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Artwork at Shaheen Bagh, where women are protesting against the CAA. (Photo: ©Mustafa Quraishi 2020)
Artwork at Shaheen Bagh, where women are protesting against the CAA. (Photo: ©Mustafa Quraishi 2020)

The ‘Uncle, please sit’ moment of Indian democracy

In a country where children are brought up to toe the line and respect authority, extraordinary images of young women have become de rigueur these past four weeks

If you attended any of the ongoing protests across India against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), or watched students on social media and television give the government a Ted Talks-quality lecture on the Constitution and the values it enshrines, you have probably noticed two things: 1. This generation of students is amazingly articulate. 2. They are fed up and angry.

In a country where children are brought up to toe the line, respect authority and be unfailingly polite to their elders, extraordinary images of young women—standing up to armed policemen, holding a press conference a day after being beaten on the head with an iron rod, refusing to back down or keep quiet when heckled by neighbourhood uncles wagging their fingers—have become de rigueur these past four weeks.

“Who are you to give us lectures?" one middle-aged gent in a crowd of aggressive men yelled in frustration at a student of Jyoti Nivas College in Bengaluru after he was unable to shout her down. Her back faces the camera in the video of this incident but I could have sworn she rolled her eyes.

Pardon the Game Of Thrones reference but we are firmly in the “Uncle, please sit" moment of Indian democracy. In this new street theatre, anti-establishment millennials such as Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad have been cast in the role of village elder. The rest of us are merely the protest chorus; we track the mostly organic, leaderless protests on social media and show up with our just-turned-adult children for the crowd sequences, proffering support and samosas.

Nineteen-year-old student Amulya Leona took the microphone at a protest in Bengaluru earlier this month and said she would never show the government any documents to prove her citizenship. She asked the audience to pledge the same. “We were born here and will die here. This is our land, we will never ever prove our citizenship to you. We will never show any documents to you," she said, according to one report in The Hindu.

Every few days a new fearless hero emerges and she’s usually someone we don’t know at all. Her body language is unyielding, her fist is raised, B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and Rohith Vemula are her inspiration, her brow is furrowed and “in her eyes the strength of JNU’s fight is visible", as Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said about Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Aishe Ghosh.

The anger of our students is directed at the two most powerful politicians in this country—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah.

Unlike most commentators, industrialists and other assorted guardians of the privileged set—this columnist included—the students who have taken centre stage these past few weeks don’t practise self-censorship. They don’t think twice before calling out the culprits. Their speeches highlight the way the Muslim community has been demonized in recent years. Their every sentence emphasizes one point: You can’t fool us with your divisive playbook.

Their truths and observations are not preceded by disclaimers such as the ones offered by industrialist Rahul Bajaj when he aired some “concerns" to Shah at a recent corporate awards event. Bajaj prefaced his questions with a long-winded, “…wrongly or rightly I maintain my reputation…it’s very difficult for me to praise anyone…I was not born that way…I was born anti-establishment…"

Students, it would seem, are not bound by the rules applicable to other subjects of the state. Their rebellion unfurls proudly in a tricolour that’s now draped over most leading universities in the country. Their frankness inspires protest virgins and makes senior citizens dance in public gatherings. They have even pushed more representatives of the usually diplomatic Hindi film industry than ever before to raise their voice against the government.

Just a few weeks before these protests unfolded, Bajaj was cheered for speaking up. Now his words pale in comparison to the unapologetic, confrontational yet humorous language of the ongoing protests. The lyrics of the insolent student rap song Baat Kar that urge the powers tobe to initiate a conversation with students rather than sitting in their ivory towers perfectly illustrate this: Neeche aa, upar se neeche, aasman ka tu nahi hai zameen se hi hai juda, sunne ko tere in kano main jagah hai kya?….aaja neeche, mere pass, mujhse baat kar.

Women across the world have acknowledged and embraced their anger since 2017, when the #MeToo movement ripped open toxic workplace cultures and relationship patterns that we had suffered silently for years. The movement was a catalyst for women to express decades of pent-up rage and it resulted in many books too, such as Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her and Rebecca Traister’s Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women’s Anger.

Now it’s the turn of students to let it rip. They have enough reason to be angry. The CAA, the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) proved to be the perfect tipping point to release the rage that has been building up against the rapid taking away of freedoms on university campuses across the country. These past few years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student organization is alleged to have perfected a lethal formula of violence, intimidation and name-calling (anti-national, seditious, pro-Pakistan) to censor ideas and free speech across campuses.

Millennials watched their already-precarious world get shakier every day. And when nobody seemed to be able to come up with a fix-it for noxious new India, they said: Uncle, please sit.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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