These days, 24-year-old Sharjeel Usmani spends most of his time travelling from one Aligarh court to another for hazri, attendance. There are four cases against the Aligarh Muslim University student, all of them connected to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Parliament on December 11, 2019.
As the law was passed, protests erupted across the country and swelled into what activists call the “CAA movement”. The main opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act was rooted in the fact that it undermined the secular principles of the Constitution: for the first time, a law explicitly stated religious criteria for gaining Indian citizenship. It expedited citizenship for non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Together with the proposed National Register of Citizens, it was feared, the law paved the way to stripping Indian Muslims of citizenship.
Protest sites sprouted across the country. In many places, these mobilisations were spearheaded by Muslims but also joined by Indians from all faiths, bent on preserving the country’s secularism.
Two years later, the protest sites have emptied. In North India, this was partly because of a violent police crackdown and arrests. In Delhi, the protests invited a backlash which spiralled into communal violence in February 2020, clearing still more protest sites. The lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic, imposed in March 2020, proved to be the final blow for protest sites across the country. The WhatsApp groups that coordinated the street protests and hosted vibrant debates have also fallen silent.
“I miss the rage in the community,” said Usmani. “The rage that led to people spilling on the streets. The rage that led to better knowledge of our rights and the constitution. The rage that led to a solidarity we never saw coming.”
The energies of those who once led the movement in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are now concentrated elsewhere. “Our first priority is to get out those who got arrested because of the anti-CAA movement,” said Usmani. “It would not feel right to start any conversation about restarting the anti-CAA protests till they are not safe, out of jail, and with us.”
A different fight
Most of the prominent faces of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act are battling police cases or are still in jail. Take 29-year-old Safoora Zargar, who was pregnant when she was arrested in April 2020 and spent 74 days in Delhi’s Tihar Jail before she was granted bail. She is one of the people charged under the notorious FIR 59 – the first information report in which the Delhi Police invoked charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a stringent anti-terror law, against 15 protestors. The Delhi Police used the FIR to suggest the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were a conspiracy with secessionist motives.
“There are so many beautiful memories of those times – I really wish I could go back to those days sometimes,” Zargar said, remembering the days of protest. “Those conversations with friends, where one could speak openly and without feeling vulnerable, or well, the fear of the Special Cell spying on you,” she chuckled.
For Zargar, who gave birth to her child months after being released from jail and is now doing an MPhil in urban sociology, the fight has shifted elsewhere.
“Every time I am in court, I return with more hope, as I see, hear of or meet the other co-accused,” she said. “The only difference between then and now is that, rather than the vibrant protest sites, the spirit reverberates in the corridors of courtrooms where cases are being fought. The fight against UAPA and its misuse is as much a part of the movement as the anti-CAA protests were. I am determined to fight my case. This is just a different phase.”
Not everyone shares her optimism. Till last month, students and activists were being called in for interrogation on cases under FIR 59, which was used to make a case for conspiracy. The Delhi Police also filed 750 FIRs, including many against students of Jamia Millia Islamia University. Police had barged into the campus on December 15, 2019, in a violent crackdown on student protestors. Such students, too, were being interrogated till last month.
Asif Iqbal Tanha, a former Jamia student booked under FIR 59, spent over a month in jail from May to June 2020. Jamia students, he said, were still doing the rounds of police stations. “All active students were called for interrogation and issued notices,” said Tanha, who works with the Students Islamic Organisation of India. “Because of that the courage to fight the system has diminished.”
For many activists, life has changed in material ways. Usmani was only able to return to his home district of Aligarh after a year and a half – he had been charged three times under the Uttar Pradesh Control of Goondas Act, which empowers the police to expel persons from a certain area for a period of time. The eldest son of his parents, he now worries about supporting his family.
Usmani says he has learnt not to be as vocal as he used to. “What is the point?” he asked. “India will not change for me. The people will not change. For instance, I was born and brought up in a ghetto in Aligarh, I studied in AMU, which is another Muslim ghetto, when I visit Delhi I live in Shaheen Bagh, which is another Muslim ghetto. This is the only idea [of India] I know.”
Many of the memories from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests are of vibrant debate and discussion. But there are also memories of violence from that cold December.
According to Usmani, the “movement started in Aligarh”, even before the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed. It was December 6, 2019. Students of Aligarh Muslim University had organised a “Babri Remembrance Day” to commemorate the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992.
“Towards the end, I brought up the citizenship bill, which I called genocidal,” recalled Usmani. “I said we had to protest. There had been no real discussions about this before. Almost all students almost immediately took to the idea as if they had thought about it all along. On December 7, the Syed Gate [leading into the university campus] was closed and the protests began.”
As the law was passed, protests spread to other campuses, including Jamia in Delhi. On December 15, both the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia campuses were stormed by the police. It started in Jamia. Then news and videos of the police violence reached Aligarh.
“My friend was in Jamia and was in the bathroom, I think,” said Usmani. Videos from that night showed the police barging into bathrooms and students cowered in fear. “He called weeping and said that everything was over. He asked me to seek forgiveness on his part from his parents. I played the audio to a group of students at AMU and by the end of that we all decided we needed to do something. We needed to protest. Everyone started getting SOS calls, requests to amplify what was happening at Jamia. Within a few hours AMU also saw violence, violence that continues to haunt us even today”
The Uttar Pradesh police launched a crackdown that was arguably even more violent than the one in Delhi. A student maimed by the police in Aligarh had to have his hand amputated.
“I was injured a bit but I escaped the police,” said Usmani. “However, when I woke up the next day, I was being called a mastermind. I had no clue what hit me.”
The violence at the two campuses set off a fresh wave of protests. In Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, women came out to protest against the treatment of Jamia students, starting a sit-in that would last months.
In Aligarh and Lucknow, activists say, they did not expect such a huge turnout. “When I was asked how many people would attend the December 19 protests in Lucknow, I said it would be around 1,000. But thousands showed up,” said 74-year-old Mohammad Shoaib, founder of the Rihai Ekta Manch and a veteran activist. Here, too, women were the face of many of the protests.
But the demonstrations soon took a darker turn, as the Uttar Pradesh police crackdown intensified – 23 were killed, many young protesters were allegedly tortured and violence engulfed several districts.
A lasting trace
The last murals from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests have now been painted over at Jamia. At Shaheen Bagh, the marquee, the installations asserting constitutional values, the makeshift library are long gone. The sound of traffic has replaced the songs that were sung, the speeches that were made, the readings of the Preamble to the Constitution.
“This is the vandalisation of art,” said 39-year-old Banojyotsna Lahiri, one of the core members of United Against Hate, an organisation that had played a key role in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. “Who does that? It was one of the most beautiful things that had ever happened in Delhi.”
So if the protests disappeared in a trail of violence, arrests and the pandemic lockdown, what did they achieve?
Almost all activists pointed out the Citizenship Amendment Act had been put in cold storage and the rules to implement had still not been framed. “The implementation of the law is key – let them get the rules out and then we will see,” Lahiri said.
For many members of the Muslim community, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were about their basic rights as citizens, not just about the idea of secularism. It has brought about a keener sense of the majoritarian forces they confront.
“The fact is that Muslims today acknowledge the situation we are in,” said Zargar. “The denial phase is over. Not only do we understand the battles we must fight but there is a willingness to fight them.”
Usmani agreed: “Everyone now tries to do their bit. For instance people pray for those arrested, people now use social media to voice their support, people do not look at those raising their voice with concern but encourage them.”
The citizenship protests have also left lasting traces in a new generation. “I have a paternal aunt who has named her daughter Safoora and others who have named their children Sharjeel after me and Sharjeel Imam,” Usmani said with a smile.
A lasting silence
But for now, there is silence about the Citizenship Amendment Act. In election-bound Uttar Pradesh, it has fallen out of public agendas. The Bharatiya Janata Party is already ratcheting up a polarising campaign and anti-CAA activists and politicians are maintaining a judicious silence on the law.
“Since UP Polls are coming, we are being told to not protest on the matter as the issue will get diverted. We do not want people to vote on religious lines,” said Usmani.
Rajeev Yadav from Rihai Manch, who is running as an independent candidate from the Nizamabad constituency, says that focusing on the anti-CAA movement would play into the hands of the BJP. “If we bring it up then the BJP’s agenda of polarising the masses will continue,” said Yadav.
Even outside poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, many student activists have stopped speaking about the Citizenship Amendment Act altogether. Some had hoped that the farmers’ protests, which started late last year, might galvanise the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests once more.
“When the farmer movement started, Jamia students were sent messages and asked if they were participating in the movement,” said Delhi University professor Apoorvanand. “See, they [the police] have interrogated hundreds of students, seized hundreds of phones and have thousands of phone numbers. The police would message students, and even their parents. So there was, and continues to be, panic.”
Student activists being charged with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act had also led to a chilling effect, Apoorvanand added. “All of it made it very difficult to even consider taking the risk,” he said. Last year, Apoorvanand was summoned and questioned by the Delhi Police for taking part in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The police had claimed the protests were a conspiracy to incite the communal violence that spread across Northeast Delhi in February 2020.
‘Being hopeless is also a luxury’
According to Zargar, however, Indian Muslims had no option but to keep taking risks. “The violence in universities as well as the anti-Muslim violence in Northeast Delhi scared people and made them rethink protests and movement,” she said. “Lots of people have become hopeless. Being hopeless is also a luxury that we Muslims cannot afford.”
Apoorvanand, for his part, misses the bonds that the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests forged between different communities and constituencies as they made common cause. “I miss that joy,” he said. “I miss the feeling in the air that something positive could happen. I miss the collective energy that led to new solidarities.”
Neither Apoorvanand nor Yadav rule out the possibility of the protests being revived. If the government did go ahead with implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act, Yadav said, people were “ready to spill out into the streets to protest once more”.