Angry slogans of ‘azadi, azadi (freedom, freedom)’ and ‘ottayala, nammal (we are not alone)’ rent the air in Kochi as thousands of men, women and children took to the streets to agitate against the controversial citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The city witnessed two major protests on Monday — one, a people’s long march that began from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium near Kaloor and ended at the Cochin Shipyard, and the second a protest march led by actors, writers, directors, intellectuals and members of the film fraternity from Rajendra Maidan to Vasco Square in Fort Kochi.
As part of the people’s long march, hundreds of protesters carried photographs of Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of India’s founding fathers, and raised slogans against the RSS and the BJP as they walked the 9-km distance.
The protesters comprised people from all demographics and backgrounds — students, traders, housewives, children and salaried employees who took the day’s leave to attend the protest.
Dileep Kumar, 32, who works as a software engineer in Chennai and hails from Palakkad district, came all the way to Kochi to take part in the people’s long march. He had also attended anti-NRC protests in Chennai and wanted to attend one in his home state.
“I remember the speeches and extempores I used to do back in school, dreaming that India would be a developed economy by 2020. Today, we are barely a week ahead of that milestone. And our economy is in a deep crisis. I have seen people living in slums in Chennai in circumstances that we cannot accept,” he said.
“I was one of those who voted for Modi in 2014. But after demonetisation in 2016, I told my friends that there’s going to be a second freedom struggle in this country. My assumption was that it would begin from either Kerala or Tamil Nadu. But right now, as you can see, it began from Northeastern India and Bengal. This is the second freedom struggle and it will overcome the Hindutva agenda and turn India once again into a secular nation,” he added.
Vino Bastian, an agro-businessman near Kochi, was marching in the protest against CAA and NRC with his child hunched on his shoulders. As his wife, six weeks pregnant, marched alongside him, Vinu’s three-year-old child, sitting on his shoulders, held a placard with the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. His family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe.
Vino explained why he’s holding Alan Kurdi’s photograph.
“The three-year-old was fleeing Syria along with his parents and trying to reach Europe when he drowned in the sea. His body was washed ashore on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea a few days later. Tomorrow, me or my son could be a refugee like him, thanks to this law. I’m attending this protest with that pain. The pain and suffering of refugees and the dangerous migration they indulge in is being marginalised,” said Vino.
“Such nationwide protests today do not surprise me. Even at this protest march, at least 80% would be those attending an agitation for the first time. Women, children, college students, those who don’t subscribe to party politics. These young people are today marching, with fiery ideals in their heads. There’s a lot of hope in these protesters,” he added.
Aditi made it to the long march in Kochi, accompanied by her mother Keerthi. Aditi, a student of design and management in Boston, US, is on her vacation break in her home state, and decided to join the protests, spurred by the desire to make her voice heard in the agitation.
“With the NRC, the government is intent on eroding the Constitution and defining citizenship. This is a timely movement. We have to push back against what this government is trying to do vis-a-vis the state-sponsored violence unleashed on those protesting against it. That needs to be resisted through and through,” she said.
“The CAA is highly problematic because it creates room for NRC to be implemented. It basically opens a Pandora’s Box on what can be done to people on the grounds of religion,” she added.
Her mother in her 50s, who’s attending a protest for the first time in her life, added, “Students are at the forefront of this agitation. We owe our gratitude to them.”
Vishnu Vijayakumar, who teaches at a college in Kuttikanam in Idukki district, travelled 125 kms to attend the protest in Kochi after he heard of it through a Facebook group. His student in college, Sherin, is also accompanying him for the agitation. Since it’s vacation break right now, both of them didn’t have to take leave from college to mark their presence at the protest.
“It is totally unconstitutional. It’s against human rights. When the UNHCR has been asking to scrap the law, it’s beyond me why this government continues to uphold it,” said Vishnu.
Underlining that India continues to be a democracy, Vishnu demanded for the law to be repealed as it goes against the will of the people. “This is a democracy. What the people demand and ask for should happen. There are nationwide protests around this. The government may have a majority in Parliament, but there is a majority in this country who are against the law. Their view must be taken into account,” he added.
The college teacher said he considers it a crime to remain silent at such an important moment in the country’s history. “Whatever you can do, you must do. The slogans we raise and our voices are a necessity today. They can achieve great things,” he added.
Sherin, who studies literature and communicative English at the college in Kuttikanam, said she finds it shocking that a law like this, which she described as ‘brutal’, is being implemented on the cusp of reaching 2020. “The BJP said it was always in their manifesto. This indicates a lack of information on part of the people when they vote. They don’t know what they are voting for,” said Sherin.
Arshad Peringala, a businessman in Ernakulam district of Kerala, was the cynosure of all eyes as he pushed a pram in which his infant child Dawood slept, at the head of the protest. His two young daughters, both under the age of 10, and his wife accompanying, Arshad told indianexpress.com that he couldn’t afford to stay at home when such an important agitation was taking place on the streets.
“My son was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. He recovered just a few days back. It’s a difficult time, but that’s not on my mind right now. If we don’t protest today, who will protest for us? Decades ago, Gandhiji hit the streets for this country’s freedom. It’s time we do it again,” said Arshad, smiling.
Laila, a housewife, was accompanied by her friend at the protest Monday. She walked for 9 kilometres, raising banners and placards, decrying the ‘fascist regime’ of PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
In an emotional outburst, Laila said she would either live in this country or die here. Leaving this country, her homeland, will never be on her mind.
“This is my country. This is as much my country as it is of the Hindus, Christians and people of other faiths. Why should I leave this country? Why should I prove my citizenship when my ancestors, for ages, have lived and died here,” said Laila.
Shamsudheen, who retired after a career as a war photojournalist in conflict-torn regions in Africa and the Middle East, was at the protest with his wife, sister and brother-in-law. He resides in Aluva, 25 kms from Kochi.
He said the protest was secular in character and comprised people of all faiths who are determined to lead India back to its democratic ways.
“The law is discriminatory and anti-constitutional. And what is its relevance by introducing it now, 70 years after the country gained independence? This is the starting point of their movement to overturn the Constitution,” said Shamsudheen, who took pride in the fact that his elder son, a scientist in Switzerland, was playing a leading role in organising a similar protest against CAA-NRC in Zurich. His younger son, who works in Delhi, is also part of the protests there.
“If they (BJP) want to provide refuge to persecuted people, why not include all communities? Why are you eliminating a single community and discriminating against them? So in every way, this law goes against the principles of the Constitution that Ambedkar defined for India,” he added.
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