CAA: When students shifted ground beneath our feet

CAA: When students shifted ground beneath our feet

Inside Out

Aarthi Ramachandranoften works on the assumption that to feel is to believe@homernods

It had been building up for days, if not weeks. But when the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act took a violent, repressive turn after the police assaulted students on the Jamia Milia Islamia campus, things got serious. Protests against the discriminatory law spread to campuses across the country. To those watching a youth movement take shape, this was the beginning of something new in Indian politics, to be chronicled over weeks and months.

But in events too swift to be predicted, the incipient student protests morphed into something bigger on December 19, 2019 – a day when thousands across the country hit the streets to protest the idea of basing citizenship on religion. This was the day when student protests shifted the ground beneath our feet. They became the catalysing force for the public expression of a new political consciousness that nobody – least of all the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – saw emerging.

In an India where majoritarian ideas were becoming increasingly mainstream, these protests created a rupture. A break from which flowed strong and clear the sound of dissent, for once. Heart-filling and heady, these protests were an attempt to reclaim India’s character. Made up of song and symbol, irreverent posters and group readings of the Constitution of India, and largely peaceful marches that defied prohibitory orders in many places from Assam to Karnataka, they were a strong message to the government to back off from measures that would undermine not just the position of Indian Muslims, but of the Constitution itself.

But providing meaning to these acts were young Indians in each place – here teaching policemen and policewomen the value of dialogue, there plying them with roses and treating them to impromptu renditions of the national anthem. This spirit of the young – the irresistible young who challenged and charmed, the prescient young, mature beyond their years and experience as citizens – enveloped the December 19 protests.

It’s true that nobody yet knows what impact these student voices will have on the overall agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. There have been violent protests in Uttar Pradesh, where at least 11 people have lost their lives; in Mangaluru, two have died in police firing, and in Delhi, many have been injured. There are reports of protesters destroying public property and attacking the police, but there are many stories of indefensible police excesses flooding social media, especially from Muslim-dominated areas. In times such as these, it is important to recognise the value of what the students have done.

Right under the nose of party politics and those unable to see beyond politico-social divides, agitating young Indians in cities and towns all over the country have helped Indians re-articulate a core value.

I wrote in this column a few weeks ago that India and Indians are at an important juncture. We are being called upon to decide whether we want to shed our historical selves and adopt a new identity instead of the patchwork weave of cultures that has clothed us since Independence. I thought the way forward lay in digging into our past and remembering how we got our freedom and our Constitution. But how wrong I was. The answer lies not in the past but in our present. It lies with our young.

These young people have done something with Indian secularism that only they could have thought of – they have upcycled it when it was in danger of being torn into shreds, and worn it as proudly as their predecessors wore hand-spun khadi during the freedom movement. One of my favourite posters from the protests read: “Jab Hindu-Muslim Raazi/Toh Kya Karega Nazi”. I may not entirely subscribe to the description of the BJP power-duo as Nazis, but the sentiment is well taken.

No doubt, these young people occupy a curious, undefined place in India’s politics at present. But it is this lack of locus that will make it difficult for the BJP to turn this movement into a Hindu-Muslim issue. That is, provided as many of us that can come out to back them, and the moral question that they have so bravely flung at the powers-that-be, do.

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