The anatomy of resistance: how the anti-CAA movement took shape in West Bengal

An effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi set on fire during an anti-CAA rally in Kolkata on Saturday.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Abdul, 37, works at a roadside barber’s shop in Agarpara. He does not know too much about what the NRC is or what it means for him. “I know more now from having walked in rallies, though,” he says.

When I ask him if he will participate in future protests against the NRC, he says nonchalantly, “If need be.”

“Our area is mini India; we have people from every State here. We don’t know any differences,” he says.

Afterwards, he asks me if I am a journalist. “You can draw a cartoon of a great ghost,” he suggests, “Label it ‘NRC.’”

On December 19, Kolkata saw a 60,000-strong rally which managed to bring together people cutting across social, economic, cultural and religious groups.

Deliberations on resistance began in Kolkata in August 2019, a year after about 40 lakh people were left stateless after the publication of the second draft NRC for Assam.

"At first, it was only a vague idea: that we must do something to counter this," said Sukhendu Sarkar, Associate Professor of Economics at Sivanath Shastri College and social activist for over four decades. The 'No NRC' Movement group was formed with an organising committee of seven. On September 5, 2019, the organisation created a public Facebook group and within one month and five days, the member strength rose to one lakh.

The committee adopted several resolutions. "One of them was to not engage political parties or their frontal organisations in their organisational capacity. It was an open call to the people to be a part of the movement, so that anyone could be included" says Mr. Sarkar. "Our movement works on one core principle: that whoever is now residing in India and whose ancestors used to live in pre-1947 undivided India, must be treated as citizens of India."

An anti-CAA rally by civil society groups in Kolkata on Saturday.

An anti-CAA rally by civil society groups in Kolkata on Saturday.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

At first, district-preparatory units were constituted. "We campaigned in 10 districts. In Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Birbhum, Maldah and Nadia, we were able to form district-level units," said Mr. Sarkar. From September to December, the ‘No NRC’ Movement held 84 street-corner meetings and three rallies, and printed10,000posters and 5,400 booklets. ₹1,50,000 was collected in donations. "We place our monthly accounts every month before our members," said Mr. Sarkar.

However, on the day of the rally, the organisers were faced with an unforeseen issue. "After the CAA came into being, people came down to the streets spontaneously throughout the State, and in some areas, incidents of violence erupted. Long-distance trains were stopped, thus leaving out people from two of our key districts — Maldah and Murshidabad," said Mr. Sarkar. These were the two places from where 30,000 participants were expected. Yet, the proportion that the rally assumed belied expectations.

It brought together students, teachers, artists, social activists; from queer communities and hijab-clad women, to jute mill workers. "The funny thing was that we had not been given formal permission for the rally. However, on the 19th, the police started requesting us to hold the rally adjacent to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation office — the same place which had earlier been refused by the administration," said Mr. Sarkar.

Biplab Bhattacharya of Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, who was also a key convener of the December 19 rally, said youth participation at the district-level meetings was unprecedented. "At places like Chanchol or Harishchandrapur, we had 10,000 and 12,000 footfall respectively, which exceeded our expectations by far. With the CAA, the government has firstly managed to insult the sensibilities of the youth, having asked them to prove their citizenship. Secondly, it has hurt the Bengali identity."

Mr. Sarkar agreed: “In Bengal, about two crores have been branded ghuspaithiyas - which is 20% of the State population. Of the 19,06,657 left out of the NRC in Assam, 18 lakh were Bengalis — coincidentally, that is also 20% of Assam’s Bengali population.”

However, while the protests have proceeded more or less unhindered, the situation is far from ideal, said Mrinmoy Sarkar, a member of Progressive Democratic Students Federation, who has campaigned for various protests in the State.

He has been a part of student protests in various institutions across Bengal, including Jadavpur University, Medical College, Indian Statistical Institute, Biswa Bharati, Presidency. On December 21, a rally of about 5000 students was conducted.

While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's declared anti-CAA stance has helped, it is not a situation that brings much hope, says Mr. Sarkar. “When the amendment to the Citizenship Act was brought in 2003, there had been complete political silence. That was the root of today's troubles," said Mr. Sarkar.

Debotri Goswami, member of ‘Feminists in Resistance’, was recently in news after she and her colleagues were attacked while trying to hold a peaceful information campaign in Kolkata's Baghajatin. A man beat them up with bamboo sticks while chanting 'Jai Shri Ram'. Ms. Goswami believes their attacker had been "brainwashed". "When we tried asking him questions after he was subdued, he kept chanting 'Jai Shri Ram'. When people who had gathered around pounced on him, we tried to stop them. We offered him water but he refused it, saying he was sure we had poisoned it."

Even at the face of violence, Ms. Goswami believes peace is still the answer, ideologically and tactically. "People could see we had been singing and distributing leaflets when we were attacked. Solidarity poured in for us the next day," she said.

The way forward

The ‘No NRC’ Movement now aims higher. Their plan of action is to organise resistance through all the 23 districts of West Bengal.

Sukhendu Sarkar calls it a civic resistance expedition. On January 6, 2020, the group called for a meeting to devise a plan of action. Invitation to participate has been thrown open to the masses.

It has now added the cause of the JNU students who were violently attacked by masked miscreants to its agitation.

Ms. Goswami and ‘Feminists in Resistance’ organised a flash mob, comprising 100 women, on January 4, 2020. “The idea was for it to be like what happened in Chile,” she said.

Their members have attended rallies organised throughout the State. In Kolkata, they have targeted the colonies of mostly settlers in the southern region, where they have distributed leaflets and conducted information campaigns.

“We really believe in the power of music to spread messages,” she said. “Of course, we wouldn’t go for Brahma sangeet. We know the masses wouldn’t take to that.” Instead, the group plans to use music like that out of renowned Bengali film ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’.

Mrinmoy Sarkar also said that protests are now planned to go beyond first tier education institutes in the State. On January 8, the organisation participated in a State-wide students’ strike against police violence on students and privatisation of education. Campaigning is expected to reach out to districts like Hooghly and Murshidabad where student response has been massive.

Watch: Anti-Citizenship Act protests rock the country

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 4:38:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/the-anatomy-of-resistance-how-the-anti-caa-movement-took-shape-in-west-bengal/article30542590.ece

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