Non-Muslims too joining the protests have meant that it is unable to disregard or discredit the rallies by relegating them to one community.
For the first time in six years, the NDA government appears to be rattled, if one goes by its reaction to the protests that have erupted across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
Try as it might, the government is seemingly unable to convince the people that its decisions to amend the citizenship law and conduct the NRC across the country are in their larger interests.
For a juggernaut that had levelled everything in its path over the past six years, being stopped by the common man is something the government never expected. In the common man, the Narendra Modi-led government has found its toughest adversary yet, one that is refusing to be subjugated, refusing to be overawed, refusing to be convinced on the CAA or NRC.
Thus far, the Narendra Modi government has been able to either woo its political rivals or subjugate them with the help of pliant courts and browbeat officials. If these didn’t work, the threat of the investigative agencies breathing down their necks did the trick. However, the government hasn’t been able to do the same with the anti-CAA protesters, and not for the lack of trying. It may have expected violence and also the average Muslim to take to the street and protest against the CAA, but did not obviously expect non-Muslims too to hit the streets.
The absence of violence (aside from that reported in BJP-ruled states) has deprived the government of an opportunity to raise the bogey of “Hindus under threat because of such people who are violent and don’t belong here”.
Non-Muslims too joining the protests have meant that it is unable to disregard or discredit the rallies by relegating them to one community. Also, non-Muslims joining the rallies have led the government to realise that it is now a people’s protest.
It can safely be assumed that not all those who are protesting today are solely against CAA; their angst has been building up over the past few years.
They kept quiet while waiting for hours in queues to withdraw their own money, and did not murmur even when the government kept shifting the goalposts to justify demonetisation.
They were silent when leaders of the ruling party tried to distort history; when it fielded a terror accused for the Lok Sabha, when a state was placed under lockdown for months; when the cops were given a free hand to “encounter” anyone they pleased; when an attempt was made to malign a dalit student who committed suicide; when people were lynched at will and the accused felicitated publicly and when they were given many other reasons.
Perhaps it was the police brutally beating up Jamia and AMU students protesting against it, or perhaps the government’s attempt to obfuscate its ineptness at handling the economic slowdown by communalising society, the people finally resisted.
And history tells us that when resistance becomes a people’s protest, only the people will prevail.
This was proven when one man led thousands to brave the lathis of the British and stand resolute to bring the mighty British Empire to its knees. This was also proven when a Prime Minister as dominant as Indira Gandhi was swept out of power after her tryst with the Emergency and Jayaprakrash Narayan emerged on the political horizon.
While the recent protests may be quite distinct from the satyagrahas led by the Mahatma or the post-Emergency scenario in the way they are conducted, the goal is the same: India’s future.
These days, the protesters invariably gather at a predetermined place, read the Preamble to India’s Constitution, their voices getting slightly louder when the word “secular” is mentioned. Quite a few carry photographs of the Constitution’s drafter, B.R. Ambedkar.
Invariably, the protesters sing the national anthem as one, be it on the footsteps of a mosque, in a park or on the road. Also, the average protester has realised that public memory is short and has adapted accordingly.
The style of protest has undergone a sea change; the protester is aware that no newspaper worth its name will these days print a photograph of cops bodily lifting and dragging men into waiting vans. He knows that this is now limited to TV cameras and the scene is forgotten the moment a viewer changes the channel.
These days, the focus is on innovative, witty messages that will later be shared on the social media and proudly displayed on the protester’s Facebook / Instagram account.
The two major rallies in Hyderabad recently against the CAA have seen the famed Hyderabadi wit at its best. Like the other protests across India, they had innovative messages, slogans and pamphlets drawing one’s attention. However, the Hyderabadi humour involving the humble “baigan” (brinjal, or eggplant) making the otherwise dull protests more interesting deserves particular mention.
Savour this slogan during an anti-CAA protest: “Yaha biryani ke saath piyaz dhoonde toh nai milri, 50 saal ke documents kya milte baigan, hau re haule?” (It is impossible to find onions in biryani, how can one find 50-year-old documents baigan, you idiot?).
The slogans and placards display far more creativity, humour and mockery and ensure the message is conveyed quite clearly.
Earlier, protests were fairly monotonous, and desperate, with only slogan shouting or walking, holding placards, save for someone like the late Naramalli Sivaprasad, who made protesting an art form. His protests are legendary, sometimes dressed like Lord Ram or Lord Krishna or anyone else. Being a former actor helped him draw attention and make a point.
Some political leaders adapt to the situation while staging their protest: who can forget Lagadapati Rajagopal going on a “fast” to prove KCR wrong and even donning a burkha to dodge the cops?
But these people have or had a support system in place, an entire army of assistants and party cadre.
The common man has adapted too, and has taken recourse in his native intelligence and wit to make his point, and of course stay within the ambit of law. These days, the common protester is aware that police intolerance to peaceful protest is high across India, quite the opposite of the Anna Hazare days.
The common protester is very careful not to allow matters to get out of hand; not shout provocative slogans; not give the authorities any excuse to deny permission or take to the baton.
These days, protesters dance and sing and generally behave as though they are enjoying themselves. This is a new language the average policeman is unable to comprehend.
The police traditionally have loved psychological games, but this new type of protester is leaving the cops, like the government, confused. The reaction of the police, most of the times, is to take to the lathis or resort to arrests. Here too the cops are facing a dilemma, particularly with the younger lot who are increasingly aware of their rights. These protesters are far more adventurous, and relaxed, even in custody.
Also, the protester has grown much more aware of his rights, questioning the police, sometimes goading them to cooperate instead of obstructing the protest. The tricolour also comes into play more and more, and the slogans have moved on from the ubiquitous “Inquilab Zindabad” to the more catchy “Azaadi”.
Another welcome change in the way the protesters behave after the protest: The sight of protesters cleaning up the venue of the Million March in Hyderabad, shared on the social media and published in newspapers went a long way in countering the aggressive posturing of the ruling party and its army of bhakts.
However, not all protests are about the common man. Deepika Padukone’s 10-minute silent act of solidarity with the JNU students protesting against the attack on them may have rattled the government enough for a Union minister to launch a tirade against the actress, even indirectly questioning her patriotism. Deepika, being the star that she is, may have forced the BJP’s IT cell to go into overdrive, but the fact remains that the common man who has been protesting across the country ever since Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, has put the ruling party on the backfoot.