The protests across the country have demonstrated that young people refuse to be bogged down by the dogma of schisms and bigotry
That’s not important.” These were the three words that chilled me to the bone. Spoken by my friend’s father, who has known me since I was knee-high, they referred to Junaid, the boy from Ballabhgarh, who was killed on his way back home in a train after shopping for Eid. He was lynched to death because he was wearing a skull cap. It did not matter to him that his grandchild was exactly of the same age. All that was important was that the 14-year-old did not come from a particular community. In other words, he was “expendable.” Many moons after these words were uttered, the enormity is yet to sink in. The insensitivity, a lack of empathy, and to a large extent indifference, if not outright hatred of the minority, is an undercurrent that has been on the rise beneath the calm of the “unity in diversity” of the social fabric since the 2002 Gujarat riots and more so after the current ruling dispensation came to power in 2014. Sadly, among the so-called educated as well or rather, more so. For someone, who despite being religious does not wear the symbols of faith on the proverbial sleeve, it often invites the comment, “But you don’t look like a Muslim.” I am sure, those who do so have it worse.
Until now. For, sometimes, things need to reach a nadir before being rescued and then the only way is up. Moreover, it is never the old guard, which will challenge the existing practices but rather the young, or who the Government would have us believe, the naive. The spontaneous protests that broke out in response to the police action in Jamia Millia Islamia/Aligarh Muslim University and against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) National Register of Citizens (NRC) in campuses across the country have often faced restrictions by the State, which believes that the students are misguided and misled. But any mass movement has the ability to take on a character of its own and what this one does is restore the faith that the idea of an “inclusive”, “sensitive” and “empathetic” country, as envisaged by the framers of the Constitution, is alive and kicking. This was reinforced in every protest that was attended by me.
The first one, at the Police Headquarters at ITO in Delhi, was certainly an eye-opener. The conviction of the group, consisting more than 2,000 people, who had assembled within an hour of a WhatsApp forward doing the rounds, did not perceive my Muslimness as equivalent to otherness, took time to register. The call was to protest against the students at the Jamia Milia Islamia being brutalised. Though I’ve never worn a hijab, that day, the anger in me swelled. Heading out of the house, I decided to tie my stole like one for if people believed I was “different” then I wanted the difference to be on their face. When I reached, along with a cousin, the crush of humanity was daunting but never intimidating. People made way for us. Two women were without a male companion in tow in a city which is not known to be open to the idea of us stepping out alone at night. But amid this crush of humanity, we felt safe. Somewhere along the night, my hijab was back to where it usually is, hanging around my neck for it was no longer important.
Ordinary people, many of whom were not even born when the excesses of 1984 took place or were just children during the 2002 riots, flooded the streets in a show of solidarity and reassurance to those who feel threatened in the current atmosphere, which is rife with fear mongering pursued by the State. It is no longer a question of the survival or citizenship of a community but rather a collective rejection of the bigoted ideas of statecraft.
Young India is reclaiming the objective, which took birth a 100 years ago when Mahatma Gandhi led India’s freedom struggle powered by “inclusive” nationalism as opposed to that of an “exclusive” nation promoted by the likes of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. While the Government seems to be on a path of head-on collision with those ideas as well as the ones incorporated in the Constitution by BR Ambedkar, the youth have decided to make the safeguarding of the same their battle cry. But in their own way, where the old idea is reinforced in their own Instagrammable fashion.
For students have decided to “redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” for a nation that is more “inclusive” of its minorities and backwards. So, at the protests, they sang songs, armed with nothing more than a daphli and the strength of their voices, which they hope would pierce the high walls of privilege and entitlement. And if anyone is mistaken that it is the youth from a particular community that “can be identified by their clothes”, a stern reminder has been sent out by the likes of Indulekha Parthan, a first year law student, who decided to wear a hijab at a protest while holding aloft a banner challenging attire-based identity. Another unknown man stripped off his shirt to display his janeu, the marker of a high-caste Hindu despite the biting cold. More were to join the ranks. People wearing skull caps along with tilaks or burkhas with bindis, asking which of the two offended the onlooker more. This was a unique direction that the protests have taken. It could only be expected from the younger generation to challenge the bigotry that exists on both sides of the religious divide.
But then, the barriers crumbled in more ways than one. At a protest at India Gate, two young girls were distributing chicken rolls “to fellow protesters” since people pooling in their resources to buy food has become the norm as an army does not march on an empty stomach. What heartened me was when at least five of them said, “I am a vegetarian.” The binary of “alleged cow killers” being different and separate without a meeting ground from the “pure vegetarians” was effectively trashed, coincidentally at a site that has the names of Indians across the divide fighting shoulder to shoulder in a foreign land. The marker should not be lost on those who seek to divide us.
At the same protest, I heard the idea reiterated by a young woman while speaking to a TV reporter. She asserted, “Why is there no violence when the protests have mixed communities but the police unleashes its full scale strength at places like Jamia, Daryaganj and Seelampur? It is nothing more than an attempt to communalise the protest, make it a Muslim issue and portray the community as violent. We aren’t buying it. Everyone has an equal claim on the country and not any particular community.”
It is the same thought from Dr Rahat Indori’s poem, Agar khilaaf hai hone do jaan thodi hai (It doesn’t matter if people are against for it is not life), which was written 30 years ago and has gained a new lease of life. At every protest there are always some holding up a banner saying,
“Lagegi aag to aayenge ghar kai zad me
Yahan pe sirf humara makan thodi hai,”
(Writer: SAIMI SATTAR; Courtesy: The Pioneer)