When Chandrashekhar Azad emerged from the crowd holding Babasaheb Ambedkar’s portrait in one hand and India’s Constitution in the other, at Delhi’s Jama Masjid amidst anti-CAA protesting crowd, while Delhi police was searching to detain him; it was a singular moment that transcended beyond Dalit-Muslim bandhuta and defined a politics that could be transcendental across identity lines, and yet rooted within the humane values of empathy and compassion.
It has been over a month since the Citizenship Amendment Bill became an Act after it was passed by both the houses and signed by President on December 12th, 2019. It is for the first time that religion is considered to be a basis in granting of citizenship, something that goes against the very letter and spirit of India’s constitution.
However, in this last one month, we have seen hundreds of anti-CAA protests across different states; in villages, towns and big cities. Protestors are turning up despite section 144 being arbitrary imposed on various occasions, risking detentions. Most of these protests are happening outside the banners of political parties, and are organically stirred up by students, civil society organisations, and common citizens.
Post the freedom struggle and the dreams of freedom fighters and founding mothers and fathers, there have been very few and rare occasions when one could see protests happening at the scale and volume of the current anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests.
Prior to the Emergency, the Navnirman movement in Gujarat had set the ground for dissent in the initial phase, which was then ably led by J.P. Narayan in the later phase, and one which saw huge participation of students’ organisations in a movement that was directed towards uprooting the corrupt and dictatorial regime of then Indira Gandhi’s Congress government at the Center.
The movement reached a point where it directly challenged Indira’s regime. In recent history, we have seen movements such as India Against Corruption and Justice for Nirbhaya in 2012, unfold against a UPA government that was proving to be inefficient in handling both, the corrupt government machinery, and in addressing the concerns of women safety and gender justice respectively.
Both these protests were huge, in scale and volume, and continued for a long time. These too, like J.Ps andolan, directly challenged the establishment.
The NDA government assumed power in 2014 and with its increasing clampdown over academic spaces and institutions of higher learning, we saw how the universities and academic institutions, came together. We saw campuses sharing solidarities when JNU students were maligned, framed, and arrested in sedition cases, based on propaganda-fueled media trials and attacks by right-wing groups.
This kind of solidarity was also organically formed after Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, ended his life because of institutionalised caste discrimination that he faced. The Una agitation, after people from a Dalit community were flogged and assaulted in a village in Gujarat on the pretext of cow protection, also became a mobilising point where people, students, activists, and civil society came forward to register their dissent against growing incidents of mob lynchings and state-backed discrimination against minorities and Dalits.
However, the current anti-CAA-NRCC-NPR agitations, taking place across the country, and occurring outside the domains of political parties, is something of a different nature. Here is why that is the case: Firstly, the sheer size and volume of people coming from all walks of life, has been defining the nature of this movement.
Secondly, it is happening outside the domain of political parties, but, at the same time, building pressure upon both, BJP and the non-BJP parties and states’ and central government, to hear them. As a result, we have seen several state governments, in non-BJP states, approaching the Supreme Court, seeking a stay on the implementation of the Act, or are passing anti-CAA resolutions in state legislative assemblies, while several others have started deliberating to pass one, even when they cannot constitutionally refuse to implement the act but simply show mere political gestures.
At the same time, there has been a shift in the stands of the central government, which has now backtracked on nation-wide NRC plans after it was earlier stated by the Home Minister that the CAA and NRC will be implemented in a “chronological“ manner across India.
Thirdly, the movement defines a time when common people, across religion, caste, linguistic backgrounds, are taking to the streets to defend the fundamental values enshrined in the constitution, at a time when the economy is seeing a real slowdown and the unemployment rate holds at forty-five year high.
It is under such circumstances that we see women and students taking to the streets and public spaces, and holding indefinite dharnas and sit-ins at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh or Lucknow’s Ghantaghar, amongst many others such protests organised in different towns and cities.
But, like every movement, the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement too will have to transcend beyond the first phase which saw organic solidarities across students, civil society organizations and common citizens.
It is here that we see that society trying to defend constitutional ideals, is not simply claiming streets and public spaces to defend the constitutional symbols through performing acts like Preamble readings, singing of national anthem and songs of national unity, or unfurling of tri-color, remembering icons of freedom struggle, etc.
The anti-CAA movement defines that constitutional ideal that was always there, inscribed in the text by the founding forefathers since the time of independence, but is being lived and performed in spirit by the protestors every time they take onto the public spaces. It is this fraternity, the bandhuta, that is turning out to be at the essential core of the movement, and which seems to hold people together across diverse identity backgrounds together.
It is also this bandhuta that will perhaps transcend beyond people taking up to public spaces to defend constitutional ideals, and lay down a foundation that the protestors wish for the country going ahead, especially in times when economic breakdown and signs of growing fascism could not be more evident.
There cannot be an urgent crisis in the history of the nation where the need for reclaiming the spaces, symbols, and ideals of what defines India, need to be performed in order to be preserved. It is here that bandhuta plays the role of a centrifugal force of anti-CAA protests.
The gap between the idea of India as promised in the constitution and the everyday social and political life of India will keep growing in the absence of dissent and protests. The ideals of justice, liberty and equality, as promised in the Constitution, and as practiced in the everyday social and political life, reveals the deep contradictions that the country has always grappled with. But, it is here that the bandhuta of the protestors will perhaps redefine the terms of India that we want rather than what is, the one that the Constitution promises and not the one marked by deep divisions and inequalities.
Perhaps the bandhuta shown by the dadis of Shaheenbagh and Ghantaghar, or the students of JNU, JMI, and AMU, or the moments like Chandrashekhar Azad surrendering himself at Jama Masjid amidst display and reclaiming of constitutionalism, will direct us in times to come and tell us how to resist against dictatorial regimes.
About the author: Bhargav Oza is an M.Phil Scholar at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. All the views expressed are personal.