Amir Ullah Khan and Netheena Mathews
The questions remain unanswered. How did Muslim women launch such a loud protest against the Modi government? Who provided the leadership? Where did the funding come from? Why did this protest succeed, in an atmosphere where speaking against the political party in power is considered anti national? When the police have unprecedented powers to arrest, prosecute and lock up? When courts are apparently adjudicating in favour of the government?
As the anti-CAA protests at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh raged on for more than a hundred days, India witnessed the emergence of a new Muslim public – one that is increasingly aware of their rights and that can rally massive support when their exclusion is imminent. The purely people’s movement resulting in the birth of many Shaheen Baghs across India was led by Muslim women from different sections of society without any ostensible leadership. With the pandemic putting an end to these iconic protests in March this year, public attention that was largely focussed on India’s discriminatory citizenship laws until then has shifted entirely to the coronavirus outbreak.
While the disease may have brought the centre’s plans to implement the laws to a temporary halt, the government has not stopped criminalising anti-CAA protestors, even going after a Sikh manfor organising a langar at Shaheen Bagh. By making unsubstantiated accusations linking the protestors to the February riots in Delhi, and selectively using non-bailable charges for arbitrary arrests, the Modi government is sending out two clear messages. Firstly, that dissenters will have to pay the price– come rain or pandemic. And most importantly, that the citizenship issue is here to stay – even in a post-Covid scenario.
The decade of 2010-20 has been characterised as one of increased pushback and resistance against inequality and injustice across the world. The UN Human Development Report 2019 highlighted inequality as a reason for instability in many countries despite gains in traditional development goals like hunger, poverty and health. Several people’s movements garnered resounding success in highlighting important issues and changing the way we deal with them. Some even overthrew powerful authoritarian regimes, heralding new eras in their countries’ histories.
The 2010s opened with the Arab Spring uprisings – large-scale youth-led protests against an oppressive regime and rising inequality in Tunisia that soon engulfed many nations across North Africa and West Asia; including Libya, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. While some countries successfully quelled these protests with brute force, governments were toppled in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. In fact, a decade later, the Arab Spring is still fanning winds of dissent as civil unrest and demonstrations continue in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Hong Kong and Egypt.
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York’s Zuccotti Park in 2011 and soon spread like wildlife throughout the world was criticised for its lack of nominal leadership and its inability to put forth a set of specified demands. However, the short-lived movement is credited with shifting public discourse towards tackling income inequality, corporate greed and the threats to democracy and economy posed by the super-rich. Acting as a dynamic laboratory for participatory democracy, Occupy Wall Street helped give birth to several splinter movements that has since worked on a range of critical issues, including higher minimum wage.
The India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in 2011 was a defining moment in the country’s politics. While the rising anti-incumbency wave fuelled by the Ramlila Maidan protests marked the beginning of the fall of the Congress, the movement also gave birth to the Aam Admi Party led by Arvind Kejriwal that has since won two elections in Delhi. Even if the Lokpal bill turned out to be a damp squib, the protests spurred citizens into demanding better transparency and accountability in government and governance.
Protests held in the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012 brought in legislative changes in the way sexual crimes are dealt with. With angry citizens taking to the streets in tens of thousands to express outrage over the heinous incident, the then government hurriedly set up the Justice Verma Committee to look into amendments required in criminal law to ensure enhanced punishment and quicker trials in cases of sexual crimes. While the perpetrators of the December 2012 crime were hung to death, India has continued to witness a spate of similar brutalities in the absence of better policing, and systemic and procedural reform. However, public outcry against such crimes continues to bring to light injustices committed by those in power as was seen in the Unnao and Kathua rape cases.
The Black Lives Matter campaign came into being soon after the deaths of unarmed black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown at the hands of white police officers in two separate incidents between 2013 and 2014. What began as an online hashtag to highlight instances of anti-Black racism has now evolved into a global network of over 40 chapters set up at the community level that intervene when violence is inflicted on black communities. After a white Minnesota police officer choked George Floyd to death in June this year, the Black Lives Matter protests became thelargest movement in US history with more than half a million people turning up to protest racism across 550 sites.
The #MeToo movement of 2017 that resulted in Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for sexually abusing actresses unleashed a wave of accusations against men in power in several spheres of life across the globe. While the immediate fallout affected those being accused, the movement helped bring in wide-ranging discussions and action over sexual harassment and safety of women at the workplace.
The 2018 farmers protests in India, Dalit demonstrations against lynching in the same year, Bhima Koregaon agitation as well as the ongoing crisis in Kashmir, to name a few, all have their place in the country’s fight against inequality and injustice. As India lunges into a period of heightened uncertainty with a raging pandemic, unprecedented levels of hostility with its neighbours, an economy ravaged by demonetisation, and reports of gross violation of civil and human rights in an increasingly polarised society, what gives us hope are the gains made by people’s movements in the past decade, amidst great hostility from the establishment.
Amir Ullah Khan and Netheena Mathews are researchers at the CDPP