20, Dec 2019 | Suhel Banerjee
Till 4:30 they came in trickles, duly filling up a small area around the stage, ambling in the December afternoon sun. Many of them were activists who knew each other from other protests. Some of them were Muslims wearing the kind of clothes Modiji probably identifies them with. Slowly and surely, the event threatened to turn into yet another Mumbai protest – attended by a small group of passionate people who believe in Mark Twain’s classic adage, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” My heart sank in disappointment.
I am of course partly wrong. In the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide, thousands had marched in Mumbai. Who can forget the sea of red when the farmers walked 300 miles to Mumbai. A ‘Not in my name’ march against mob lynching a few years had also swelled with surprise participation of common people, some of whom had gotten off BEST buses to join us. Surely the unprecedented move of religion based citizenship would bring more people out into the streets? There had been whispers in many circles of spontaneous participation. People were saying, ‘oh yes, I plan to come’ in private conversations. So where were they?
And then it started. A deluge of people jostling and pushing and laughing and shouting out slogans, eager to find their way inside the August Kranti Maidan. They were students, office goers, shopkeepers, members of social organisations, political leaders, actors, filmmakers, couples with kids, obviously Hindus and obviously Muslims – citizens all, who came singing against the tyranny of Hindutva. They came in waves, as if sent by the sea – young Indians who came to reclaim the idea of India itself from bigots. They had printed their own posters, painted their own signs, came up with their own slogans. They were irreverential and relaxed. It was a sight to behold – young men and women on the street taking on mighty old men who sit on their pedestals with their mass propaganda machines and nuclear bombs and pliant officers. The republic was revolting against its emperor. They clapped and whistled, gave each other a hand, managed crowds themselves and stood patiently in queues. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The organisers had been mobilising support. Surely there was anger at how the police had stormed Jamia and AMU. But this was unprecedented. What was happening?
Perhaps the ideals of democracy and secularism run deeper than we think they do. Perhaps the cliches of ‘Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai’ and ‘unity in diversity’ does mean something to Indians. And even if ‘secular’, the much maligned word itself means different things to different people; the idea of secularism itself is ingrained within us. I know this sounds optimistic. But I cannot help but feel this way because the overwhelming message from the people who came to protest was not just against CAA or NRC. It was a message of unity and harmony. People were marching in solidarity. Poster after poster screamed against division on religious lines, against fascism, against Hindutva. It was as if the people were speaking in one voice – do not divide us, we are one.
Seventy Seven years ago, at this very spot Mahatma Gandhi had given his famous mantra – Do or Die sparking off the Quit India movement. Ninety two years ago, Ashfaqulla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil (and thakur Roshan Singh), Muslim and Hindu, thinkers and poets, friends and rebels had been hanged to death by the British Government in the Kakori conspiracy case. Will we be able to say that in December 2019 we created history? That will depend on what happens next.
So what happens next? There are no easy answers. But after yesterday’s protest, it is now over to mass leaders, philosophers and artists amongst us who will have to collect these voices in a way that will truthfully speak of the times. They (we?) will have to lead fearlessly and articulate the fundamental ideas of being an Indian. Historically, Brahminical forces have always been in conflict with free thought and this fierce Hindutva onslaught is no different. But the articulation of what it means to be an Indian has also taken many forms and found many voices over the last two thousand years. From Buddha to Kabir to Nanak to Tukaram and Basavanna; from Gandhi to Ambedkar to Bhagat Singh, the idea of who is an Indian is as old as India itself.
And now, the people have spoken. They have shown the way. They have expressed their willingness to lead the way. And if the leadership is unable to unite and match the energy of the people, unable to give voice to their emotions, it will be swept away by the tides of history.
And if it does, August Kranti Maidan may very well be rechristened December Kranti Maidan.