“No no. This isn’t a battle for independence. It’s a battle for survival, a battle to save everything good in India. The very last battle,” this young student corrected another as I chatted with them at Gateway of India, Mumbai on the 6th evening. 19 hours ago, the attack on JNU students 1500 kilometres away in Delhi had prompted thousands in Mumbai to occupy Gateway.
“This is the last battle to protect the existence of Assam and its people,” different versions of this sentence I had heard people speak across different platforms – on protest stages, TV newsrooms, streets and drawing rooms of Assam as the state rose – the first to do so – against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act - CAA.
I asked the young women at Gateway if she’ll repeat the last battle bit before camera. She refused saying she didn’t want to attract attention.
For a reporter, anonymity is a great asset as he feels up the mood of the nation via off the record conversations. Over the last month of reporting first in Assam and later in Mumbai, these random conversations have made me realise the truth of the poster I saw in Azad Maidan on the 27th December, the one that read ‘National Uprising of 2019’.
For be it in Assam or Mumbai, Kashmir or Chennai, the mood is rebellion. An uprising against an authoritarian regime is underway across the country against the CAA, NRC and NPR. Yet, the JNU violence seems to have shifted focus from it.
During a march from Hutatma Chowk to Gateway on the 6th, a friend called this a ‘deliberate tactic of the Right’. Yet, she was uncomfortable with some slogans and songs in that march that talked of hitting enemies of the people with sticks and shoes. She thought this would play right into the hands of the Right wing who were looking for the tiniest of excuses to turn the narrative.
She was eerily correct for a fake video of Umar Khalid claiming he said ‘Hinduwo se Azadi’ went viral. Then at Gateway I saw a young girl seemingly in Hijab with a poster that read ‘Free Kashmir’. The media pounced upon this and so did ex Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis to attack current CM Uddhav Thackeray who hours ago had said he’d protect the students of Maharashtra.
“What else did you expect - that they would point out to the other posters?” the same friend asked rhetorically. Some of these ‘other posters’ were stirring.
An effigy of a typical RSS worker wearing black cap, white shirt and khakhi half pant with a plackard over it reading ‘enemy of the nation’ led the Hutatma Chowk march. One poster showed Amit Shah and PM Modi as stick wielding goons, their faces covered. Many asked Modi-Shah to resign. One said ‘Muck Fodi’, another: “Super Power? More like supressed power?” One claimed This is Civil Disobedience” while another screamed, “Yesterday AMU, Today JNU, Tomorrow you.”
Though the ‘Free Kashmir’ girl clarified that she was referring to freeing Kashmir from oppression and internet black out and that she was a Mumbai’s girl, the damage had been done.
On the morning of 7th, the occupy Gateway movement protestors were forcefully evicted by Mumbai police, taken in vans and held inside Azad Maidan where their names and numbers were taken and four FIRs were filed and 31 named. In the day, Fadnavis met Thackeray setting tongues wagging, wondering if this meeting would lead to oppression and police violence on protestors in Maharashtra, a la Uttar Pradesh.
So much for the CM’s assurances that students wont’ be touched.
Yet CM Thackeray has to be thanked for the large protest gatherings all across Maharashtra. In Mumbai itself over 100 protests have occurred since 12th December when the CAA was passed, with nearly a million people clogging the streets of Mumbai in them with zero reports of violence or casualty.
Perhaps it is also because of the CM that most of Bollywood found courage first to refuse the invitation of union minister Piyush Goyal for a gathering in a Mumbai five star on 5th night (sources say more coercive tactics would have been used like in the past had the BJP been in power in the state) and also the next night turning up in large numbers to protest at Carter Road, Bandra.
When a man started talking about CAA and NRC in this Carter Road Bollywood protest, director Anubhav Sinha, perhaps concerned for new entrants into the protest space like Ali Fazal, Zoya Akhtar, Richa Chadha, Reena Kagti, Diya Mirza, Vishal Bhardwaj, Taapsee Pannu, Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Ghaywan, Hansal Mehta among others – stopped him and said that they will only talk about JNU as they had gathered there in solidarity with the violence against JNU students.
He needn’t have bothered for minutes later director Vishal Bhardwaj tacitly attacked the Prime Minister with a poem - “we’re not dejected, we’re not surprised for you turned out just as we had thought… You lie with such truthfulness even the truth sounds fake to us.”
Swara Bhasker has emerged the Bollywood face of the protest. Varun Grover gave the anthem to the movement with his poem ‘Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge’. Kabir Khan lent legitimacy from the high seat of Bollywood’s directorial power when he came to Azad Maidan on the 19th protest. When Deepika Padukone stood next to a bandaged Aishe Ghose yesterday, it seemed the second last bastion of Bollywood had been breached, the last being the big male stars.
This is unheard, unseen, unexpected and unprecedented for the Indian film industry as even during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, very few like the Anand brothers led by Dev Anand had the guts to oppose the dictatorial reign of Indira Gandhi.
The allegedly spineless Bollywood seems to have grown a spine of steel.
Perhaps like the rest of the country Bollywood too is deriving its strength from students, especially those in Mumbai who on the 5th night occupied Gateway and held it for nearly 33 hours. There was song, dance, music, poetry, slogans and speech as even passer-by’s joined in. I saw a foreigner couple with a child getting out of the Taj Mahal hotel and being distracted by the protests. They decide to check it out. An hour later I saw the three still there, the little girl perched on her father’s shoulders, clapping enthusiastically.
Anonymity is a journalist’s asset. I made the mistake of ‘asking’ the tireless human rights lawyer Mihir Desai for an interview on the side-lines of Occupy Gateway. In his polite way he refused saying, “This is a youth festival. I am just here to feel this amazing energy.”
That is true not just of Gateway, but of the entire nation which smells like the teen spirit of rebellion rising up, showing truth to power. Perhaps more than the older ones, it is these students who understand best that it is indeed the last battle to save democracy, love and equality, the last battle to save their futures.
An elderly woman with white hair carried a banner that read, “My children will protest for their future and I protest if you don’t let them.” Touché.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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