The anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests are remarkable for many reasons but one stands out for me: the mix of generations that fill the crowds everywhere. It has been five weeks since the CAA Act was passed, and the protests have swelled to include hundreds of thousands of people all over India.
From students to civil servants to lawyers to women to poor wage labourers, all have come out at least once, and many, multiple times, to join the voices against the destruction of the Indian Constitution.
It is heartening that no political party has been able to co-opt the protests though many have (half-heartedly) tried. Is it because the protests are not just against one ruling party but against an entire system of running the country?
Like the Hong Kong protests, what the crowds are asking for is the overhaul of an entire system, an end to a violent and cynical method of doing business. This is extremely powerful: against a 70-year-old system, and a return to a founding document: the Constitution.
Tearing up a political contract and renegotiating the terms. This is a hard-fought, no-going-back divorce. Let that sink in for a moment.
I am in my fifties now. I lost my political virginity in November 1984, when I travelled with a Delhi University fact-finding team, to Sultanpuri in Northwest Delhi. What I saw were bodies charred to a heap, hair torn from men’s heads, turning in grey piles on the cement floor, cloth embers burning in another corner. I will never forget that scene.
The very air smelt of bodies burning. That our own government would sponsor such violence against its citizens and not be held accountable for it was unimaginable. Many marches and over 30 years later, I, too, lost hope that justice would ever be reached for Sikhs who have held innumerable vigils, fought court cases, petitioned thousands of ministers.
My cynicism triumphed over hope. I saw the same Congress party that encouraged these collective killings moan about the BJP’s communal policies. Congress’s so-called intellectuals, like Shashi Tharoor and Kapil Sibal, were praising the Constitution even as they appointed Kamal Nath, one of the main accused in the 1984 riots, as Chief Minister, in a cynical move of electoral politics.
Three and a half decades later, it was December 14, in 2019, and I was at a protest against CAA-NRC at Jantar Mantar. I had forgotten, that over the years, a new fence surrounded the monument, and space for the protest had shrunk so much.
Then I looked around me, and there were these small groups, marching into that small space, filling it up, until I couldn’t move. There were groups of women from Old Delhi, shopkeepers, a contingent from the CPI, several university students. But above all, all around me were young people, all under forty.
I was one, out of maybe a hundred people, who had grey hair. In another hour, as Harsh Mander started speaking on the makeshift stage, even that was no longer true. There were many more people like me, but also young kids, some as young as seven. Kids who came up to the microphone and spoke about being called ‘Pakistanis’ in their schools, because they had Muslim names.
Even as they told these stories of verbal and actual violence, they laughed in embarrassment, because they didn’t believe that the audience would be interested in these small lived moments. But the crowd clapped and encouraged them. It let out cheers of “Inqilab, Zindabad” (Long live the revolution). Inchoate support rippled through the thousands of people, again and again.
At another protest, I saw the mix of young and old, but also poor people, forgoing a ‘diharito’ stand up for something so abstract as justice, and as formal as a Constitution.
Of course, everyone has seen the handful of women sitting in Shaheen Bagh swell to one lakh people. But my point is this: the mix of generations at the protests is unprecedented. It has never happened since Independence.
After the Mandal protests in early 1991, India had been seduced by the promises of neo-liberalisation. Shiny new goods, new jobs, new cars have sweetened the deal the different ruling parties made with us.
Put up with some violence here, some authoritarianism there, all helped along with lashings of corruption; and in return, we promise you washing machines and cars and soaring property prices. Hand in your idealism for an iPhone.
My students, even some of my younger friends have bought into this social contract. Yet here they were, with “Hum Dekhenge” and “Azaadi”. And along with them, here WE are, rediscovering the joys of solidarity, of political camaraderie, the passion of nationalism, of self-definition.
This reaching out from one generation to another, from a lost idealism to newfound activism. And I want to thank each and every one of them for allowing this communication between us to flourish with such joy and such abandon.