Good protestor, bad protestor: The uneven police response to anti-CAA demonstrations

Police detain a demonstrator during an anti-CAA protest in Delhi's Seelampur. Danish Siddiqui / REUTERS
08 January, 2020

The Citizenship Amendment Act, with all its discriminatory provisions, was adopted by the Parliament in no time. In comparison with the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany, and the law of return that renders Israel a Zionist state, the recent amendments in India’s citizenship laws, differ merely in detail, not in spirit.  The Nuremberg laws, enacted in 1935, forbade marriage between Jews and persons of “German or kindred blood.” They also declared that only Germans or those of related blood will be eligible to be citizens of the Reich. The law of return, passed in 1950, is an Israeli law that gives Jews living anywhere in the world the right to return to Israel, and claim Israeli citizenship.

Faith has now made a surreptitious entry in the statute books as a guarantee to Indian citizenship. The CAA dispatches a message, unequivocally, that blood and belongingness will be a determinant of Indian nationality—it is invested in marking a separation between so-called Indian and foreign faiths. By belatedly adding Parsis and Christians to the list of faiths whose adherents would be granted citizenship, the communication is loud and clear. Unmistakably, the Muslim is the bête noire—dispensable and to be defiled. An old diabolic distinction between immigrant and infiltrator has been resurrected—the camouflaged language in which it spoke earlier is now abandoned as the enemy has been clearly marked out. The CAA comes on the back of the everyday violence on the street that the ordinary Muslim fears today. This is besides the routine dosages of hate that are served to them by Right-wing commentators and the anonymous mercenaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information Techonology cell.

The spiralling protests against the CAA and the impending all India-National Register of Citizens simply refuse to fade out. What began with the students of minority institutions—Jamia Millia Islamia, the Aligarh Muslim University, Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama—has today come to consume several institutions, small and big, secular and technical, reputed and internationally acclaimed. Anti-CAA protests today, have truly acquired a mass dimension with cross-class participation, gigantic mobilisations and most remarkably, a certain degree of spontaneity. It is a time when the usual interlocutors of the state—the compromised politician, the caste and community leaders in want of recognition, and the pampered middle-men—have found themselves out of work. Women, many uninitiated in politics until now and not necessarily armed with any theory of radical transformation, have plunged into leadership roles, as have ordinary men of different hues and descriptions. Whether it is the pent up anger against a series of indignities or this singular assault on their very existence as equal and unencumbered citizens—it is no guesswork that Muslims form the bulk of the protesters. Although a significant section of non-Muslims, and part of enlightened civil society too has hit the streets.

The protests have varied in their form and intensity, and styles—long marches, sit-ins, candle light vigils, to even reports of alleged stone-pelting and arson.  The agitators appear undeterred by detentions, arrests, custodial torture, by ruthless lathi charges and police bullets. However, there has been a discernible unevenness in the police response to protests—from a studied tolerance and indifference, to going for the overkill. The students of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and those of AMU in Aligarh, though geographically miles apart, faced an almost identical response from the police. In what appeared to be synchronised action, the police chased the protesters into the campuses, brutally beat them, and left them with broken limbs, amputated fingers and arms. Some students have claimed that the police fired gunshots. Libraries and hostel rooms were vandalised, and the worshippers in the university mosque, who were assembled for evening prayers, beaten mercilessly. The shards of glass, the shoes left behind as worshippers scrambled to escape the wrath of the police, and the blood stains on the prayer mats are the pitiful remains of an evening of terror.

In Delhi’s Seelampur, a working-class resettlement colony across the Yamuna, and in the Jama Masjid area of Shahjahanabad, the police was again at its ferocious worst. Stories of police excesses have poured in from different parts of the country. In Nehtaur in Bijnor, a predominantly Muslim locality, police opened fire—purportedly in “self defence”—killing protesters. The Mangalore police killed two protesters, and cited the same reason. In Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Rampur and various other parts of Uttar Pradesh, armed police unleashed a reign of terror, showering bullets, ransacking houses and indiscriminately arresting people in Muslim localities that had overnight turned into sites of vociferous protests. 

But there are other sites of protests too, which offer a study in contrast. These are clearly designated spaces where the citizenry is allowed to congregate and register their defiance. Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for smaller gatherings, the Ramlila grounds if the turnout crosses a few thousand, or India Gate. Protestors, as much as the law enforcers, know the rules of the game here—if the anger is immense and passion high, a barricade or two could be crossed, and never mind an occasional water cannon. The protestors, usually part of the city’s literati—academics, celebrated civil rights activists—are generally a class above the ordinary constable and junior police officials tasked to manage them. Power relations are significantly altered here, and state power, represented by the police officials, is curiously constrained.

An ethnography of such designated protest sites should not miss the classificatory practices that are in-built in the form, content and aesthetics of the protest adopted—whether in the vocabulary of the speeches, the inventive placards that subtly, and often wittily, express their defiance, or the musical renditions and poetry sessions. Both the protester and the enforcer are rarely shy of exhibiting professional efficiency. The protest now turns out to be a celebration—of human spirit, of togetherness in perceivably bad times, as also a moment of catching up. In it though, there is also a certain predictability. There are then the good protesters, the admired model ones, as against those in the ghettos, bazaars and by-lanes—the despised ones, who need disciplining. Their protests while more organic, have little tolerance for orchestration and are impulsive and chaotic by their very nature.

Plausibly poles apart, these two spaces of protest have their moments of convergence and complementarity. During high tides of anger and outrage, there is cross fertility between these carefully compartmentalised spaces. The poor and the plebeian—Muslims, Dalits and other oppressed—make inroads into the designated and sanitised spaces to get their voices heard, to occasionally play the role of the good and the idealised, if that works. Likewise, civil-rights activists, rush to sites of violence, post-conflagration. Fact-finding teams furnish an alternate truth and contest the constructs of the state. Sensitive actors, writers and journalists popularise the atrocities that the vulnerable bear. But in return, the unpredictable and the volatile are expected to fall in line. Non-violence is repeatedly emphasised, direct confrontation with the authorities frowned upon, and the languages of protest prescribed. Inadvertently, the process of restoring the status-quo is set in place.

When it comes to Muslims, undefined and undesignated spaces of protests come to carry an extra degree of burden. In the police articulation, as well as in popular narratives, these are portrayed as dens of petty criminals and hardened terrorists; religious bigots who inflame masses; and unruly mobs who take to violence in real time. The sobriquet mini-Pakistan is meant to otherise and de-nationalise the residents of these ghettos. The edges of these localities are usually termed borders, mimicking the Indo-Pakistan boundary, displaying often the same tension and possibility of violent outbreaks. A Mumbra in Mumbai, Juhapura in Ahmedabad, Jamia Nagar in Delhi, Doranda in Ranchi, and pockets of Muslim concentration in western Uttar Pradesh are geographies of surveillance—zones of threat and insecurity for the rest of the citizens. The presence of the state is experienced principally through the number of police posts and pickets, and the everyday violence unleashed on the ordinary residents, not by civic amenities that are normally missing.

The prejudicial mapping of residential spaces is followed by the criminalisation of the inhabitants. The state crushes every act of defiance, small or big, passive or belligerent, with its might. It is not the form and style of protest, but protest per se that is pronounced as anathema to the maintenance of public order. Curfews, section 144—which prohibits the assembly of more than four people—detentions, the framing of leaders and activists under various sections of the Indian Penal Code are depressing, but they are the familiar story of preventive measures emerging from these sites. If the defiance still stays strong, there are extraordinary measures in store. In Mangalore, the police reportedly tear-gassed a Muslim-run hospital where the injured had taken refuge. In western Uttar Pradesh, the police have been vandalising homes, destroying property, and arbitrarily arresting Muslims.

In 2013, the director generals of police of three states—Sanjeev Dayal of Maharashtra, Deoraj Nagar of Uttar Pradesh and K Ramanujam of Tamil Nadu submitted a report to the central government about how the Muslim community perceives the police. The report highlighted that there is distrust towards police. It concluded that the chasm between Muslims and the police had its origins in the community’s misinformed perception of the police as biased and communal. However, this perception is rooted in the long history of the police’s real and visible partisanship. The Madon Commission for example, instituted after the Bhiwandi riots in 1970 in Maharashtra, found the special investigation squad of Maharashtra police complicit in “implicating as many Muslims and exculpating as many Hindus, irrespective of whether they were innocent or guilty.” More than two decades later, Justice Srikrishna, in his inquiry into the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots, found the police nursing an inherent bias against the Muslims, which found expression in brazen violence and active connivance with the Hindu rioters.

The Muslim public out on the streets today is not saddled by the symbolic politics of the past. More and more Muslims have steadily entered the middle class post-liberalisation, albeit at its lower rungs. By its very constitution, this newly emerging class is not dependent on the largesse of the state, unlike the old elite. Feudal ideas of morality and honour have been replaced by dignity and self-respect. There is a newfound assertion of identity in the public domain where the new Muslim wishes to make their presence on the terms of equality and recognition. Veil and hijab wearing women transgress the confines of home to enter public spaces—colleges, universities, banks and bazaars, as do the skull-cap wearing men. There are also many, both men and women, who do not wish to be typecast. The new Muslim is no longer burdened by the guilt of Partition, or subdued by the politics of being a minority. It seeks solidarity, not saviours.