30, Dec 2020 | CJP Team
Article 19 (1) (a) and (b) give all Indians the right of free expression and peaceful protest. Clearly, however, these fundamental freedoms are irksome to governments increasingly impatient with the people’s sovereign voice. This has however not stopped Indians, even in the midst of a crippling lockdown following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year we saw an eruption of anti-CAA/NPR/NRC protests from December 2019. 2020 was no different with these spilling over into the New Year with all sections of Indians exercising these basic rights over several issues when the executive stopped listening to the voice of Indians.
2020 began on a high note of Citizens Voices, Music and Protests. All of that was to change however as the impact of the Corona Virus hit us. Hunger, deprivation, high prices and unemployment stare us in the face. In the midst of this, in 2020, Indians raised their voices, defied the restraints and restrictions and creatively came together in protest. Social media was used to amplify the cause as a largely supplicant electronic and print media bowed to executive pressures.
2020 could well be remembered not just as the year of the pandemic and lockdown but the year that Indians took the Constitution and Laws to the Streets. Here is a rich recount, a testament to the variety of protests that shaped this year.
CAA-NRC-NPR protests (Pan-India)
Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 gained strength from December 2019 and spilt into January and February 2020. A growing number of Indians questioned the wisdom in granting citizenship on the basis of religion. They opposed the CAA’s anti-Muslim sentiment that came with added package of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR.) The government policies were opposed on two levels:
- Hundreds of protesters, especially students, held numerous protests across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bhopal, Lucknow and Jaipur. These gained ground as violent repression by the Delhi police at the Jamia University (December 15) and Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU) on January 5 led to a spate of protests in over 300 colleges and universities across the country. The historic Shaheen Bagh protest spontaneously grew following the police attack on Jamia as the women of the community stood their ground in support of their young leaders. Shaheen Bagh inspired over two dozen such women-led sit-ins all over the country.
- Assam protesters rejected citizenship to any refugee or immigrant, regardless of religion, fearing its effect on the state’s language and culture (November 2019 and continued in 2020). They claimed the law violated the Assam Accord, a separate policy formulated by the state and the central government on migrants and refugees. Assam is also one of the few states that continued to be vocal about CAA despite the coronavirus lockdown. On June 8, the state police home quarantined around 33 anti-CAA protestors for allegedly violating lockdown norms. Even the Supreme Court agreed that the CAA affected Assam and Tripura differently because it offered citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis who entered India prior to 2014.
Save Mollem protest (Goa)
Goans, especially the younger generation, have been invested in persevering with protests against three major infrastructure projects in and around the regions of Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary in the state.
Locals fear that two of the three projects will lead to chopping down of 59,024 trees in the two areas. Moreover, the sanctuary currently supports over 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 44 fish species, 45 reptile species and 27 amphibian species. Goans fear that the projects such as the plan for railway network expansion between Margao and Sanvordem will destroy the state’s ecological biodiversity.
This protest has stood apart from other 2020 protests in its use of social media, creatively.
Instagram pages like Mollem Memory Project and MyMollem Goa started online campaigns to raise awareness about the various clearance projects. The movement continues to agitate against the development projects. Most recently more than 30 youths sang and danced against environmental destruction on December 19, 2020 to denounce the government policy that is going ahead with these projects.
Workers of India protest (Pan-India)
Labour Unions protested as early as June 2020 against the Central and many state Labour Code bills that have been undemocratically brought in, without debate, during the Covid-19 Pandemic to dilute over 24 labour laws that guarantee basic dignity of work and the right to tripartite negotiations to Indian workers. Unions staged protests and denounced amended labour codes by the central government again on July 3, 2020.
Later, 10 Unions called for a general strike on November 26 that was answered by around 25 crore people, arguably one of the biggest such protests in history. Many political parties also supported the strike that demanded withdrawal of all anti-worker labour code changes and similar anti-farmer laws. Workers also demanded monthly direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 to all low-income families, free grain ration for people in need, expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, prevention of privatisation of public sector, among other things. Workers have also gradually joined their protests with the farmers’ movement to form a single joint struggle of Indian peasantry.
Adivasi protests (Hill states of north India)
Indigenous communities in Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal agitated and, in some instances, won the battle against the oppression of the forest department in 2020.
Kol adivasi women in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh protested and saved local Forest Rights Committee’s Chairman from an unlawful arrest on November 1. Members surprised local officers by the legal knowledge they learnt during training programmes with Citizens for Justice and Peace.
In other parts like Bihar’s Kaimur area, adivasis faced a harsher fate on September 11 as police opened fire on a peaceful protest by the Kaimur Mukti Morcha demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, scrapping of the 1927 colonial Indian Forest Act and tiger reserve plans and the recognition of Kaimur Valley as a Scheduled area with immediate administrative reorganisation.
Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand’s Shivalik range continue to oppose eviction and rehabilitation of tribal communities as per their rights in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Gujjars observed back-to-back protests between the months of October and November.
In Lilasi, Sonbhadra, Adivasi women protested to push back attempts by the Forest department to claim land and at Lakhimpur-Kheeri (Dudhwa National park area) sustained agitations on community land claims under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been maintained through July-November 2020.
Similarly, nearly 100 Adivasis also protested against the Deocha-Pachami coal mining project that could result in the destruction of tribal settlements on September 9 outside Mohammad Bazar police station in West Bengal.
Teachers protest (Maharashtra)
Aspiring teachers observed widespread protests in 2020 to demand the completion of the teacher recruitment process for government schools. In Maharashtra, close to 1,95,000 candidates who had applied for school teaching posts in December 2017 were disappointed to see the process come to a jarring halt due to COVID-19.
Those hopeful of some development after three years of wait complained that officials used the pandemic as an excuse to delay the process further. And so, on July 10, many candidates burnt photocopies of their degree certificates to demand the recommencement of the process while keeping with social distancing guidelines. Their efforts were finally rewarded on December 7, 2020 when the Maharashtra government finally called for the resumption in the recruitment of education workers in primary, secondary and higher secondary schools.
Joint protest for COVID-19 warriors (Pan-India)
Following the sudden coronavirus lockdown, workers Unions declared a two-day strike on August 7 and August 8, 2020, to protest against non-availability of PPE kits, insurance as well as risk allowance. Community-level workers such as anganwadi (premier care) workers, Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, complained of a lack of safety kits and proper payments while contact tracing. Workers threatened a jail bharo demonstration on August 9, 2020 unless their demands for proper compensation and provision of PPE kit were accepted. Additionally, they also demanded financial aid for workers’ families.
Hum Agar Uthe Nahi Toh (If We Do Not Rise) protests (Pan-India, virtual)
Over 400 human rights bodies came together on September 5, 2020 including women’s groups, LGBTQIA collectives and human rights organisations to raise a united voice against the attacks on dissent and various issues faced by marginalised sections of Indian society. Artists, workers and civilians assembled in the virtual and real world to show their support for the freedom to express dissent. While some serenaded the freedom to dissent early morning during a Facebook Live, others such as Adivasi organisations observed physical protests to voice persisting attacks by administration. Some individuals circulated songs and motivational videos. The activities were aimed at encouraging women-led communities on several issues including public health, access to justice and education. The campaign was conceived after observing an “unprecedented attack” on India’s democracy and the citizens’ constitutional rights.
Justice for Hathras victim protests (Pan-India)
October 2020 came as a month of reckoning as people from different parts of the country were compelled to face the heinous case of sexual assault on a 19-year-old Dalit girl by four upper-caste men in Uttar Pradesh. More than the cruelty of the crime itself, that local police forced the family to cremate her body without the completion of proper rituals attested to two undeniable truths in India: that gender, caste and poverty play intersectional roles in oppressing socio-economically backward communities; that Indian society as a whole has failed the Dalit community.
Protests erupted across various cities in India as well as in foreign countries such as Canada. Jantar Mantar saw mass protests despite the persisting scare regarding COVID-19. Most notably, the Valmiki community, to which the young girl belonged, observed their separate demonstration to decry the atrocity against the community’s daughter. Sanitation workers belonging to the community in Agra and Firozabad declared an eight-day strike from October 3, 2020 onwards.
Although some people criticised metropolitan protests for shifting the focus on Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and party politics, the continued dissent against the Hathras incident has certainly impacted people’s perception towards crimes against minority communities.
Farmers protest (Pan-India)
The farmers movement has become the most impactful peasant struggle of 2020 –and indeed over decades– with at least 250 farmers’ Unions coming together to oppose the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm Services Act, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act.
While protests did begin in Punjab around August, the agitation began its first mass protest on September 25 after calling a Bharat Bandh to oppose the three laws. Later on, farmers marched towards Delhi on November 26 despite Delhi government’s attempts to keep farmers from entering the capital city. However, this plan to stop the movement failed as the conflict garnered more support for India’s annadaata (food grower). The situation has now resulted in four to five farmers protest points across India such as various Delhi border, the Shahjahanpur border, and the Bengaluru protests in Karnataka. Farmers have said that as protesters enter 2021, the struggle will only intensify. As we near the year end there is little sign of any breakthrough though the government has agreed to meet with over 40 farmer organisations on December 30.
Free Father Stan Swamy protest (Pan-India)
Jesuit priest and human rights activist Father Stan Swamy was arrested on October 8, 2020 at Namkum, Ranchi in Jharkhand by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for alleged involvement in banned CPI (Maoist) activities and receipt of funds for furthering Maoist agenda. He was also booked for falsified charges of ‘suspected involvement’ in the Bhima Koregaon violence of 2018 though he was nowhere present.
However, hardly 24 hours after the news of his arrest, supporters of the Adivasi activist announced a physical protest in his hometown followed by a hunger strike on October 13. Christian groups from different parts of India protested against the arrest of the 83-year-old man during COVID-19. Organisations such as Citizens for Justice and Peace, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties and hundreds of concerned citizens voiced concerns about the Jesuit priest who was even deprived of his sipper bottle despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Recently, Fr. Swamy received a sipper bottle and a straw from jail authorities much to the relief of supporters who viewed the gesture as a Christmas miracle. Nonetheless, the movement to demand justice for Swamy and similarly accused continues.
Nurses AIIM protest (New Delhi)
Nearly 5,000 nurses at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) declared an indefinite strike from December 14, 2020 until their demands regarding salaries and job recruitment are met.
A letter sent by the Nurses Union of Delhi on AIIMS on November 13, listed 23 unresolved issues for discussion. The primary issue among them is the issue of salary payment as per the Sixth Central Pay Commission that assures Rs. 18,460 per month to nurses. However, workers complained that they only received Rs. 17,140 as their monthly payment. Further, nurses also condemned the gender reservation quota that stated 80 per cent of nursing job are reserved for women. They also questioned the system of hiring nurses on contractual basis through outsourcing when earlier candidates had to sit for exams. Aside from these issues, the protesters also demand pension schemes, cadre restructuring, improved hospital accommodation and changes in job description.
In response, AIIMS Director Dr. Randeep Guleria approached the High Court claiming that the “inappropriate and unfortunate” protests would bring the hospital to a standstill. While the court rules in favour of the hospital, the Union said members would continue to voice their demands.
Student protests (Pan-India)
While students have participated in almost every major protest of 2020, the abuse and politics hurled at the youth deserves a separate recognition. Right from the January attacks in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on January 5, 2020 when 50 armed masked men attacked students and teachers in the campus to the death by suicide of a scholarship-holder at the Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College for Women’s hostel on November 3, students have protested against numerous systematic and administrative attacks. Through 2020, dozens of students of the JNU have not been allowed to access their accommodation by authorities who are seen as increasingly sectarian.
Many student activists, who participated in anti-CAA protests and other agitations, such as Safoora Zargar, Umar Khalid, Asif Iqbal Tanha have also been charged with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) with Khalid still under imprisonment.
Students of Ambedkar University Delhi continue to protest against the scrapping of fee waiver policy since September. The full to partial fee waiver served as a saving grace for members of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Persons with Disabilities (PwD.) Similarly, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) also voiced Other Backward Classes (OBCs) complaints on November 12 at a public hearing in Hyderabad University regarding non-teaching staff, students and the implementation of OBC reservation in the university.
Protests against National Education Policy 2020 (Pan-India)
The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) first protested against the NEP 2020 August 10, 2020 deeming the new policy an anti-reservation document. Later the All India University Employees Confederation (AIUEC), declared a nation-wide protest September 30 wherein more than three lakh non-teaching staff promised to participate and submit a memorandums demanding the withdrawal of NEP 2020. The All India Forum for the Right to Education (AIFRTE) has also been vocal against its opposition to the NEP 2020.
Modern doctors protest (Pan-India)
Thousands of doctors answered the Indian Medical Association’s (IMA) call for a nationwide withdrawal of modern doctors from non-essential medical services for 12 hours on December 11, 2020 to denounce the central government’s decision to allow Ayurveda doctors carry out 58 surgical procedures.
The organisation condemned government notification issues on November 19 that allowed post-graduate practitioners in specified streams of Ayurveda to learn surgeries such as excisions of benign tumours, amputation of gangrene, nasal, cataract surgeries and other general surgeries by amending the Indian Medicine Central Council (Post Graduate Ayurveda Education) Regulations, 2016.
Reports stated that not only doctors in Delhi but IMA doctors’ units in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra also participated in the strike. According to PTI, over 30,000 doctors in Gujarat protested against the government decision. The Resident Doctors’ Association of AIIMS Delhi issued a solidarity statement and asked the Centre to repeal the notification.
Vadhavan sea-port protest (Maharashtra)
The fishing community in Maharashtra’s Dahanu region recently engaged in aggressive protests against the Vadhavan port project undertaken by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Maharashtra Maritime Board. Protests started by local tribal villages in the area oppose the construction of a port in the ‘golden belt’ that offers local fishers with a variety of produce.
The community demonstrated and shutdown of fish markets in Thane, Palghar and Mumbai districts on December 15, 2020 to display their extreme aversion to the project. Members of various fishing unions claimed that the project should never have been sanctioned without the permission of local gram panchayats as many tribal communities depend on the seashore for their livelihood. Considering themselves, “farmers of the sea” fishers also lent their voice to the Bharat Bandh protests on December 8 while voicing their own grievances at the same time.
(Compiled by Vallari Sanzgiri)