At 72, Zora Momin is as old as India. She has witnessed several public protests against governments and their policies over the years. “But I have never seen a mass movement as big as this one before,” said Momin, a retired teacher from South Mumbai, as she pointed to the sea of women around her.

On January 17, Momin was among nearly 15,000 women who participated in a special all-women protest in Mumbai against the Citizenship Act amendments introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in December 2019, and the National Register of Citizens that the BJP proposes to implement alongside. While the Act fast-tracks the citizenship process for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the NRC aims to list all legitimate citizens of the country in order to delegitimise alleged “infiltrators”. When combined with the Act, many fear that the NRC will be used to harass Indian Muslims.

Protests against the CAA and NRC began in the North East more than a month ago, and have since expanded to new cities and towns every day. The brutal police crackdowns on protests in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have only served to snowball the movement further, bringing lakhs out onto the streets. In the past two weeks, the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, who have been sitting in protest since December 15, inspired several other women’s sit-in protests around the country.

Opposition parties have also rallied behind the anti-CAA movement, with several non-BJP ruled states declaring that they will not implement the new Citizenship Act or the NRC, and Kerala and Punjab passing Assembly resolutions against the Act. Kerala has now moved the Supreme Court against the amendments to the Citizenship Act, and Congress-run states plan to wait for the Court’s verdict before implementing the Act.

Now, a month since the anti-CAA movement began, the BJP government remains adamant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP ministers have accused protesters of “fueling misconceptions” among the youth, and have dodged direct questions about the NRC by focusing on the CAA and its function of granting citizenship rather than taking it away. The BJP has also mobilised party workers and members of other Hindutva organisations to run counter-campaigns to convince people about the need for the Citizenship law.

With the government refusing to budge and the anti-CAA movement growing stronger, reporters spoke to protesters in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati about the future of the movement. Where do protesters see their agitation going? What do they believe are the paths they need to follow?

Zora Momin at a women's protest against the CAA in Mumbai. Photos: Aarefa Johari

Power of women

For Zora Momin, the answer lay in harnessing the power of women.

“If the government refuses to change its mind about implementing NRC and CAA, then women will have to play a bigger role in stepping out to join the protests,” said Momin. “The government is spreading all kinds of misinformation about our movement, so the only way to counter this propaganda is by making our movement grow – by stepping out in much larger numbers than we already are.”

Humaira Ansari, a homemaker in her 50s, echoed the same sentiments. “We have already managed to scare the government with our protests so far, so it is clear that we need to move ahead in even bigger numbers,” said Ansari, who was also a part of the all-women’s protest in Mumbai. Ansari believes that Muslim women had been an untapped demographic in protest movements before.

“Women from castes like mine – the Ansaris, Sheikhs – have never really been allowed to be out of the house much, but after the triple talaq issue, things have changed,” said Ansari, who attended the women’s protest on January 17 without asking her husband, because he was likely to disapprove. “Many Muslim women now want to be a part of something bigger, and this issue impacts them the most.”

Humaira Ansari believes women's participation can help harness the movement against CAA and NRC.

Banning Jio, blocking funds

Makhmoor Pathan and Samia Akku, both paramedical students from south Mumbai, have been disturbed by the way in which the BJP government has cracked down on anti-CAA protests in states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, instead of acquiescing to the protesters’ demands.

“We need to give our 100% to this movement now, and think of more ways in which to put pressure on the government,” said Pathan, who believes an effective campaign would be to ban products by companies whose owners support the ruling government. “I saw [Mukesh] Ambani praising Modi in an interview, so maybe we should start a campaign to ban Jio,” said Pathan, referring to the telecom service run by Ambani’s Reliance group.

“Our movement could also urge foreign governments and investors to stop sending money to India,” said Akku. “That way our government will be forced to take some action.”

Changing public opinions

Sadia A, a housewife from south Mumbai, believes that the only way the BJP government can be pressurised to change its stand on implementing the NRC is if more and more BJP supporters across the country join the movement against it.

“I think it is possible for our movement to convince at least five to ten per cent of BJP supporters, if we all make an effort,” said Sadia, who was a first-time protesters like many other women at the rally in Mumbai on January 17. “On my part, I have been posting articles on social media to raise awareness about how CAA and NRC will affect us all.”

Samia Akku and Makhmoor Pathan at a protest against CAA in Mumbai.

In Kolkata, college lecturer Sudipto Sanyal also believes may succeed in slowly changing public opinion. “Perhaps we are seeing a manifestation of this in the recent electoral losses the BJP has faced at the state and municipal levels,” said Sanyal.

Although he does not expect the central government to actually repeal the CAA, Sanyal believes it is incumbent upon a democracy to record and document injustice. “For those of us privileged enough not to be directly affected, this is our immediate function: we must be historians of our contemporary moment, I guess.”

Electoral politics

Others, like Anita Dutta from Guwahati, believe the way forward for the anti-CAA movement is to give rise to new political leaders who can represent the needs of different regions.

In Assam and other North-Eastern states, the opposition to the CAA has been triggered not by its discrimination towards Muslims, but by the fear that the Act will legitimise an influx of Bengali-speakers from Bangladesh and threaten the ethnic identity of the local populations.

“As the general public, all we want is for our state to be protected,” said Dutta, a businesswomen who has been attending protests in Guwahati whenever and wherever she can. Dutta has found it “hurtful” that the government has refused to repeal the CAA despite widespread protests, and hopes to see a new breed of politicians emerge from the protests. “Look at Maharashtra, regional politics is so strong there,” she said. “We want someone like that – someone who can put Assam first always.”

At Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, 21-year-old Aleena Ariz has been attending the university’s student protest against the CAA every day since December 12, 2019. Ariz, too, believes in using electoral politics as the way forward. “We do not have any power as people and we cannot fight the police,” said Ariz, a mechanical engineering student. “We have to vote and show them, and the state governments need to act against this.”

A fight till the end

Like several other protesters around the country, Ariz also believes that those opposing the CAA and NRC should brace themselves for a long fight. “The Independence movement took around a hundred years,” she said.

In Kolkata, Farhat Islam made a similar reference to India’s struggle for Independence from the British after 1857.

“If we are protesting, it means we have expectations. We expect that the results will be good,” said Islam, one of the women managing the city’s Park Circus Maidan protests. “If we don’t get a good decision from the Supreme Court, if the government doesn’t step back, then, well – we fought for a hundred years, we can fight for five more.”