Alibaug youth stages anti-CAA protest outside Swiss National Bank, Federal Palace

IIT Delhi researcher undresses down to his shorts to take a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that rioters can be identified by their clothes

Published - December 29, 2019 01:01 am IST - Navi Mumbai

Cold facts: Harshal Kate with anti-CAA posters, and Swiss police personnel (below) who asked him to put 
his clothes back on.

Cold facts: Harshal Kate with anti-CAA posters, and Swiss police personnel (below) who asked him to put his clothes back on.

Even as lakhs of Indians register their protest within and outside the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a 29-year-old youth from Alibaug in Raigad district staged a one-man silent protest outside the Swiss National Bank and the Federal Palace, Switzerland’s parliament building, in Bern, on Friday.

Harshal Kate, a former researcher from IIT Bombay and a Ph.D. candidate in economics from IIT Delhi’s Department of Management Studies, armed with a few anti-CAA posters decided to raise awareness of the new citizenship law during a short research trip to Switzerland. Mr. Kate said Switzerland has its share of problems, but all citizens of the country are given the right to express their opinion.

He said, “Even foreign nationals like me who are visiting the country for a limited period of time are respected for putting forward their opinion. Therefore, I chose this iconic platform in front of the Federal Palace and the Swiss National Bank to register my protest against CAA, NRC and police brutality in India. This place is generally empty and mostly attracts tourists. However, due to Christmas and New Year, it had temporary markets set up with many locals milling around.”

Mr. Kate, who completed his schooling from Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers School in Kurul and pursued his B.Tech from Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur, and M.Tech from IIT Bombay, said he grew up believing in the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

He said, “I believed that desh bhakti [patriotism] is everything and Pakistan deserves nothing but hate. It’s only later that I realised the difference between desh bhakti and andh bhakti [blind faith] and what I had was andh bhakti.

Mr. Kate said his mindset began to change in 2016 when he attended a winter school in Switzerland and met a Pakistani classmate. He said the students were tasked with submitting an assignment on the urban issues faced by a city in their home country. While he chose Mumbai, his Pakistani friend chose Karachi and he soon realised that the two cities faced similar challenges. Mr. Kate said, “I found more similarities than differences. Over time, with more exposure with various people, I learned to dissociate religion from terrorism.”

The same year, Mr. Kate went on to become a research fellow with the Union Ministry of Rural Development and was tasked with creating information and communication technologies. After the Modi government’s demonetisation move, he was asked to design a module for rural people to help them understand how to carry out digital transactions. “I was quite proud of myself for being a part of the module till I saw the real picture. Rural people had way more challenges to face in daily life than understanding the nuances of the government’s Digital India campaign. People were poor and malnourished in rural areas. I realised that I and many others were too privileged to not go through even half of their daily struggles,” Mr. Kate said, adding, “I questioned my ideologies till I got answers.”

Tribute to Gandhi

Mr. Kate said he decided to protest by undressing down to his shorts to express his displeasure at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that rioters and violent protesters can be identified by their clothes. He said, “Another reason why I chose this form of protest was because Mahatma Gandhi protested by giving up clothes. However, we see with time, we are forgetting Gandhi ji . For the new leadership, [Nathuram] Godse is the hero. I wanted to do my bit to pay homage to the father of our nation.”

Mr. Kate said he also staged the protest to express solidarity with students and peaceful protesters in India who have been at the receiving end of police brutality. He said the police used water cannons in Delhi’s biting cold to disperse students of Jamia Millia Islamia and protesters calling for the rolling back of the fee hike in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Mr. Kate said even during his protest, the temperature was 5 degrees Celsius, but 25 minutes into the protest, the Swiss police intervened. He said, “They came to me and requested me to dress up first. They were worried that I would fall ill. They insisted that I wear my clothes first and then discuss the issue. Later, they very patiently heard me out. Their conduct is worth appreciating and the Indian police force can learn a lot from them.” Mr. Kate said the Swiss police expressed genuine concern over the protests in India and said he could continue with his silent protest if he did not disturb anyone in any way.

Mr. Kate said, “It is very unfortunate that the government under Narenrda Modi and Amit Shah is tweaking the Indian Constitution to suit their ideological vision of India. It is in a very subtle way creating division among Indians on the basis of religion and language. Today, it is the Muslims who are being discriminated against. It is evident that tomorrow it will be Christians, Adivasis, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.”

Mr. Kate said so far there hadn’t been any space for such narrow-minded concepts in the Constitution. He said, “It is a step taken by the government to appease its brainwashed vote-bank in the Hindi belt. The NRC has failed as an experiment in Assam. Economically, it shall cost us billions of dollars and will have insignificant returns. Inhumane practices like setting up detention centres inspired by Nazi ideologies are unacceptable and against our constitutional and cultural ethos.”

Mr. Kate, who will be back in Delhi in January, has appealed to students and scholars across the country to exercise their democratic right of dissent and protest without indulging in any act of violence. He said, “Protest loses its value when it turns violent.” Mr. Kate plans to stage a similar protest outside the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on January 1.

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