regular intervals, the Indian flag can be found slung over the high railing that protects the university premises. Large posters assert the importance of the Constitution, and every now and then, posters bearing the Preamble make an appearance.

This isn’t all. There’s a stunning creative imagination in evidence: If the railings proudly display the flag, they have also been used as exhibition spaces. One such display documents the making of the Constitution, the participation of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and others in the making of the idea of India. Another documents the police attack on students, the use of tear gas, the draconian and violent arm of State power.

A set of volunteers goes round, carton in hand, delivering food; others direct traffic to ensure minimum inconvenience. Further up, a small group of students, guitar in hand, mike held close to the mouth, is expressing their opposition to the CAA. In another place a mother sits, her six-year-old daughter bearing an anti-NRC placard. In another, there’s a reading corner — you destroyed our library, it says, we’ll now read on the road; close to it is a co-working corner: We’re students, we need to work, but we want to protest too, and so we’ll do both.

The protest is multifarious, energetic, amazing, lively, democratic, non-violent and deeply political. It also cuts across class and caste.

A little distance away, in Shaheen Bagh, a different kind of protest is taking place. Here, women come out every single night, 8pm onwards, and sit in an enclosure. They sing, they shout slogans, and they listen. Food comes round, medical aid is available, there’s a stage, a microphone, and many discussions on the issues at stake. In Zakir Bagh nearby, women stand in silence for two hours every evening, holding candles.

Indeed, two things have marked these protests: The presence of young people and the presence of women. At Shaheen Bagh, the children carry little Indian flags. Their mothers have made these for them. For the mothers, the protest is both a place to gather and participate in the discussion on citizenship, and a space to take time off the drudgery of housework, a time to think of issues beyond the domestic.

As I write this, another protest is ongoing: Violent mobs have been on the rampage inside Jawaharlal Nehru University. In a short while, shared WhatsApp messages brought hundreds of supporters to the university gates. Those being targeted inside know there are people outside looking out for them. They’re not alone. It’s time the State took note of the voices of its citizens.



Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


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Published on January 08, 2020
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