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New faces, new message: How capital protests are smashing the status quo

On the road outside Jamia, the language of protesters is neither religious nor sectarian. There are no clerics, nor are the protests organised by Muslim groups.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: December 25, 2019 8:14:07 am
caa protests, citizenship amendment bill, citizenship law, nrc, citizenship protests, jamia protests, protests by jamia students, indian express Protesters outside Jamia Millia Islamia. (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

“This revolution will not be televised. It’ll be Instagrammed.” The poster, held up in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan last week, captured the uniqueness of the protests against the new citizenship law and NRC. Be it the road outside Jamia Millia Islamia or Shaheen Bagh, Jantar Mantar or India Gate, the protests have brought a demographic, a gender and a community in a mix not seen in public spaces in a long time.

Tanvi Singh, a 26-year-old research scholar at Jamia who hails from Chhapra in Bihar, is a first-time protester. Opposed to NRC and CAA, she came out in solidarity with other students following police action at Jamia on December 15. “The kind of brutality unleashed by the police against unarmed students was unconscionable. High Court has not intervened. We have to protest to save India’s future, which is secularism,” she said.

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Hailing from an extended family of BJP supporters, she said only her mother and brother support her views. “My cousins and uncles say now that I am eating Jamia’s salt, I am talking this language. My Facebook posts are full of comments attacking me. But I am standing here in solidarity against this idea of ‘othering’.”

Like her, young women have been at the forefront of protests. Rakshanda (26), an M.Phil student at Jamia, said there is nothing “Hindu-Muslim” about the university, which is visible in the protests as well. “In my class of six students, four are non-Muslims. My closest friends are non-Muslims. We are away from our families and this is the first time I have come out like this. But they all have been standing with us from the first day of the protests.”

Garima (34), working professional, stands with a poster in her hand. She, too, is a first-time protester. “Our Constitution is being destroyed. This is unjust towards minorities, and when you see injustice, you have to raise your voice. That’s why I am here.”

According to sociologist S S Jodhka, what stands out “is the spontaneity and political clarity of young girls, who are 20-22 years old, belong to middle-class families and are articulate — about citizenship rights”.

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“This is what the country needs. I am so touched and moved that I would want to work under their leadership,” she said.

On the road outside Jamia, the language of protesters is neither religious nor sectarian. There are no clerics, nor are the protests organised by Muslim groups. “They are proud of their identity, but are not ready to be attacked for it or limited by it. It is a shift in the conception of secularism,” said author Nilanjana Roy, who has been attending the protests.

“This is an expression of identity without religious overtones. The articulation is radically different from the past, but it is not seeking a solution through a sectarian leader of the community. Never in the past have we seen such extensive participation by Muslim women,” said Tanweer Alam, a Jamia alumnus who recently completed his post-graduation from Oxford University. “For the first time, we have witnessed the socially privileged class of Muslims coming out on the streets. All this would not have been possible without the support of Hindus, which has allowed Muslims to come out and not hide behind someone.”

Historian Mukul Manglik said the protests show Muslims have refused to be imprisoned by their identity while being targeted for it. “They are moving out of that boundary and reaching out to take it,” he said.

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The movement has unleashed forces which have made things so far political and constitutional directly personal for the young. It has entered the lexicon of a generation — if the December 16, 2012 gangrape case played out on TV screens, these protests are on Instagram — which is clearly leading from the front, expressing in equal measure anger, anguish and hope.

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