In February 1922, as the Independence movement gathered steam, a group of protestors set a police station on fire in Chauri Chaura, a town near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. The incident led to 25 deaths, prompting Mahatma Gandhi to the Non-Cooperation Movement as he invoked his principle of non-violence.
Ninety-eight years later, on February 2, a group of ten students, activists and journalists set out from Chauri Chaura on a march called the nagrik satyagrah, or citizen’s non-violent resistance. They intended to walk through Uttar Pradesh, visiting schools and markets in villages and towns, before eventually reaching Rajghat, the site in New Delhi where Gandhi was cremated.
The idea of the march, said the group’s leader Manish Sharma, was conceived after the group constituted fact-finding teams comprising of students and activists in January. These teams visited the families of people who had died during protests in Uttar Pradesh in December against the amended citizenship law and proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens.
Twenty four Muslims died in Uttar Pradesh, which recorded the highest number of deaths during protests as police were accused of using excessive force, destroying property, detaining and torturing minors.
The visit to the homes of the affected families left the group with several questions, Sharma said. “They attacked the weakest Muslims,” said the 32-year-old, a social worker from Varanasi. “What was the state doing? What did the media do? And did the other half of the population stand by these people?”
Aside from the questions, there was a collective realisation. “The government is taking advantage of the hate for the Other,” Sharma said. “We need to finish the hate within us. Only then will governments work according to what people want.”
But less than ten days into the march, on February 11, all ten members of the group were arrested by the police in Ghazipur district.
“The police officials asked why we chose to carry out this march in Uttar Pradesh instead of West Bengal or Kerala,” said Sharma. West Bengal and Kerala were among the first states to oppose the amended citizenship legislation, which offers a fast track to illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – except if they are Muslim. Critics fear that the amended law coupled with the proposed nationwide NRC could be used as a tool to harass Indian Muslims
The marchers spent five days in jail before they got bail and were released on February 16. Sharma said that they would continue to march to Delhi.
Chauri Chaura to Rajghat
The group consists of social workers and students from Banaras Hindu University, Allahabad University and Delhi University, among others. In the first phase, the group marched from Chauri Chaura to Varanasi, more than 200 km away.
Why did they pick Chauri Chaura as the starting point? Sharma called the incident in 1922 a “turning point” during the freedom struggle. “It was that time when Gandhi made it clear that violence was not the solution in the country,” he said. While marching to Varanasi, the group members distributed pamphlets about Gandhi’s message on non-violence and peace.
When they were arrested arrested at a check post in Ghazipur, the police asked if they had permission to conduct the march, Sharma said “We asked why we needed permission to spread Gandhi’s message and they said, ‘Isse mahul kharab ho sakta hai.’” This could spoil the atmosphere.
“There were 150 police personnel and seven to eight police cars along with the sub divisional magistrate,” said Pradeepika Saraswat, a 31-year-old journalist who has been marching with the group.
Six members of the group including Sharma and Saraswat were taken to a colonial-era barracks that functioned as a jail in Ghazipur.
“The conditions were very bad and there were no basic amenities,” said Saraswat, the only woman in the group. “Most of the women I slept next to did not have families to send them proper clothes or undergarments.”
Since then, the group has started the second phase of the march from Varanasi to Kanpur. But what is it about Gandhi that attracted the group, especially at a time when ideas opposing him are on the rise?
“The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and [Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar were active even during Gandhi’s time,” Sharma said, referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent body. “But Gandhi was able to get people to remove this hate.”
Saraswat said that it was the “basic virtues” in Gandhi’s messages that resonated with the group of young Indians. “These young students are so honest about their ideas,” she said. “At the end of the day, they sit down and discuss the march and also quote Gandhi.”
Their pamphlets contain messages about the Independence movement and why it is important to stand up for the families who lost their relatives during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Sharma said.
The protests across India intensified after a brutal police crackdown at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi after students protested against the citizenship legislation on December 15.
Initially, the protests were reckoned to be specific to the Muslim community. But this perception changed drastically over the course of two months since December and it became common to see Indians from various religious and caste communities holding posters of Gandhi, Dr BR Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.
This group, however, is comprised mostly of Hindus from upper caste communities, Saraswat said.
Sharma said that the hate for “the Other” went beyond one’s caste and religious identity. “We acknowledge that we can talk about it because we are from a privileged space,” he said. “But the fear in Uttar Pradesh is much more deep rooted and goes beyond caste and religion.”
Another member added that the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens would hurt everyone. “A lot of people were being misled into thinking that Hindus should not be involved in this,” said 24-year-old Murari Kumar, a student from Banaras Hindu University who was a part of the fact-finding team in Meerut.
Even as the protests have continued for over two months, it is clear that the daily demonstrations and sit-ins are here to stay. But most observers have a common question: what next?
Sharma said the answer to this question was to move away to smaller villages to start a dialogue. He said the conversation around the protests revolved only around satta parivartan or a change in power. That, he said, was not necessarily the solution.
“The slogans [chanted at protests] only call for change in power but this [CAA and NRC] is against all poor, especially Adivasis, Scheduled Castes and migrant labourers,” said Sharma.
Kumar agreed but said that there was need to speak to citizens about poverty and unemployment.
“Sarkar ko mudde par lana hai,” he said. “We need to bring the government to speak about the real issues. We want people to be aware so they vote for good candidates.”
Both Kumar and Sharma agreed that the purpose of the march was rooted in idealism and said that they would continue the march till they reached Rajghat in Delhi. The success of the march was in its continuation no matter how many months it could take for them to reach their destination, Sharma said.
“What must have been going on in the minds of women who were breaking the laws in front of the British officers during the salt march?” Sharma asked. “It is not like Gandhi was giving them money to do it but it was their belief in the idealistic idea [of freedom].”