On December 19, tens of thousands of Mumbaikars gathered to join in the chain of nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at August Kranti Maidan. On Friday, yet another protest against the bill brought large numbers to Azad Maidan (as well as to a concurrent demonstration at August Kranti Maidan in support of the legislation). The scale of the protests has come as a surprise to many because the fast-paced, commercial city of 23 million people, is in the popular narrative both too busy for interruptions and resolutely apathetic.

Mumbai – and particularly South Mumbai where the protests were held – is not routinely associated with public protests like Delhi. In recent years, if large-scale protests have taken place in Mumbai, they have been by people from outside the city hoping to draw the public’s attention to their concerns like the thousands of distressed farmers who made their way there from all over Maharashtra in November last year.

Things were different this month: Mumbai residents from all walks of life, across religious, social, linguistic and professional boundaries demonstrated against the citizenship act; the city’s police force was also directed to facilitate their peaceful and orderly gathering.

The Mumbai demonstrations are striking because they represent a paradox: in the public imagination Mumbai is not a political city – yet some of the most consequential agitations that shaped India’s political history began here.

Bombay cosmopolitanism

It was in Mumbai that Indians took their very first steps towards organised resistance to British colonial rule. Exactly 134 years ago, on December 28, 1885, some 70 Indians from all over the country came together to form the Indian National Congress. They gathered at Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College, a charitable organisation started by one of most prominent businessmen of Bombay, as the city was then known, a stone’s throw away from where the December 19 protests were held.

The men who had gathered in the city on that winter day – some of the first to be educated in the British system – were of different faiths who had already been working in local-level organisations concerned with citizens’ interests. But now they came together in Bombay with the aim of subordinating ideas of self, caste, and community to public good and the Indian nation.

The Indian National Congress – not to be confused with its modern-day political party form – came to be the longest-lived nationalist freedom movement in the modern colonial world and in its earliest stages it shaped the very core of secular India’s composite cosmopolitanism. The early Congressmen were men of diverse professions: many were lawyers, journalists and teachers, some others were merchants, businessmen and landowners.

In the three decades that followed the formation of the Indian National Congress, its members across the country advocated for a variety Indian interests such as the increasing the Indian participation in the legislative councils and making the Indian Civil Service truly accessible to Indians by raising the age limit for the competitive exams and conducting the entrance exam in India rather than getting interested candidates to make an expensive trip to England.

As all Indian school children learn, Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in the early decades of the twentieth century changed the Congress from an elite to a mass organisation. The years between the two World Wars – roughly from 1914 to 1945 –
coincided with the immense popularity of Gandhian politics of non-violent satyagraha, at once a specifically “Indian” way of life and a method of popular protest that brought thousands of men and women on the streets, something that the “moderate” politicians of the foregoing years had failed to do.

Gandhian resistance

And it was in Bombay and not Delhi, the capital of British India, that Gandhi chose to be based. From 1917 to 1937 Gandhi worked out of Mani Bhavan, in the city’s Gamdevi area, once again (just as the Tejpal Sanksrit College) in the close vicinity of the location of the December 19 protests. Later too, Gandhi frequented the city, often staying Birla House at Malabar Hill.

The transgression of oppressive colonial laws was integral to the Gandhian method of mobilisation and public protests.In Bombay, Gandhian nationalism produced, as historian Prashant Kidambi writes,“an impressive array of political spectacles – hartals, flag salutations, dawn marches, sit-downs, pickets, parades, and processions – that reinscribed the city’s public arenas as nationalist space”.

Gandhi created the model for modern peaceful protests not just in India but around the world. Ironically, both the methods of protests and those of colonial suppression remain alive today. Even the vocabulary is the same: “lathi charges”, tear gas, curfew and the ever-useful article 144 that bans the gathering of groups larger than five people.

MK Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru, Mathradas Trikumji, Maniben Patel and Vallabhbhai Patel in Bombay in 1939.

Finally, no other movement in India’s freedom struggle was as momentous as the 1942 Quit India agitations, and it was the city of Bombay that became this movement’s nerve centre. On August 7 and 8, 1942, Gandhi gave his final call to the nation to rise up against the British at the Gowalia Tank Maidan; the park receives its present name, August Kranti Maidan or August Revolution Park from this historical moment. It was also the location where the citizenship act protestors recently gathered.

Bombay’s residents continued to protest against British rule even as Gandhi and other prominent Congress leaders were immediately arrested. Just as students and women have played key roles in the citizenship act protests across the country today, students from Bombay’s prominent colleges – Elphinstone, Sydenham, Ramnarain Ruia, Khalsa College, and VJTI – as also hundreds of the city’s women continued the fight in the wake of the leaders’ arrests in 1942. Usha Thakkar writes that a Congress Bulletin described September 9, 1942, as “Stree Shakti Din” in recognition of the continued “inestimable courage and resourcefulness of the women of Bombay”.

Protestors against the new citizenship law arrive at August Kranti Maidan on December 19. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

In the post-Independence era, Mumbai’s residents have had a smaller role in sparking nationwide movements. Instead, the city has tended to gather around linguistic or community lines. The movement to keep Bombay a part of the Marathi-speaking Maharashtra in 1960 when the erstwhile Bombay Presidency was bifurcated into the two linguistic states of Maharashtra and Gujarat is one of the most significant examples of this. Similarly, in 1970s and 80s, the last days of the mills that once formed the core of the modern city’s economy, brought Mumbai’s working classes together under a common cause. Despite its cosmopolitan social composition and internationalism, Mumbai’s recent political interests have focused on narrower spheres.

It is in this context that the huge turnout at the demonstrations around the Citizenship Amendment Act in Mumbai must be understood. Perhaps the paradox of why public protests in Mumbai are rare, lies not just in its historic drift into a crumbling politically narrow-minded city but something else altogether: its sheer linguistic, regional, community and class diversity distinctive from any other large Indian metro. In this, Mumbai reflects India as a whole which also rarely experiences protests around a single issue. In that sense, Mumbai is more representative of the anxieties of the deeply heterogeneous Indian nation.

The fact that the Citizenship Amendment Act triggered its diverse citizens to come together despite the challenges of their harrowing urban lives is therefore an indicator of just how widespread the fear of the damage that the new law might cause is.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.