When Mumbai re-discovered its protest roots

When Mumbai re-discovered its protest roots

Usually castigated for being apathetic, this time round the soul of the city has been stirred deeply by the events in the country

The last time the Gateway of India witnessed a spontaneous gathering was a massive candle light protest after the devastating 26/11 attack in November 2008. (PTI photo)

A friend who left Mumbai for Bengaluru once joked after attending a protest on a short visit to her former city many years ago: “Is it that the same 20 people protest against everything?!” But after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and some events before that, things have changed dramatically.

Earlier protestors could march from Azad Maidan, opposite the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, to Flora Fountain or Hutatma Chowk and then march down Dadabhai Naoroji Road, flanked by stone buildings with covered archways. This was always a vibrant symbol of protest, till it was stopped by the High Court. It was here that journalists took out rallies demanding better wages. Often the marches ended near the state secretariat or Mantralaya – near Hotel Samrat where the police would lathi-charge us for trying to go ahead to the government offices. It was outside the iconic Eros theatre that journalists protested the closure of the daily Indian Post for days and went on a hunger strike, it was here that Medha Patkar and hundreds of displaced people from the Narmada Valley would hold fast after fast.

When I started out as a journalist in 1984, the city was different – trade unions still mattered and protests were the norm. Bombay was recovering from the great textile mill strike in 1982 which propelled Datta Samant as the new leader of the workers. When the strike ended, many mills were closed and over 1.5 lakh workers were jobless. Politicians changed the law deviously to turn the sprawling mill area into prime real estate when it was meant to be used as a place to build affordable housing. The city’s working-class identity metamorphosed into a business and service-oriented one, with glitzy hotels, high rises, and new office complexes coming up in central Mumbai, where the throbbing mills once existed.

Although known for its commerce and industry, Mumbai’s past is tinted with a rich history of protests and events: This was the city where the Quit India movement was launched; where the Indian National Congress had its first meeting; which witnessed the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946 and which had a martyr’s memorial at Hutatma Chowk to commemorate the 105 people who were shot dead during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement.

One of the biggest protests was the massive march of Muslims after the Shah Bano judgement of the Supreme court which I covered in 1985. More protests in the 1990s came after the Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai riots was rejected by the Shiv Sena government; after journalist Nikhil Wagle was attacked; the massive protests after the firing in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in 1997 on Dalits who protested the desecration of a statue of B R Ambedkar. But the proliferation of pocket unions and a weakening of the working class culture led to diminishing voices, though Mumbai is still a city with a conscience as its reaction to provide relief and succour to the survivors of the 1992-93 riots showed.

In 2018 and more recently there have been huge protests by farmers ending in Mumbai and that was when the city woke up to the harsh rural reality. Azad Maidan has been the epicentre of protest down the years, one of the largest being the anti-Danish cartoons rally but there have been many vociferous gatherings.

Usually castigated for being apathetic, especially during elections, this time round the soul of the city has been stirred deeply by the events in the country. Massive displays of anger and protest have been witnessed since December 19, when the city poured into August Kranti Maidan, the site of the historic Quit India movement which was launched on August 8, 1942. There were more people than that day and what they were protesting was equally significant. Since then there have been several marches in the city including a big gathering at Azad Maidan, Carter Road, Mahim, and so on and it was not surprising that the city rose up spontaneously on the night of January 5 after the attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) in New Delhi.

From the handful of youth who gathered holding up placards at 11 pm and started to occupy the Gateway of India area, the protests continued for a day till they were evicted by the police. For many years now, there has been a build-up of events – be it the beef ban, the mob lynchings, the targeting of Muslims (and remember this is a city that has survived several communal riots) – and it took the CAA and the violent events at JNU to provoke public outrage and articulate what was being felt deep within. Many people who came for the protests at August Kranti Maidan were students, and there were people who had never attended such protests but who felt it was time to speak up. The last time the Gateway of India witnessed a spontaneous gathering was a massive candlelight protest after the devastating 26/11 attack in November 2008.

It is not only Mumbai but other cities too which have come out to protest not only the CAA but also the JNU attack, which was the flashpoint as it came after successive incidents of outrage at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The straw that broke the camel’s back was JNU and connections have been made to Kashmir and the internet clampdown there. One student who held a placard “Free Kashmir” is now targeted for her crime of demanding basic rights for Kashmiris and police have filed a case against her. BJP’s Kirit Somaiya, a former MP complained to the police, demanding action against this hapless youngster and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is calling out the state government on allowing this “lapse” i.e. the poster which was carried at the protest.

While the CAA and JNU attacks have sparked off large protests everywhere, the events in Kashmir – where an internet ban is in place for over 150 days, and which has been reduced to a Union Territory, and Article 370 has been read down – did not attract an immediate response. To the regret of Kashmiris under siege, the rest of India tacitly supported the central government’s action. This young girl holding up a placard reflected what should have been a natural reaction to at least the internet shutdown, the arrests of political leaders and the silencing of a state. That she did so in Mumbai and is being defended by the government, and ironically the Shiv Sena as well, is a reminder of the upside-down world we live in.

(Meena Menon is an independent journalist and author based in Mumbai)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.  
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