2019: The year of protest

Updated: Dec 30, 2019, 11:25 IST | Jane Borges, P Vatsalya, Gitanjali Chandrasekharan, Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

Why is everyone on the streets, privileged, middle-class and poor? Ten young Indians, from rapper and techie to adman and adivasi collegian, tell you in their own words why 2019 compelled them to dissent.

Mu'azzam Bhat, 27, Kashmiri rapper and content writer, says listeners find his songs more relevant after the abrogation of Article 370. Pics/Satej Shinde
Mu'azzam Bhat, 27, Kashmiri rapper and content writer, says listeners find his songs more relevant after the abrogation of Article 370. Pics/Satej Shinde

'If you tell the truth, you are called an activist'

Mu'Azzam Bhat, 27, Rap artiste, actor, content writer Stepped out for Abrogation of Article 370 (which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir), August 2019

My life turned on its head this August, when Article 370 was scrapped. I am from Srinagar, and I was then in Mumbai on work. Lines were down and there was no way to get in touch with my family. Every minute of being disconnected became excruciatingly painful. It was sickening. I waited for two days, before I decided to abandon the project half way, and return home. But, in Kashmir, life had come to a standstill. Shops were shut, roads were blocked. We had lost our freedom to speak up.

Mu'Azzam Bhat

I took the call to move to Mumbai, three months ago. I wanted people to listen to us. My rap songs allowed me to describe how Kashmiris live every single day. It's difficult to stay away from your family and homeland. I feel the decision to move has been imposed on me. The circumstances in which I was forced to move, also pushed me to write the song, Mauj Kasheer (My Motherland Kashmir).

My rap journey began in 2011, when I was at high school. At the time, I was not thinking about politics and conscious rap. In fact, my first album was about personal transformation—how when you face a lot of obstacles in life, it makes you a better person. But, if your songs don't make the listener feel something, what's the point of doing music at all?

I thought about those who cannot rap, who cannot put into words what they are experiencing. Because I was surrounded by so much violence, I felt a responsibility. So, whatever I did next, I wanted it to be larger than myself. That's how Kashmir became the heart of everything I write and sing.

My music is about speaking of what is happening around me, which is inadvertently political in nature. For example, if I stepped out, and I saw a boy pelting stones, I included that in my song. This is not activism or politics, it is reality. Activism today, is about speaking the truth. If you tell the truth, you are called an activist.

I have been singing for long, but it's only after the recent unrest in Kashmir that listeners have begun to see why my songs are relevant. Two years ago, I released a song called Criminal, which is about an individual who gets falsely indicted for speaking the truth. Isn't that what's happening now?

As told to Jane Borges

'First sign of trouble and we will protest again'

Yash Marwah, 24, Advertising professional, Stepped out for Save Aarey, October 2019

I joined the Save Aarey movement as a volunteer because it was unfolding right here in Mumbai and I thought I could help. Aarey was not just about the trees that would be cut for the car shed. A Metro station will also come up. The plan was to construct SRA buildings, then a zoo. It will lead to a domino effect. It's never been about just Aarey, it's about setting a larger precedent. It's about cultivating the habit of coming together to save the environment.

Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther
Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther

Had the situation not become so dire, I don't think the number of people who turned up to protest, would have. It is unfortunate, but trees had to be cut for us to realise the urgency of protesting. But, these protests were also the culmination of the voices and issues plaguing the city—whether it is Mahul, or the predicament faced by the tribals of Aarey, the Kolis of Bombay, the farmers who walked here all the way from Nashik, the pride marches that are held every year.

We had so many causes to fight for. I think that when people see their children stepping out on the streets and asking questions, they get inspired to join. My parents were initially hesitant about my decision, but they are supportive now. Twenty nine activists were jailed this year and were I to be jailed, I think my parents would stand by me. We coordinated legal and financial efforts to free the lot that was detained. They are out on bail now.

Participating in the protests affected my work, yes. Had I not gone, I'd have more mental space to deal with my professional life. But I am passionate about what I am fighting for. Personally, my life's goal is not just to make more money, but also contribute to making a better society. On the other hand, meeting new people, coming up with innovative strategies to spread the word about Save Aarey have served to enhance my creativity.

While 2,000-odd trees were felled at Aarey, construction has been halted even as the newly formed Uddhav Thackeray government is looking for an alternate plot of land to build the Metro shed. I'm unsure about how the government will decide to proceed, so my eyes and ears are open. The first sign of trouble and we will protest again. Call me cynical, but I'd rather be aware and prepared, than be ignorant and caught
off guard.

As told to P Vatsalya

'As young mothers, we're concerned about the city we are leaving to our kids'

Tina Nandi, 31, and Anca Abraham, 38, Co-founders of @LYPMumbai (Love Your Parks Mumbai) Stepped out for Anti-Coastal Road campaign by creating online and offline initiatives, April-December 2019

We got interested in the Anti-Coastal Road initiative since our interest in @LYPMumbai (Love Your Parks Mumbai) makes us feel responsible for public spaces. One of the major selling points of the Coastal Road project was that Mumbaikars would be getting new, open public space. However, on examining the data closely, we realised that actually, the road is cutting off our natural access to the ocean and all the open spaces are designed in between highways.

Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Since we have young children, we were concerned about the kind of city we are leaving them to inherit with our rashly planned 'development' projects. The year is 2019 and the warning signs of climate change and rising sea levels are loud and clear. We should be doing everything in our power to take cars off the road, and plan a pedestrian-friendly, cycle-friendly city with excellent public transport, which makes the best of our natural access to the coast.

At LYPMumbai, we believe that local public spaces should be used to gather, learn and celebrate. Social media is essential for sharing information in creative ways, creating visibility and increasing awareness amongst the youth. We also organised an exhibition of Marine Life Photography on Worli seaface, and used social media to amplify the message. The exhibition was born purely out of our amazement at the beautiful marine ecosystem that the waters around Mumbai supports, despite pollution. We felt that people needed to know that there is plenty to be preserved and protected in our waters.

We see our work as more community and consensus building rather than protest or activism. At the end of the day, public projects are meant to be for the people. The government is serving the people, so it is important to take citizens along in all decision making.

In July 2019, the Bombay HC delivered a detailed order to stay the project, which confirmed the many environmental concerns. Climate Central has released a revised projection on the effect of sea level rise: by 2050 millions of people in coastal cities like Mumbai will experience annual flooding.

This information should lead us to urgently re-examine all infrastructure projects that are environmentally destructive. The air quality is getting worse; we know that more roads lead to more cars, so building road-centric infrastructure is not the solution.

While the SC lifting the stay on the project is disappointing, we have faith that the apex court will see the injustice of this project and reiterate the High Court's decision to re-examine the Coastal Road, which is a project that benefits approximately one per cent of the population of Mumbai who are car-users, while the majority who are public transport users are neglected. Not to mention, the grave injustice to the artisanal fisherfolk of Worli Koliwada, who stand to lose their livelihood in totality.

As told to Jane Borges

'None of us are free until all of us are free'

Mridul, 35, Freelance technology professional, Stepped out for Protest against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, November 2019

I am an introvert, but even I think it's important to take to the streets, when the state is being oppressive to the extent of passing laws that delegitimise the existence of one group. I identify as a queer feminist and hold my praxis of the same as responsible for shaping my worldview. I have been a member of the queer feminist collective LABIA for a decade. My feminism stems from challenging patriarchy by questioning gender, and gender roles. Queer-safe spaces in Mumbai and the support from my chosen family have been key to my coming to terms with myself.

Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

My family is extremely supportive now, although their support came in installments. A year or so after my father passed away, I came out as transgender to the rest of my family. My younger sisters sent me rakhis the very next year. My mother and my brother took a while to warm up to my gender identity. But I have been fortunate. A lot of trans people run away from home to escape being mistreated by their natal families, beaten up, from corrective rape and forced marriage.

The Transgender Persons Act does everything, but protect the rights of trans people in India. In fact, it violates their rights. It goes against the spirit and the letter of the Supreme Court's NALSA judgment, which gave us the right to self-determination and spoke about welfare schemes. Self-determination means that I am trans because I say I am trans. The central government has failed to incorporate any of the important changes suggested by the trans community, to address the lacunae in the legislation. These include the presence of a screening committee; coercing people to get surgeries; lack of affirmative action; overlooking families of choice and violence committed by natal families; differential prison sentences for sexually assaulting a trans person. I could go on and on. It's frustrating.

After the Act was passed this year, a press conference was held in Mumbai rejecting it. There was a big protest held outside Dadar station. Currently, consultations are going on within the larger community, about going to court. On a personal level, I have been protesting every day on social media by countering the administration's narrative. I'm speaking to the people around me about why the Act is a regressive one. I have also been participating in talks at colleges. It is a huge burden on the community to constantly explain itself to everyone. But it is necessary.

None of us are free until all of us are free. Solidarity is important. We have to ally with other movements, which may not directly affect us, whether it's surrogacy or sex workers' rights or the NRC. It's all stemming from the same paternalistic mindset of the government—'we know what's better for you'. You can't be selective about what you care for. Now more than ever, it's important that we resist.

As told to P Vatsalya

'What if Gandhi had said, I'm too busy to protest?'

Abhinit Khanna, 31, Independent arts manager, Stepped out for August Kranti march against Citizenship Amendment Act, December 2019

Ever since this government was elected in 2014, we have seen them tactfully muzzle the voice of intellectuals and artistes. The artist community, which I belong to, has been facing problems while making work. If I am to produce something for a gallery, I think twice, because of the fear that has been instilled. Will my exhibition be destroyed? Any voice of dissent is considered anti-national. How can you speak up? Who came up with the idea that dissent is bad for democracy? The authorities have lost the plot and have a problem if anyone across art, music, culture speaks up. Even a veteran actor like Amol Palekar was interrupted during a speech he gave at the NGMA in Mumbai, when the director intervened because Palekar was critical of the government's interference in the daily workings of the gallery.

Pic/Sameer Markande
Pic/Sameer Markande

I was recently in Germany for a residency, and I attended sessions that introduced me to the country's history. I see the similarities now. I decided to join the CAA protest to show solidarity. It was heartwarming to see young people out there. Even music producers who we know as the guys who throw cool parties, were there. They may not have joined us in support on social media, but they were there in person.

It's unfortunate that a lot of prominent artists haven't spoken up. The reason Art World Memes, an Instagram hashtag, started two years ago to call out the bigotry in the art world. Artists want to be woke, but their work has no value if they are not going to be political. They don't want to speak up because they fear that their funding will be cut off. It's the same with collectors. I know of think tanks and labs in the city that have been quiet on the issue. The least they could do is organise readings, bring people together. You can't be apolitical at a time like this.

My effort is to mobilise others via Instagram takeovers. @southasia.art is a handle that targets the diaspora, which has been particularly quiet. I took it over and when they saw our posts, they were surprised at what is going on in India. My father was in the hospital on the day of the protest. He is still not okay. But we need to make time [for what we believe in]. What if Gandhi or Ambedkar had been too busy? What if Ambedkar had said, "I have other important work to do. I can't write the Constitution of India?" If you can't join a protest in person, join in online. Write something or share what others have posted.

As told to Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

'I protested because they threatened to cut down my God'

Manisha Dhinde, 20, TYBMM student, SNDT College, Malad Stepped out for Save Aarey protest, October 2019

We are adivasis—we worship nisarg (nature). It is only natural that it will hurt our sentiments if someone tries to cut down our God. On October 4, I had just returned home in Jivacha Pada, Aarey Colony, after giving a college exam when I was told about the trees being felled for the Metro car shed. I reached the spot by 6.30 pm and saw that the police had put up a barrier beyond which no one was allowed to go. The police kept reassuring us that no trees were being cut beyond this limit, but we could hear the noise from chainsaws. It was evident that the police was lying.

Manisha Dhinde with her father's aunt at Maroshi Pada, Adivasi Gaothan in Goregaon. Pic/Satej Shinde
Manisha Dhinde with her father's aunt at Maroshi Pada, Adivasi Gaothan in Goregaon. Pic/Satej Shinde

At 3 am, they took all of us to different police stations. I was taken to Dahisar and detained. I had another exam on Monday and I knew I should have been studying at home. That's all I could think of initially. But then it dawned on me that if these trees—who are my God and home—don't survive, what is the point? I can give the exam another year, but the forest will not come back once it is destroyed.

After some of the women who were detained, along with other Save Aarey protesters, requested the police authorities to release me since I had an exam, they let me go at 9 am. On my way home, I had to cross the Aarey check naka. A policeman spotted me but I took the kaccha raasta back to my house, quickly freshened up, and left for the exam. I had to once again cross the check naka. The police officials detained me again. I showed them my hall ticket but they called it fake. They said, 'bahut mazaa aa raha tha raat ko protest karne mein?' and took me to Dindoshi police station. Only after calling my exam co-ordinator did they let me go. I barely made it to the exam in time.

The Aarey protests have left me fearless in facing the government. They lie through their teeth. They don't care about nature. If they don't lead by example, how will the masses follow? I don't think people value protests today because despite so many Indians saying they are unhappy, discontented with something in this country, sarkar toh public ko hi maar rahi hai. They [government] do whatever they want. I think change is possible, but for it to happen, we will all have to come together as one and make our voices heard.

As told to Gaurav Sarkar

'When the forest closest to us got affected, we spoke up'

Swapnil Bodhe, 33, Former ad professional Soniya Gandhi, 34, Art director at media firm Stepped out for Save Aarey, October 2019

I have always felt for the environment but didn't quite know how to stand up for my beliefs. But, when the forest closest to me, Aarey, started getting affected, I realised I had to speak up. If everyone stood up to protect the greens closest to them, maybe we could save our planet.
The protest against hacking trees to make way for the Metro car shed was ongoing. The media had been reporting it and there were those who had also gone to court against the decision.

Pic/Satej Shinde
Pic/Satej Shinde

Soniya and I are both sensitive to the environment and pursue a zero-waste lifestyle. I connected with Vanashakti, the NGO that has been fronting the battle to save Aarey. Having just one chat with its director, Stalin Dayanand, convinced me that both Soniya and I had to give this my time. This was in April. Every Sunday, from July to September, we would join a human chain that would snake through Aarey. I also attended the hearings against the car shed in the Bombay High Court. This allowed me to understand in greater detail the credibility of the protesters' argument. The space at Kanjurmarg, which the protesters were requesting the government consider as an alternative car shed site, is not private property as has been portrayed. It is owned by the Maharashtra government.

If you visit Aarey, you'll see 300-year-old trees, innumerable bird nests that they support and the rich life in them. Going inside the forest was the first thing we did after speaking with Stalin. On October 6, we participated in a climate change protest held in Bandra. It was a "die in" organised by XR (Extinction Rebellion). We had all planned to lie down on the street, but the police didn't let us protest. This was right after the trees had been hacked in the dead of the night at Aarey and we were told that Section 144 had been imposed around the city. The fact was that it was applicable only around Aarey. The police made sure we left the area, following us all the way to a coffee shop, and keeping an eye on us. We felt like criminals.

The government has fallen prey to capitalist interests. We couldn't believe that the trees had been cut despite the case pending in Supreme Court. While I was in Pune, Soniya joined the protests on October 4 and was detained along with the others, including very young students. There has been resistance from our family. They are worried about our safety. But if young students, who went out that day pretending they were going to tuition, spoke up, how could we not?

As told to Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

'Earlier, 3,000 protesters would turn up. Now, three lakh do'

Fahad Ahmad, 26 Senior Research Fellow (PhD), TISS Stepped out for Citizenship Amendment Act protest, December 2019

Earlier, I was afraid to raise my voice in public and question the government's inadvertent policies. But now, I feel the most patriotic thing you can do is to ask the government questions and hold them accountable for its actions.

I am from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, and the first person in my family to procure a graduate degree. My father worries for my safety considering that I have been at the forefront of anti-government protests, which is why I put on a brave front.

Fahad Ahmad, former General Secretary of TISS, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia campus on Thursday where he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Arundhati Roy to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the National Registry of Citizens. The peaceful protest was attended by over 5,000 people, including students of the university. Pic/Nishad Alam
Fahad Ahmad, former General Secretary of TISS, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia campus on Thursday where he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Arundhati Roy to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the National Registry of Citizens. The peaceful protest was attended by over 5,000 people, including students of the university. Pic/Nishad Alam

The current generation of Muslims are capable of articulating their problems; no one—neither their own people or people from other religions—can influence them in the name of religion anymore. We are aware that no religion is good or bad, it is what we practice that is good and bad.

Being detained on December 13 for reading the Constitution out loud during an anti-CAA protest in Mumbai evoked a sense of attachment towards it [the Constitution]. During the course of the anti-CAA protests across the country, the love that people have shown for the Constitution has increased manifold. And that's a great thing for the country. Prior to this, the perception was that the Constitution is a document that is for government use, whereas in reality, it is written for us. It exists so that we know our rights and duties. I have started valuing the Constitution a lot more. Even in Delhi, Muslim women who are coming forward in large numbers to protest, are hailing the Indian Constitution and BR Ambedkar. Here on, I think the government will think twice before laying down any unconstitutional rules because it is aware that we, the electorate, have found our collective voice to dissent.

The nationwide discontent has gone beyond the Hindu-Muslim issue. We are on the path to becoming the beautiful bouquet of communities and religions we were in 1947, when people from all walks of life and religions, came together to form India. We are going back to that. Yeh desh bahut mazboot hai. Iske dushman kucch waqt ke liye haazir ho jaate hain…but we have always bounced back, and will this time too.

Yeh kisi Fahad ka protest nahin hai. Fahad pehle bhi protest karta tha aur aage bhi karta rahega. Fark sirf itna hai ki pehle 3000 log aate the, aur ab teen lakh log aate hain.

As told to Gaurav Sarkar

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