“We are doing our part to save the Constitution”: Students protest the CAA in Karnataka’s Kalaburagi

Poorna Swami
29 January, 2020

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have been cropping up in Karnataka, even outside the state capital of Bengaluru. Since mid December 2019, there have been protests in the central and northern parts of the state, in areas such as Hubli, Shivamogga, Sagar, Bagalkot and Bhatkal.

Kalaburagi, known as Gulbarga until 2014, in northern Karnataka has seen several protests too—women’s protests, large rallies backed by political parties, human chains and also smaller gatherings on college campuses. Last month, when section 144 was imposed in the city, people descended upon on the streets in defiance. A resident of the city told me, “It feels like there hasn’t been a day without a hunger strike, satyagraha or people’s protest happening.” 

On 19 January 2020, the United Brotherhood—an umbrella of student organisations in Kalaburagi—organised a student convention against the CAA, the NRC and the NPR. The protest was held in the grounds outside the National Girls College. A large tent covered the area in front of the stage, with one section to a side walled off for women.

Speeches, poetry readings, qawwali, a screening of explainer videos and dramatised debates about the CAA and the NRC, were on the program itinerary. Speakers from institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia had been invited to address the crowd, along with local teachers student activists and an ex-army official from the Muslim community. Many students and recent graduates I spoke to seemed to have different reasons for being at the protest, though they were united in their belief that it was important for students across the country to come out on the streets at this time. 

Syed Aleem Ilahi, a student of Indian political studies at Bangalore University, chose to return to his hometown to help organise the convention. “We are in such a situation today,” he said, “that if we don’t speak now, we will be finished.” Ilahi felt that it is important to educate students outside the big cities about the growing protests around the country. “Gulbarga is an education hub,” he said. “We have students from all over the country here. But while there have been many rallies, they aren’t educating us students about what is CAA, what is NRC.”

Ilahi and his fellow organisers envisioned the protest gathering on the 19 January as an educational endeavour. The main attraction of the event was a small “museum” that the students had put together themselves. Inside a temporary enclosure, they erected large cut-outs with images of the Constitution, Ambedkar and Tipu Sultan, the eighteenth-century ruler of Mysore. In a corner, they piled up placards for people to hold. Along the walls, they mounted news clippings, celebrity quotes, political cartoons and large banners that listed the names of Muslim freedom fighters. The wall right across from the entry carried a banner that declared, “This is our NRC documents,” with images of historical monuments built by Muslim rulers. Another banner read, “From: We the People of India. Gulbarga, Karnataka. We Reject CAA, NRC, and NPR.” By the evening, the entire length of this banner was scrawled over with people’s signatures. Students told me that they intended to send the entire roll of the banner to the president.

But perhaps the most unusual thing about this display was the photo booth that sat just outside the “museum.” Here, a black ply-board cage had been labelled “Detention Centre.” People took turns squeezing themselves in through the back, while their friends took pictures of them in captivity from the other side. The idea was that people would then upload these pictures on social media as commentary on the possibility of people being housed in detention centres if they were not included in a pan-India NRC.

Ali Ahmed, an undergraduate student of tourism administration at the Sharnbasva University in Kalaburagi told me, “We want to make the event accessible for people, we want to make it fun.” He said that using social media to spread the word about anti-CAA protests is crucial. Earlier in the month, he had been part of a group that organised a Twitter workshop that taught people how to create hashtags and make them trend.

But Ahmed added that drawing attention to CAA and NRC is not enough. “We have to stop being selfish and care about what’s happening in other states and around the world,” he said. Ali was among the students who felt that the convention’s message should not be limited to Indian issues. “Atrocities are happening all around the world, and people should know about them,” he said.  The mini museum, as a result, had some scattered references to the persecution of the Uighurs Muslims in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar and the occupation of Palestine. Stressing the universality of the protest’s concerns, Ali said that the convention had adopted the hashtag #Unity for Humanity.

But for other organisers, the concerns of the protest were more immediate. Ilahi told me that students were concerned about not getting jobs given the current economic situation in India. “Unemployment has become so bad,” he said. “We study thinking we will do something good in the future, but we don’t see a future right now.”

Abhaya Diwakar, a recent engineering graduate and one of the Karnataka state leaders of the All India Democratic Students Organisation, a left-wing student group, agreed that students have a lot at stake. “Both the central and state governments are cutting education budgets, and in the middle of all that they want to bring CAA and NRC,” she said. Diwakar described the violent attack on students in JNU and the police crackdown on other universities such as Jamia and AMU as a direct attack on students’ right to protest. She said she believed the need of the hour is to generate a common vision among students at the grassroots level. “There is a lot of emotion around these protests,” she told me, “but there is a requirement for an ideology that spreads secular, democratic ideas. That’s why our organisation has been bringing out booklets, handing leaflets that ideologically strengthen the movement.”

By the late afternoon, the crowd at the protest began to swell. Families wandered in and out of the museum, and people cheered at poems and slogans being recited on stage. By evening, there were around a thousand people.

Nishat Roohi, a recent engineering graduate, was one of the few women who spoke on stage. She had written a poem especially for the occasion. It began with, “Iqbal, Faiz, ya Indori, inke alfaaz rehne do/ Apko hum apni language mein samjhayenge.”—Forget about the words of Iqbal, Faiz and Indori/ We will explain in our language. Through the rest of the poem, she slammed the government’s various policies and stances, with much slang and many references to memes and social media.

 Roohi, who had come to the protest with several friends, told me, “We want to make our contribution to the protests happening across India. We want to show that we are also doing our part to save the Constitution.” She added that she had attended almost every student and women’s protest that had happened in Kalaburagi since December 2019.

 Roohi lived and studied in Rajkot, Gujarat, until the tenth standard. She said one of the reasons her family shifted to Kalaburagi, where they had several relatives, was that they felt unsafe in Gujarat. Referring to Modi’s rule as the chief minister of Gujarat until 2014, she said, “I lived under the Modi government. You can say that the atmosphere there was anti-Muslim. I used to wonder if I should reveal my identity at school. My friends who used to travel with me would be nervous that I am a Muslim. As a Muslim, having lived there and seeing what is happening now, I feel like I must take a stand.”

 Since she started posting anti-CAA posts on her social media accounts, many of Roohi’s close friends from Gujarat, who come from BJP-supporting families, have left her WhatsApp groups and cut off communication. “This kind of thing has been happening for some time,” she said, referring to fraying relations between Hindus and Muslims. “Instead of trying to solve this, the government is trying to divide us further. That’s wrong.”

 Roohi’s friend Bilquis Athar, who was sitting with her, added that there have also been attempts to polarise students at a few institutions within Kalaburagi. “I don’t want to mention the name of the college, because my siblings study there,” Athar told me, “but when there was a pro-CAA rally here, the college authorities forced students to get up from their exam and go to the rally. We need to counter that kind of divisiveness.”

 Both Athar and Roohi said that the majority of people at the Kalaburagi protest, and at other protests that they had attended, were Muslim. Kalaburagi is home to a significant Muslim population—almost twenty percent, according the 2011 census. But several students I spoke with emphasised that the CAA and NRC are not Muslim issues. Roohi said, “Even if we don’t have papers, we are not the ones who will suffer the most. We’re doing this for the poor.” She said attending protests and posting about them on social media were ways to encourage solidarity. “I want to tell my friends through this, ‘Whether you are Muslim or not, whether you have papers or not, please speak up for what is right,’” she said. Diwakar had a similar view. “The poor are affected … In Gulbarga we have many Adivasi people. What documents will they give?”

 Unlike the protests in several parts of the country, where women have been at the helm, this student protest was visibly male-dominated. Not only were women assigned a separate section to sit, but also few addressed the crowd. However, Roohi insisted that the role of women must not be discounted. “They might not be on stage, but many women students are organising and volunteering,” she told me, pointing to several women with volunteer badges who were busy directing the crowd or handing out cups of water. She added, “There is this pressure of safety and security as a girl in a burqa to not get highlighted or followed in a wrong way. That’s why many girls like to stay behind the curtain and help from there.” Shifa, an engineering student who was volunteering at the event, said that the separate section for women had helped bring more women out of the house, so she did not mind the segregation. “The older women would not have come otherwise,” she told me. “What matters is that we are here.”

 Roohi said she found a sense of resolve seeing the number of people, especially women, who have been protesting in different parts of the country. “Since 2014, we’ve been losing hope for a better India,” she told me. “But now that there are these protests, I am piecing together hope strand by strand.” Athar added, “You’ve heard the saying right? Boond boond mil kar hi sagar banta hai,”—An ocean is made, drop by drop—“So imagine, there’s a drop here, there’s a drop there. And we are these all these drops, and we are standing up together, aren’t we?”