“The CAA is pure discrimination”: How Bangalore protested despite Section 144

21 December, 2019

On 16 December, yellow barricades blocked the otherwise instantly recognisable steps of Bangalore’s Town Hall. A van equipped with water cannons was stationed behind the barricades, along with scores of police officers. A small group of people stood to the side; most of them looking at the scene in silence, some asking each other if they knew what was going on.

Like me, they had arrived to attend two protests at the Town Hall against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the National Register of Citizens, and the police brutality against students at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.

One protest, scheduled for 4 pm, was called “Students Against Fascism” and organised by Hum Bharat Ke Log, a coalition of citizen groups, NGOs and opposition parties. Another, at 4.30 pm, was organised by the All India Democratic Students Association, a student group affiliated to the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist), a left wing political party.

“I have never seen water cannons at a protest in Bangalore before,” Varun Shetty, a 26-year-old journalist, told me. An elderly woman at the protest showed Shetty pictures of the police speaking to three people who tried to set up camera tripods to capture police presence at the site. “She told me they had threatened to detain them if they set up cameras.” The woman also told Shetty that they had threatened her with detention, too, if she did not stop recording the incident.

As the protestors waited, more people arrived. Eventually a crowd of at least one hundred and twenty people had gathered. After waiting for around half an hour, the group was finally allowed to approach the barricades. The protest began with a collective reading of the preamble of the Constitution, followed by a sit-down protest where the protestors chanted slogans.

Even though the protest did not turn violent at any point, the Bangalore Police still surrounded the gathering. “The leaders of the protest told us all to sit down, and at no point did I feel that it was going to get violent,” Shetty said. The only time he felt slight nervousness was when politicians joined the protest to give speeches. Among them were Tanveer Ahmed of the Janata Dal (Secular) and Sowmya Reddy of the Indian National Congress.

Both gave speeches about the unconstitutional nature of the CAA, and condemned the police brutality against students. “Each and everyone of us is a citizen of our country, and we should not have to prove that, irrespective of caste, religion,” Reddy said. “Our country was based on the principles of secularism. Why was there so much brutality against our students yesterday? Why, because we cannot question?” After the speeches, the gathering sang the national anthem and dispersed. There had been no violence at all.

Two days later, on the eve of nation-wide protests called against the CAA and the NRC, Section 144 was imposed in Bangalore and other parts of the state for three days, lasting until midnight on 21 December. Section 144 prohibits the assembly of more than four people in an area, thereby preventing people from holding public meetings.

“The imposition of Section 144 in Bangalore, without any well-founded apprehension of violence, is a blatant abuse of power and a violation of fundamental rights,” Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer and researcher who has written two books on constitutional law, tweeted.

Following massive mobilisation via social media and by citizen collectives, people defied the prohibitory orders, and showed up at the designated venues—the Town Hall and the Mysore Bank Circle over three kilometres away—knowing they were likely to be detained. As they gathered, the police detained protestors at both venues. Over a hundred people were reportedly detained in Bangalore.

Shariq Rafeek, a 28-year-old game designer, arrived at Mysore Bank Circle to see seventy to eighty people gathered. “Shortly after we arrived, the police said get out, get out,” Rafeek told me. He described the police’s attempts to detain protestors. “As we were trying to walk away, they started pushing people into vans,” he said.

While Rafeek was trying to leave, a stranger apprehended him. “He asked me, are you part of the protest? Because you look like a leftist,” Rafeek said. Rafeek walked away from the conversation, coordinated with other people he knew were planning to come to the protest and directed them away from the Mysore Bank Circle. Eventually, after going from place to place in groups of two and three, Rafeek found himself near the Town Hall, where a huge crowd had gathered. “There were 300 to 400 people there, they were chanting slogans,” he said. “The police were standing aside, letting them protest. We had no trouble joining them.”

Another group of protestors had gathered at the Kamat Hotel, across the road from the Town Hall. Ashok Vish, a 32-year-old filmmaker and artist, witnessed a group of police personnel arriving in a van, and charging into the crowd with shields and lathis. “The police were using force, but the organisers were making sure that none of the protestors retaliated with force,” he told me. “The protestors stood their ground, but they did not retaliate. It was clear that the police was outnumbered, so they stepped back. The peaceful protest continued for an hour.”

After this, Vish headed across to the Town Hall. He witnessed a group of lawyers negotiating with the police to release the people they had detained. “The police demanded that the protest had to end for that to happen,” Vish said.

The people who were detained were taken to a large wedding hall near the Adugodi police station, over five kilometres from the Town Hall. They included Diya, a 24-year-old copywriter and Karthik, a 32-year-old journalist. Karthik told me that when they arrived at the hall, there were already at least a hundred people there, including the historian Ramachandra Guha. Detainees were arbitrarily asked to give up their details or surrender their phones. Since both Diya and Karthik, who did not wish to share their full names, had been informed in advance of their rights, they refused to do this. After a few hours, they were let go in batches of ten.

Karthik and Rafeek said they witnessed police using unnecessary force on protestors, who were being hauled and dragged by the police, even in instances where they were fully cooperating. However, from various accounts of the protests, it was evident that the Bangalore police was struggling for manpower and resources to round up all the protestors. Prajwal Bhat, a journalist with the website The News Minute, tweeted, “Bus full of protesters detained near Town Hall were dropped near Shantinagar since the bus had to go back and pick up more protesters. In the confusion, people simply got off bus and walked back to Town Hall.”

“I went to Town Hall and the protest venue had been cleared,” said Ajay Krishnan, a 36-year-old writer and editor told me. “But suddenly there was a huge mobilisation across the road about 150m away, a few thousand people had gathered, there were speeches, loud slogans. Police rushed to the spot, seeming intent on breaking it up. But the crowd was too big, so I think they held back.”

Earlier in the day, Krishnan witnessed police detaining and harshly dragging a woman at the Mysore Bank Circle who was standing by herself, and who told them she was not violating Section 144. He tweeted a video of the incident.

A video of a female law student being detained by a big group of policemen as she tried to address members of the press, also surfaced. In the video, she is seen repeatedly asking them why she is being detained—her right by law. The police did not respond.

Sabina Basha, who works in an information technology firm, was one of the protestors who was chased away by the police from the Mysore Bank Circle. “We were sitting at bus stops nearby, holding placards, in groups of less than five people,” she said. “A bunch of women police officers pulled us very roughly into vans.” Basha said the group did not resist detainment, but a male lawyer present asked the police why they were being detained, since they were not violating Section 144. “They detained him too,” Basha said.

This group was taken to the Chamrajpet police station in central Bangalore. They were given use of the restroom, and provided with water and lunch. But their questions about why they had been detained in the first place remained unanswered. They were only let go after they gave the police their names, phone numbers, and addresses, and were videographed leaving the station.

While in detention, Basha had a conversation with a woman constable about why they were opposing the CAA and the NRC. “I told her it would affect the poorest of the poor, and that it would discriminate against Muslims,” Basha said. “She was not willing to believe that not everyone has documents to prove citizenship. She said that the Aadhar was more than enough. Her take was that ‘illegal’ people come here and rob the country. That it costs the country to have them come here. I told her we have laws against robbery, and that it will cost us so much more to identify so-called citizens.”

Across interviews, it emerged that the Bangalore Police was quick to use force when they found protestors in small numbers, but backed off when they were outnumbered. Contrary to the assertions of right wing politicians, it was also evident that protestors were entirely peaceful and did not use force against the police.

“I came to protest despite the imposition of Section 144 because I felt a sense of responsibility,” Diya said. “The CAA is pure discrimination; you cannot just single out one community like this and get away with it. And I was a student not so long ago, I cannot imagine having to deal with the kind of trauma they”—the students at JMI and AMU—“went through.”

Karthik added, “I feel more hopeful today, because I saw people who had never met before crammed into the same police van, chanting slogans and singing hum honge kamyaab”—We shall overcome. “People all over the country seem to have had enough, enough to defy Section 144. I have seen a lot of voices of Hindu-Muslim unity being raised too. And that is great to see in the current climate.”

However, the people in Bangalore remained relatively unscathed from the police action. In Mangalore, two protestors—Jaleel, a 49-year-old, and Nauseen Bengre, a 23-year-old, were shot and killed in police firing during protests. Another journalist, Ismail Zaorez, was lathi charged by the police, despite showing them his press ID.

Back in Bangalore, after the numbers of protestors in the city had swelled, the chief minister BS Yediyurappa announced that the police should exercise restraint. On 20 December, in a statement that sounded like a veiled threat, the official Bangalore Police handle tweeted that it was “watching and storing” provocative posts and asked people to “beware of spreading hatred” for their “own good.” In response, several people asked that action be taken against CT Ravi, a state Bharatiya Janata Party leader and the minister of tourism and Kannada culture, for saying in a statement that the “majority” could repeat what happened in Godhra and their “patience must not be tested.” He was referring to the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. The Bangalore Police has not yet responded.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that people raised slogans inside the Chamrajpet police station. The Caravan regrets the error.