New Delhi: As a thick cover of fog cleared on Thursday, large sections of people living in Delhi geared up to join either of the two big protests planned against the amended Citizenship Act (CAA) in the national capital.
One of them, from the Red Fort to Shahid Park at ITO, was called by civil society and student groups. Political parties like the Yogendra Yadav-led Swaraj Abhiyan later planned to join it. The second one was planned as a joint Left rally from Mandi House to Shahid Park, to eventually merge with the other march.
However, the Delhi police had other plans in store for both.
As soon as the protesters started to gather for the marches, they were informed that Section 144 had been imposed. Within minutes, police contingents started detaining and packing them into buses that dropped them off at various locations at outer Delhi. Among those who were detained were Yogendra Yadav, human rights activist Harsh Mander, CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and scores of other leaders and activists.
Meanwhile, on the police’s instructions, several metro stations and arterial roads of central Delhi were closed to prevent protesters from gathering at the Red Fort and Mandi House.
As groups of students, professionals, filmmakers, activists, academics, members of various communities and parties came in spurts, they were immediately forcibly packed off into buses.
Yet, that was not enough to kill their spirits.
“Even if I am alone, and wherever I am being taken, I will protest there,” said a Ambedkar University student. “It has become a matter of much more than CAB and NRC. The way the police behaved, it appears we will have to fight for the most basic rights that we have in this country,” she said.
“Why is even a peaceful protest not allowed? More than us, the government should be worried about the question that has it passed a law that drive a wedge between this country’s people,” a doctor who had come from Dilshad Garden, a locality in East Delhi, said.
“This Act is essentially divisive. CAA and NRC have unleashed a distasteful debate between my own friends. I have not read the fine print but I can say my Muslim friends feel scared. Even apolitical students understand this. But our leaders and our parents do not understand this,” said a Hansraj College student who was detained from Red Fort.
“For the first time in my college, girls are actively protesting against this Act. You can see that there are more women than men in the rallies,” said a student who left Mandi house in disappointment as the rally was not allowed to congregate.
“How much more peaceful do you want dissent to be,” a 65-year-old retired bank employee, who had walked from Red Fort to ITO alone, asked the government. He said he doesn’t usually come for protests but this was an exceptional case. Multiple voices like these, across gender, caste, and religion echoed in the air, even as the police stood there in riot gear.
At Jantar Mantar
As most people left for home upon realising that the police had conclusively stopped the rallies, a few started to march towards Jantar Mantar, the designated spot for protests at the national capital.
Within hours, the crowd at Jantar Mantar, however, started to swell with various groups joining the dharna against “police excesses” and the CAA-NRC.
Dominated by students, the spot was as colourful and vibrant as it could be. Chants against CAA and NRC rang through the air. Prominent personalities like Arundhati Roy came out in support of the protesting crowd. So did activists like Kavita Krishnan, Gautam Navlakha, and multiple others.
They sang, they shouted, and they painted the streets, even as police surrounded the area with water canon vans and tear gas shells. But the students did not give them a single chance as they cheered each other.
Jantar Mantar, that later-medieval observatory of astronomy and time, turned into a theatre of resistance like no other in the recent past. The diverse crowd gathered there are usually inimical because of their diverse political interests but on Thursday it was different. They had more reason to walk shoulder to shoulder than argue with each other.
What did bystanders say?
Curiously, those who were mute witnesses to the protests appeared to be divided along class lines.
“The British had the same formula. Divide and rule. Today, what we have in India is a kind of politics that divides more than unites,” said an auto-rickshaw driver, when this correspondent asked him what he thought about the protest.
A tea shop owner outside Sriram Centre of Arts had this to say. “My shop is in Mandi House (the theatre hub of Delhi). Everyday I am surrounded by theatre students. All I know that these people do not think like us. They do not believe in this Hindu-Muslim rajneeti (politics). For them, friendship comes first before anything else.”
Similarly, a Hindu working-class woman who was passing by said that she did not know what CAA-NRC is about but knows that the Act may likely result in deportation of Muslim people. “Where I live, there are many Muslim men and women who are daily wagers. I don’t think they should be targeted. For all of us, it is a daily struggle to earn a living. Muslim people in my area are no different. They are as worried as we are.”
Yet, a government clerk at a ministry had a different view. “These protesters are all Marxists. They do not have any sanskar (values). Look at that girl. She is openly smoking,” the person said as he pointed towards a girl smoking at one corner of Mandi House.
When this correspondent said that even Bhagat Singh was influenced by Marxist anti-colonialism, he said, “It is because of people like you, who spread fake news, that this country is going to the dumps.”
Soon, another person jumped in to support his view. “Shouldn’t we oust illegal infiltrators?” he asked.
When asked what he thought about the police crackdown on universities, he said, “All of them had links with terrorist organisations. Didn’t you see those people? Only when these people are driven out, this country will be at peace.”
Meanwhile, two Malayali paramilitary officers silently watched their colleagues forcing some protesters out. “What is happening is unfortunate. The students should not be treated this way, we agree but there is nothing we can do. This is the sad part of our job,” one of them told this correspondent as they looked the other way.