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Upholding the Constitution

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Chandrashekhar Azad holds up the constitution
Photo © Rajat Gupta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On 20 December 2019 – ten days into protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – Chandrashekhar Azad tweeted that he would be at a rally at the Jama Masjid (the biggest mosque in Delhi, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan a few years after the Taj Mahal). Azad is the leader of the Bhim Army, a Dalit resistance movement. The police arrested him ahead of the demonstration but he escaped, slipping away into the winding lanes of the old city.

The police withdrew permission for the gathering and invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the ‘unlawful assembly’ of four or more people. But thousands were already on their way to the mosque, many travelling from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The evening prayers began, as people gathered at the mosque steps. Police and media surrounded them. After prayer, the crowd turned to face the cameras, slowly unfurling their signs and flags. From somewhere in their midst, Azad emerged, holding up a copy of the Indian constitution.

Until this moment, Azad had largely been an underground figure, associated with the Dalit resistance and known only to those that follow it. Always sharply dressed, often with a signature electric blue scarf tied around his neck, Azad (b.1986) is young and dashing, a natural public speaker. The Jama Masjid protest moved his activism into the mainstream. He held up the constitution as a reminder of the founding ideals of the Republic of India, a nation conceived on principles of secularism and inclusivity; at the Jama Masjid last month, Dalits and Muslims stood in solidarity with one another. A stand-off between the protesters and police continued late into the night. Azad eventually brokered a deal with the authorities: they arrested him in exchange for letting everyone else go.

Azad’s copy of the constitution had an image of B.R. Ambedkar on its cover. Despite having helped shape it, Ambedkar’s critique of Indian democracy was biting, and concise: a country whose social fabric is maintained by a strict exercise of the caste system cannot consider itself truly democratic.

On 16 January, a group gathered near the beach in Mumbai at the site where Ambedkar was cremated. It was the eve of the fourth anniversary of the death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad University, who committed suicide after being assaulted by members of the right-wing student union Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which has close ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The speakers at the memorial in Mumbai included members of the Dalit Panthers (styled after the Black Panthers), a trans woman, an indigenous rights activist from Assam, an imam, a Catholic priest and a Kashmiri student.

The Kashmiri student reminded us that every demonstration in India is haunted by the protests that cannot take place in Kashmir. The region is still under military siege and a communications lockdown (with only a partial restoration of the internet after more than five months). The trans woman spoke about the intersection of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the NRC. Under the Trans Bill, everyone has to be either male or female, and a trans person’s gender will only be recognised if they have had gender reassignment surgery. ‘According to the state I do not exist,’ she said. ‘How do I prove otherwise?’

Most Indians are undocumented. With the CAA and NRC, people unable to present evidence of their citizenship may be considered stateless and moved to detention centres, their property and assets requisitioned by the state. The laws target Muslims in particular. On 23 January, thousands of workers from coffee estates in the southern state of Karnataka were rounded up by the police for a ‘verification drive’. More than five hundred were detained. The state said they were looking for illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, but despite this unconstitutional racial profiling, most workers turned out to be from the eastern Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.

The protests have been ongoing since early December, their numbers increasing every day. At the time of writing, there are nearly sixty 24-hour sit-ins, 13 of them in New Delhi. Doctors are offering free check ups; artists, musicians and theatre groups are organising performances; participants and well-wishers are distributing food, ‘secular chai’, clothes and blankets. People are singing songs of revolution and reading poetry late into the night. Libraries have been installed at bus stops. Children paint portraits of each other and of the Indian flag. Muslim women are leading many of the public actions. The spirit is non-violent, and the protests’ immediate concerns are simple: an appeal to human rights, and active opposition to the division of people along religious lines. The police are responding with rubber bullets and tear gas, baton charges and arbitrary detention. More than thirty people have been killed in confrontations with the police.

On 26 January, Republic Day, the 71st anniversary of the constitution, at the annual military parade in New Delhi they rolled out the new Dhanush gun system, a howitzer with a range of 24 miles, designed to meet the army’s ‘futuristic requirements’. Modi wore a saffron turban with a long train and sat next to his guest of honour, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. Three states were left out of the celebrations: West Bengal, Maharashtra and Kerala – the three states that oppose the new citizenship laws, and are yet to use violence against protesters. Meanwhile, people celebrated a ‘People’s Republic Day’ with protests, cultural events and human chains: in Kerala the chain was nearly four hundred miles long, stretching from the northern to the southern tip of the state.