Amid the slogans shouted at protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act last week, one stands out. “Awaaz do.” Speak up. “Hum sab ek hai.” We are one.

There is a mournfulness to the chanting, the vowels drawn out to a lingering end. We are one, us with our contradictions, us with our bigotries, our unbearable histories threatening to tear us apart. We are in this together.

It was a slogan that sounded on the streets of Kolkata on December 19, while fuming motorists waited at traffic lights. It was heard near India Gate in Delhi a few days earlier, at a protest that someone who attended described as “heartfelt, disorganised and lacking leadership”.

Opposition parties such as the Trinamool Congress, the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have tried to steer some of the protests. The Bhim Army head Chandrashekhar Azad organised a large demonstration outside Delhi’s Jamia Masjid on December 20. But these agitations do not readily fit the contours of party politics in India. As of now, this is a citizens’ protest against a discriminatory citizenship law.

A citizens’ protest

The anger against the law, which makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh eligible for Indian citizenship, has brought together atomised groups across the country. Muslims fighting for their right to exist as equal citizens. People from the states of the North East who fear the accommodation of immigrants will further marginalise groups defined as indigenous to the region. Students, cutting across religious and ethnic groups, appalled by a law where citizenship is premised on faith. Much-maligned urban liberals, the greying professors and activists who know all the songs and slogans by heart as well as younger professionals suddenly galvanised into political participation.

In many places, especially states governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the administrative machinery has responded with restrictions on movement, internet shutdowns and detentions. It is justified, the leadership claims, because protests are turning violent. Some protests did turn violent. But there is also evidence to show that disproportionate violence was used by state forces. It lies in the bodies of protestors killed in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, in the broken limbs of students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University.

What may have rattled the government most is that many of the protests used idioms that authority does not understand. People walked, sang, chanted, wielded jokes on posters, distributed food.

What does it mean to speak the language of dissent to a government used to enforcing conformity? How much political change can really be wrought by popular protests?

December 19

Last week, there were repeated references to a legacy of dissent, reaching back to the decades of the freedom movement. December 19, which saw widespread, coordinated demonstrations across the country, was the day Ashfaqullah Khan, Roshan Singh and Ram Prasad Bismil were executed in 1927.

Members of the Hindustan Republican Association, later renamed the Hindustan Republican Socialist Association, the three men were convicted for the Kakori train robbery. According to most versions, the robbery was to provide funds for arms needed to rebel against British rule. Others argue the money was needed to publish and circulate socialist literature. Either way, it was an instance of Hindu-Muslim solidarity against a divisive government, which many feel speaks to the current moment of protests.

Also invoked frequently in recent days was Ambedkar, whose many acts of radical dissent include the Mahad Satyagraha of 1927, when he led Dalits in using water from a public tank in Maharashtra, and the burning of the Manusmriti, the text which encoded the caste system. And Gandhi, theorist of satyagraha, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, who turned the act of protest into a philosophy that made ethical demands of both government and protester.

Gandhi’s methods of passive resistance were to appeal to the conscience of an oppressive ruler. His fasts against civil unrest and communal violence were symbolic gestures to cleanse the body politic rather than make immediate political gains.

A million mutinies

Post Independence, an imperfect and deeply unequal republic spawned its own protests. There were peasant movements, workers movements, language movements, tribal movements, caste-based movements which made claims on the Indian state. Many went unrealised, others were stoppered by inadequate treaties with the state or crushed with force. A few reached the critical mass to shake governments at the Centre.

The present moment has been compared to the student agitations against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule, though large parts of the country remained untouched by those protests. Bihar’s socialist rebellion, led by Jayaprakash Narayan, was put down by brutal state repression. Gujarat’s Nav Nirman Andolan, a reaction to corruption in public life, brought down the state government and brought on president’s rule in 1974. Both paved the way for the Emergency but eventually showed the green shoots of a political alternative to the Congress.

The current protests may be direct successors to the agitations of the last decade, which helped bring down the crumbling United Progressive Alliance. Numerous corruption scams created a groundswell of support for Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, which invoked Gandhian methods of protest. The rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012, spurred widespread protests to which the Centre had no adequate response. Both challenged the status quo, questioning the way political and sexual power was exercised.

Some of the impulses behind these challenges to power may have been reactionary rather than progressive. In the 1970s, Gujarat’s anti-corruption movement also helped make the careers of several sangh leaders, including one Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, Narendra Modi. The popular protests of the last decade demanded justice and systemic reforms, but much of this was imagined as instant and severe punishment for the guilty. It created, in turn, a hunger for strongmen.

Protestors in New Delhi. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Chanting azadi

Today’s protesters are standing up to these strongmen. As the strongmen try to reinvent the republic, the protesters invoke the freedom movement, they revive the originary cry of “azadi”, freedom.

In the cities, protesters shout the “Azadi” chant made famous in 2016 by Kanhaiya Kumar, then the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, as he emerged from prison, where he had been locked up on sedition charges. Azadi, the crowds cry, azadi from hunger, caste, religious divides, the ideology of the Sangh.

There are limits even to this inclusive imagination. It rarely extends, for instance, to those who have been shouting “azadi” for the last three decades – Kashmiris, who have now spent close to five months under an internet shutdown, who do not have the freedom to protest against the Centre’s unilateral decision to strip their state of autonomy and split it into two Union Territories. In days to come, the citizens’ protest, which has brought together so many disparate demands for freedom, could widen its imagination further.

But will these appeals to the government change a law that has already been passed or stop a citizenship count that threatens to exclude those whom the state does not want? For now, administrations controlled by the BJP have responded in the manner of the colonial state, suspending basic rights as they crack down on protestors.

Whatever its outcome, this uprising of citizens has already made an important difference. It has challenged the dangerous common sense that had settled over the last six years, that India is not a natural home for Muslims, that a secular nation is a woolly liberal fiction, that political and social ties must be divided along religious lines. It has staked claim to the individual rights and freedoms slowly eaten away by the state, it has pushed back against the idea that to question the government or the ruling party is to be anti-national.

We were here, we objected, the protests say. Hum sab ek hai, the protests say.