Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are refusing to die down across the country, with rallies and protests reported in several cities every day. While some rallies have seen political leaders make an appearance, the events have largely been driven by the aam aadmi.
Who are these people, and what are they protesting against? What is making students, professionals, people of all ages, pour out into the streets, even with the risk of police crackdowns?
The Indian Express visits four such rallies in four cities, and brings you the answers, in the people’s own words.
Bengaluru has seen several protests against the CAA and the NRC, in colleges, community halls and on streets. We spoke to two people part of a rally on December 23.
Smita Kommini, a technical writer
“I decided to show up at multiple protests to ensure my dissent with how the government is functioning these days is expressed directly. Making laws that do not benefit everyone, and then using police force to stop us from protesting, is never the right thing to do. People helping each other, picking litter, and staying united across protests in a peaceful manner is a direct message to this government of the common man’s unity.”
Athitha Varghese, skateboarder
“I think it is important for everyone who thinks of themselves as Indian citizens to come out and speak up on why our country needs to continue with a democratic identity. India has been feted by world leaders for her secular and democratic values. We should not lose the same to CAA, NRC or any such policy.”
Unlike the rest of the country, CAA protests in Assam have a relatively longer history. Even before it was tabled in Parliament, CAB — as it was known before it became an Act — saw widespread protests in the state, starting May 2018. The opposition here is distinctly different from the rest of the country, and much of it has to do with Assam’s long struggle with migration from Bangladesh, something which has shaped demography and politics of the region.
In fact, the Assam Movement (1979-85), marked by six years of protests and demonstrations, was driven by the same sentiment: that migration will lead to the indigenous Assamese losing their land, culture, and language to the “foreigner”. A wide range of people attend the current wave of protests, and while they are unified by one common cause (no refugees — irrespective of religion — in Assam), the array of voices on the ground are a consequence of diverse histories and lived experiences.
Induprabha Gogoi, 70
“When the Assam Agitation took place in 1979, I was living in Arunachal Pradesh. I couldn’t participate then, but now I have come out to protect my language, culture and land. I have taken part in all the protests,” says Gogoi who has also written four poems in Assamese to express her opposition to the CAA.
Anjali Hajong, 18
The teenager says she feels encouraged to attend protests because she sees so many people out. “It makes me even more sure that the CAA is wrong for us.”
Sanahal Singha, 28
“True, Manipur now has the Inner Line Permit (ILP), which exempts the state from CAA, but we are Manipuris in Assam, and we are speaking on behalf of the 6 lakh Manipuris who live in Assam. Our problems are different,” says the member of the All Assam Manipuri Student Union.
Ishan Das, 21
”I study in a private law college in Guwahati. No one from my college is attending any of the protests — unlike other colleges in Assam, we haven’t really taken a stand. But I thought the least I could do was step out myself, because I really do feel my identity is in danger.”
Minadhar Ojha, 76
“This is not a personal struggle, it’s a community struggle,” says the man who wears a different sign to every protest. This one reads: “Save Assamese language and culture”
Mehnaz Husain, 21
”I am a student from Jamia but my home is in Assam. We started protesting on the 10th. Before things got violent there, I would keep telling people about how the protests in Assam were different from the rest of the country. I want to remind fellow Assamese that this law, apart from being anti-indigenous, is also anti-secular. We must fight on both counts.”
Protests against the Citizenship Act in Chennai saw 17 students of Madras University detained by the police. Yet, the agitations have continued. On Monday, a 25000-strong crowd turned up for a rally called by DMK’s MK Stalin, with many of the participants having no link to political parties.
”I will not abide by any rule that will disrupt the unity of the country. This is my country, no one has the right to change its structure. This CAA is not needed; the AIADMK government is acting as a stooge of the BJP,” says the gardener.
Angry slogans of ‘azadi, azadi’ (freedom, freedom) and ‘ottayala, nammal’ (we are not alone) rent the air in Kochi Monday as thousands of men, women and children took to the streets to agitate against the NRC and CAA. 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.
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 in Kerala, her home state. “With the NRC, the government is intent on eroding the Constitution and defining citizenship. 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,” she said. “The CAA 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, said, “Students are at the forefront of this agitation. We owe our gratitude to them.”
The teacher at a college in Kuttikanam in Idukki district travelled 125 km 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.
“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. What makes them so confident about it is a mystery to me,” said Vishnu.
The businessman in Ernakulam district of Kerala was the cynosure of all eyes as he pushed a pram in which his infant son Dawood slept, at the head of the protest. His two daughters, both under the age of 10, and his wife accompanying, Arshad told indianexpress.com he couldn’t afford to stay back at home when such an important agitation was taking place.
“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.
The housewife was accompanied by her friend at the protest Monday. She walked for 9 kilometres, raising banners and placards. “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.
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