It was well past 3 am when it became clear that the midnight gathering at the Gateway of India over the attack on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi would not be an ordinary protest.
“We are full of passion when we are in love. We need that same passion now. We will stay here, eat here and sleep here. We will not move. Occupy Occupy Occupy Gateway! We need to make this slogan popular,” a student announced.
Around midnight, a group of students from IIT-Bombay, holding candles and placards, gathered at the Gateway of India to protest the attack on JNU students. Soon, they were joined by hundreds, including actor Jim Sarbh, student leader Umar Khalid and comedian Kunal Kamra. What began as an outpouring of anger and anguish, gradually morphed into a need for concrete action.
A cajon (a box-shaped wooden instrument) served as the night’s soapbox, as a series of speakers from diverse educational, social, religious and professional backgrounds took to the informal stage in between rounds of song and poetry. The air was charged with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and Dushyant Kumar poems echoing the sentiments of protesters.
A student of IIT said Mumbai needs only to look at Delhi for inspiration. “We have to make the Gateway Mumbai’s Shaheen Bagh. The Delhi Police is scared of a group of elderly women who are refusing to budge. We need to take our message to every house and lane. Unless our voices resonate in Dharavi, Lalbaug and Govandi, we will not be able to take on Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the JNU vice-chancellor,” said a student.
Javed Ahmed, a businessman from Thane, was one of the night’s most unlikely protesters, having left a relative’s wedding mid-way. “When I came here, a few IIT students gave me a poster. I felt it is more important to be here than at the wedding. What is happening in educational institutes is horrific. My entire family has come here to stand with these students,” he said.
The slogans also reverberated across the road and into the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where Khushboo Rawal and her husband Hemant were celebrating her birthday. The couple rushed to the protest with their dinner in a doggy bag. Hemant said, “The youth are the driving force of the nation. The energy at this protest is contagious. The anger is palpable and absolutely justified, as the attacks are unacceptable.”
The call for protest reached Sardar Singh and Bikram Singh, friends from Canada who are on a vacation to India, while they were dining at Bandra around 11 pm. “We are also students and can imagine what we would do if such an attack happened in our campus. We have come here on humanitarian grounds. Nothing can be more important than being here at this point,” said Bikram.
For Delhi native Shilpi Sahya, too, the call to protest was one she couldn’t miss. “This time, the police have taken things too far. The way students have been beaten up is not acceptable and very scary,” said the Versova resident. Doel Rakshit, a transgender student, added, “We need to protest the brutality with which the government has attacked students.”
Jammu native and filmmaker Ramneek Singh rushed to the Gateway because the events in Delhi would not let him sleep. “I knew I had to come here,” he said. Sitting on the cajon, Singh led the protesters through a singalong of the night’s most poignant verses, which he wrote only days ago with two other friends.
While a section of the protesters kept up a steady decibel level, activist Feroze Mithiborwalla was engaged in an animated argument with the police. Senior police officers told The Indian Express that they expected the protesters to disperse after blowing off some steam, like at the August Kranti Maidan and Azad Maidan protests against CAA and NRC last month. But as cries of ‘Occupy Gateway’ rent the night, the police started to negotiate with the protesters.
The protesters, however, refused to accept the police’s offer of shifting to Azad Maidan, an area designated to hold demonstrations. DCP (Zone I) Sangramsing Nishandar could make no headway with the organisers of the protest and the police were forced to temporarily concede ground. Eventually, the police agreed to allow the protesters to occupy the Apollo Bunder pavement, as long as they did not encroach into the protected monument.
Towards dawn, conversations at the soapbox turned to sustaining the protest. “We need volunteers and people to train them. We need to create 12-hours shifts because people are feeling sleepy. This is a battle between love and hate, between the heart and mind. We do not want to create a ruckus here. Our aim is to change perceptions and reach out to those people who aren’t aware of what is happening in the country,” said Kapil, a student of TISS.
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