A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam, December 11 (Photo: Getty Images)
As protests against the Narendra Modi government’s recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) continue to intensify in cities across India, one of the most notable and unique features of the demonstrations has been the demographics of those protesting.
Taking a closer look at the sea of young people out on the streets, you will notice that these are not the usual jhola-carrying left-leaning activists. Many of them are not very political, and some are so young that they either needed permission from their parents to be demonstrating or had spent time thinking about alternative alibis. They are a motley but growing cadre of college students, unemployed youth, working professionals, housewives, and some are even grandparents. Many were Modi voters, fed up with a Government they said was more obsessed with cultural issues than with fixing the country’s stagnating economy and worst unemployment crisis in 45 years.
At one of the protests organised outside Mandi House in central Delhi, right by the Supreme Court of India, was Faaiza Seyid, 24, along with her brother and classmates from school.
“This is shaking the very foundation and founding principles of our nation. Some issues can be debated, like demonetisation or GST, but this issue is so much more important than anything else. The very identity of India is at stake,” she told me.
This was the first time she had protested in India. Although she was anxious about being arrested, given the Indian authorities weren’t sparing anyone, included noted historian Ramachandra Guha who had been detained in Bengaluru a few hours earlier, she told me she “realised this isn’t the time to put our safety above the national interest.”
“I also knew that by protesting in central Delhi, near the Supreme Court, I would be safer than those in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods which have faced the merciless wrath of the police,” she continued.
Faaiza told me how the Government’s gradual rollout of the Bill in Parliament and its reaction in Assam began creating a sense of fear in her, and the events of this past week were the last straw. Since then, she has joined different protests in Delhi and Gurugram on an almost daily basis.
One of the most interesting features of these demonstrations is that they are perhaps India’s first Instagram-fuelled series of protests. Posts, ‘stories,’ and videos mobilizing millennials to show their support have been widely shared on Instagram and circulated further on Facebook and WhatsApp. In anticipation of a crackdown on demonstrators, other posts which have gone viral are those explaining the legal rights for those arrested or detained by the police.
For a long time, liberals have been criticised for voicing their disagreements on social media, but not mobilising on the ground. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act has turned that upside down.
For many, it was seeing videos of the police storming into the main library at Jamia Millia Islamia that made them believe the Government had gone too far. “If the police in the capital of the nation are attacking students like terrorists brazenly, all of us must stand up,” Riyah, a 24-year old employee of an investment bank in Gurugram told me.
She had taken the day off to join demonstrators at Mandi House after watching the Jamia videos. She was there because she told me “What’s happening is unethical and unconstitutional. If we don’t stand up now, this Government will do whatever it wants going ahead against minorities.”
“This is so orchestrated and systematic that the parallels to the Holocaust are chilling. This is not acceptable at any level,” she continued.
These protests are not entirely about the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), but long-simmering discontent against the Modi Government. Many protesters I spoke to said that rising unemployment, the economic slowdown and the crackdown in Kashmir are the reasons for their finally coming out and making their voices heard. Many of these people had, in fact, voted for the BJP, hoping to provide the country with stability to recharge the economy and improve India’s global standing, but felt let down on both counts.
Some of the protesters have clearly spent time on their witty posters, asking the Government to “segregate waste, not religion,” and telling it “the cow ate my documents.” Another sign said: “Babri giraane waale bata rahe hai protest peacefull kaise rakhna hai. CAA go back.”
It doesn’t appear that the dust is going to settle on the CAA anytime soon, primarily because a new coalition of young people and middle-class Indians have decided to join forces to fight for their idea of India. They are not treating this as something removed from their lives, but a duty to their Indian citizenship. India’s secular fabric has proven too precious for the fear of the Government and the tools available to it to quash dissent to take precedence.