It has been a year since the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was tabled in Parliament. 2020 has whizzed past and taken with it the voices of the protests that engulfed the country starting December 2019. Citizens across the country were on the streets, demanding the abrogation of CAA. Finally, with the COVID-19 outbreak and a questionable nationwide lockdown, the government was able to quell the protests.
The anti-CAA protests were distinct in that most of its flag bearers were women. Women, who have historically been sidelined, were on the frontlines demanding change. We talked to two such women from Lucknow — Naheed Aqueel and Sadaf Jafar — to understand their experiences of the protests.
Jafar is a social activist, politician associated with the Congress party, and actress. But she has been an educator most of her life and says that teachers cannot be true to their jobs if they don’t stand up for what is right. So, when she joined the anti-CAA protests in Lucknow, she was prepared. Her peaceful protest video updates were streamed continuously on Facebook, and on December 19, 2019, too, when she was jailed after violence broke out. She alleges being beaten up while in police custody — her body was bruised when she was released on January 7, 2020. Jafar accuses the current government of legitimising communalism, which was present in people’s psyche — just not publicly expressed. Her takeaway from the protest was women’s camaraderie — everyone came together in the toughest of times.
Aqueel is a social activist who has been working for the upliftment of minorities — especially Dalits and Muslims in the rural parts of Uttar Pradesh. She talks compassionately about the daily struggles of divorced and widowed women from the minority communities and how her endeavours have come to fruition. She says that the courage to revolt against wrongdoing can make a difference. She mustered that courage and started anti-CAA protests with a small group of women and posted photos of their gathering on social media in January. This spark had the snowball effect of bringing the masses on the street.
Aqueel believes that the politicisation of the protests through their portrayal as “Muslim” discouraged the presence of other communities. She says that the protests were against the CAA’s discriminatory nature and stood for upholding Article 14 of the Constitution. Politicians wrongly pitted the protests as Hindu against Muslim, reaping the rewards of polarisation but letting the country down.
It does boil down, again, to communalism. The current political narrative is rife with it, and the masses see no harm in it. What they fail to see is that India has evolved. India was born in 1947, and not a thousand years back. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in and preserving our culture. But undermining the evolution of our country in doing so is problematic. The government’s support for a certain religious development will beget demand for support of another religious development — maybe from the minority community — leading to a vicious cycle of violation and appeasement.
The biggest takeaway for Aqueel was the personal development of young women, who learned to raise their voices and mobilise people. She says that these young women will be future leaders and fight for what is right.
One thing is certain — the motives for protesting CAA were different for different people — a characteristic that worked for the protest and against it. It did allow for greater mobilisation but simultaneously eroded its strength. Although both activists felt that the protests did empower marginalised women, questions remain. Did the empowerment end with the protests? Or did it make its way into the women’s homes?
The biggest hurdle to a successful protest in this country, assuming structural reforms are unattainable, is information asymmetry. Multitudes of news outlets serve spiced-up versions of news. There is no consensus even on the facts — let alone the subjective stuff. Straightforward current affairs get entwined in the machine called news and turn complex. A successful protest will have to outdo the mammoth task of clearly conveying their objective to the masses — and not lose their unity in the process.
In the current scenario, when the fear of COVID-19 has faded from the minds of the aam janta, we see no re-ignition of the anti-CAA protests on the streets. The protests do continue — albeit virtually — a notable one being conducted by Nausheen Baba Khan in Kolkata, who posts videos on her social media space. As the world goes back to normal, the scars of police brutality and government inaction will remain fresh for years to come, especially for those closely involved in the protests.
The writer is a student at IIM-Ahmedabad.