Ashiana. Ashiana, who has gained a following as the youngest ‘protestor’ has been sitting in along with her mother Rehana Khatoon and thousands of protestors, mostly Muslim women, for the last three weeks. The country wide demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (C.A.A.), the National Register of Citizens (N.R.C.), and the National Population Register (N.P.R.) has witnessed overwhelming participation from people of all walks of life, even in the face of brutal state oppression and state sponsored violence, directed especially against the Muslim community. The last few weeks have been cathartic. Growing up in a leftist household and studying in an university known for its voice of resistance, I have walked in many “michhils” (‘rally’ or ‘march’ cannot contain all the emotions that a ‘michhil‘ is ripe with) and expressed my solidarity to others. But the protests of the winter of 2019-20 are different – this winter is of despair, this winter is of hope.
I have grown up hearing “ye azadi jhuta hai” (“this freedom is a farce”), I still believe that we are yet to achieve ‘freedom’ in its truest sense, but the current momentum gives me hope. Many like me have never felt passionately attached to the symbolic representations of India, be it the tricolour or the national anthem, but I have seen that change over this memorable winter. This winter, we are standing for the national anthem on our own accords. We are singing along because we wish to and not because the government dictated that one should sing along before watching a movie in a theatre. In the last few years whenever I went to watch a movie and the national anthem was played, I sat at the edge of my seat, anticipating with fear that I might just get lynched any moment for not participating in forced patriotism. Those 52 seconds seemed like forever, forever of defiance, forever of resistance, forever of fear. Whenever at demonstrations nowadays the national anthem is sung, I feel elated. I can finally stand for it without being bullied, I can finally sing along because I choose to and not because the Big Brother wants to force doses of Hindutva ‘nationalism’ down my throat.
The skyline of the recent protests has been an interesting site – it has been a vibrant milieu of flags of all hues embodying diverse ideas. All the michhils that I have walked in in the past have mostly been adorned with red flags (‘rokto potaka‘ if you may), some since the first Pride parade I attended a few of winters back, have been dotted with rainbow coloured ones. The only instance I can recall of marching with the tricolour being present is on one damp cold school sports morning. That wasn’t a michhil, that was a mandatory march past, and it was devoid of any emotion. I can hardly recall having any sort of feelings, let alone strong ones at that, about the tricolour. However, in the last few weeks, the hundreds of michhils that reclaimed the streets, demanding azadi, demanding an end to state sponsored bigotry, an end to fascism, saw the active and enthusiastic presence of the tricolour. On 19th December ’19, for the first time in my life of 22 years and hundreds of michhils, I was voluntarily a part of something that celebrated the tricolour. There were scores of tricolours fluttering unfettered, people of starkly diverse backgrounds waved their tricolours as if in a trance, all the while chanting slogans of azadi. It was hypnotic, the last few days have been that way. In all the michhils since then, the tricolour has been a permanent fixture. Talking about flags, the omnipresence of the rainbow pride flag and the blue Bheem Army flags speaks a lot about the particularly inclusive nature of this movement. While the red flag has been a global symbol of resistance for decades, it’s heartening to see it being eased of the solitary burden. The red, the blue, the rainbow, and the tricolour have raised a riot of resistance against the somber winter sky.
This winter has been of grief, this winter has been of resilience. Every visitor at Shaheen Bagh is bombarded by a retinue of questions from the women who have been braving the bitter Delhi cold in their fight to save the Constitution – “Have you had anything to eat?”, “Why haven’t you eaten anything?”, “You have come from such a distance, please have something.” The women of Shaheen Bagh belong to all ages – from 20 days old Ashiana, to nonagenarian Asma Khatun. The women of Shaheen Bagh raise slogans of azadi, the women of Shaheen Bagh sing songs of resistance, the women of Shaheen Bagh take care of each other, the women of Shaheen Bagh forge friendships while basking in the warmth of shared blankets. The women of Shaheen Bagh are often seen to break into impromptu dance sessions. However, swaying in resistance is not their exclusive forte. When a massive michhil culminated in Kolkata’s New Market area, a group of people started singing, dozens joined them, they held hands and went around in circles. While the adivasi anthem of “gao chhorab nahi” (“we won’t leave this village”) was being sung, a local man, perhaps in his forties, sporting a big grin and tattered clothes, made his way to the centre of the circle and started dancing along the beats of the song – a song of resistance which in all probability he was hearing for the first time. He swayed in a manner as if the people around has been his closest friends since ages. A similar imagery was witnessed in Mumbai. A group of protesters, mostly students, had gathered at the Gateway of India. While slogans were being raised, an elderly gentleman, sporting a cap from under which fluffy white tufts of hair were peeping, started swaying along. In that sporadic moment of exuberance, arguably the youngest soul of the crowd made the demonstration a hundred times merrier.
There has been passive participants galore. In one of the michhils in Jadavpur area of Kolkata, I caught the sight of a woman who was on a video call. I stole glances at her screen, and there were around three or four elderly women in a huddle. The active participant of the michhil tried hard to keep the women on the other side abreast with the michhil and the slogans. At one time one of her virtual audiences raised a clenched fist keeping in mood with the michhil. As we marched forward, a friend of mine drew my attention to a second floor balcony by the road. An old man sporting unabashed glee was holding the receiver of a landline phone of the bygone era, with his other infirm hand, he was holding the rest of the bulky phone. He was trying to capture the sounds of the michhil for the person on the other end – perhaps an old comrade, perhaps a forlorn lover, perhaps both at the same time. I would like to believe that he was reminiscing his old days, days when he was out on the streets, fighting on the right side of history. How dare I exclude that clenched fist on that five inch screen from the michhil! How dare I say that the man with his telephone was not matching his steps with ours!
I have always identified more as a Bangali than as an Indian. However, standing today, I can vouch for the fact that I have never felt more Indian before. We are standing on an oddly weird crossroad – at the very moment that the state is trying to mark us as non-bonafide infiltrators of the nation, we are feeling the most at one with that very nation. At the risk of resorting to a cliché, one cannot help but seek refuge in Dickens –
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
It’s a wonderful epoch when we are reclaiming the tricolour, the national anthem, the constitution, and at large the nation from the clenches of fascist goons. It’s a beautiful time to be alive, it’s a beautiful time to be out on the streets. Undoubtedly this is the darkest period in postcolonial India’s history, but this period is replete with the promise of a better future, perhaps a free India, an azad India in the truest sense of the poignant word. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I would like to believe that we are standing at the threshold of a revolution, for what even is revolution but a carnival of hope?
Barshana Basu completed her graduation from Jadavpur University and is currently pursuing her Masters in History from the same. Her areas of interest include the sociopolitical and cultural history of Kolkata in the colonial and post-colonial period, its built spaces, and migrant communities. She also harbours a strong penchant for Gender Studies. She’s a Citizen Historian with the 1947 Partition Archive. If not buried under a pile of books, she’s most likely to be found loitering around the labyrinthine alleyways of Kolkata, clicking pictures of odd edifices.