Over 70 years later, Mumbai witnesses yet another historic uprising

Mass mobilisation in the city for national causes was never dead, it was just dormant. The turnout at August Kranti Maidan is, in a sense, a revival

Published - December 22, 2019 01:20 am IST - Mumbai

Roads to August Kranti Maidan were chock-a-block

Roads to August Kranti Maidan were chock-a-block

“Time nahi hai ” (I don’t have the time) is a phrase you may hear often in Mumbai. Even if Mumbaikars do not say so, it is evident in the city’s pace.

The city has acquired a reputation for being self-absorbed, where making ends meet and commuting for many hours a day has consumed much of people’s mindspace. This dizzy whirl leaves no room to align with a cause. A candlelight march here (mostly in SoBo, as the critics say), or signing an online petition there has become the norm. While Delhi and Kolkata would erupt in response to a national issue, Mumbai, it appeared, was asleep. ‘Mumbai is not an aware city,’ ‘Only commerce clicks here’, ‘It doesn’t even come out to vote’, they said.

On December 19, something moved. They came by the thousands — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, men, women of all hue and denomination — to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). After the Quit India movement in 1942, August Kranti Maidan was witness to yet another historic uprising.

People from all hues of society stood by each other as they gathered to protest at August Kranti Maidan.

People from all hues of society stood by each other as they gathered to protest at August Kranti Maidan.

So who or what drove the change? The protest, steered as it was by non-political activists, shows that “in Mumbai, there’s a very strong urge for citizens’ united action,” said Sudheendra Kulkarni, founder, Forum for New South Asia, an advocate of peace between India and Pakistan.

“The spirit and size of Thursday’s protest was unbelievable,” he said. “Mumbai has been known for Bollywood and as the country’s financial capital. It must now recover its place in national politics, and in the imagination and thought leadership of India,” he said.

A slice of history

India’s most liberal city wasn’t always ‘apathetic’. The city’s spirit of protest has a vibrant and nationally-rooted past, often ignored in popular discourse, said Lara Jesani, a human rights lawyer. “Due to increasing globalisation and neo-liberal policies, and its growth as a financial capital, the past few decades saw Mumbai become silent on issues of national importance. But at the same time, the spirit of Bombay has always been alive,” she said.

The spirit that Ms. Jesani talks about, is “characterised by a fierce protection of freedoms.” The CAA, “with its threat to the cosmopolitan fabric of the city, reawakened it,” she says.

Mr. Kulkarni pointed out how the city had produced “giants of thought and action” during the freedom movement — leaders like Mahatma Gandhi (who spent many years in Mumbai and famously said, “Bombay has never disappointed me”), B.R. Ambedkar (the Father of the Indian Constitution who spent years in central Mumbai) and Lokmanya Tilak (who began his 10-day community Ganapati celebrations as a unifier for the freedom movement from this city). The Indian National Army agitation against British rule too was carried out here. No other city has contributed as much to the freedom struggle in terms of people’s participation, he said. “The political action was in Delhi but the people’s movement was always here.”

In the 1970s, public meetings of the Janata Party post Emergency caught the public imagination. And then there were the trade union movements by Left leaders, and by Datta Samant and George Fernandes. “The atmosphere was electric,” he said.

Working class movements, though, have dissipated with industries shifting out of the city. “We also don’t have student elections and politics like in Delhi,” said social activist Feroze Mithiborwala.

Winds of change

Over the next few decades, the method of protest as well the reasons for it evolved.

“It has now hit the mailbox,” said Anand Pendharkar, founder, Sprouts Environment Trust, which played a pivotal role in the protesting the cutting of trees at Aarey. “People don’t necessarily start out as activists, it just snowballs into what we are seeing now. The excessive debates on television, seeing others participate, makes you want to go as well.”

For Mr. Kulkarni, two things stood out on Thursday: the return of student activism in Mumbai besides the reclaiming of Mahatma Gandhi as a unifier of the nation, and of peaceful protest. “It was a demonstration of social unity, of Mumbai as a microcosm of India.”

Also, the Muslims, who protested in large numbers in the 1980s against the Shah Bano verdict or Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses , came out for a much larger cause this time. “They have been inactive and passive for the past six years,” said Mr. Kulkarni. While the CAA and NRC do concern them, the difference this time is that they were not protesting alone. Hindus and Muslims stood together, in a city torn apart by communal violence and terror attacks. “The protest has recovered the patriotic and secular spirit of the city,” he said.

The recent political developments in the State where the right-wing Shiv Sena joined hands with parties like the Congress and Nationalist Congress party, which profess secularism, has fostered the spirit of unity, said Mr. Kulkarni. “It was unthinkable even six months ago.”

A city that has an uneasy relationship with the police came away with praise for the force. Both Mr. Pendharkar and Mr. Kulkarni spoke of how a two-way trust had developed between protesters and police.

Attendees praise the Mumbai Police

Attendees praise the Mumbai Police

Bollywood celebrities, known to maintain their distance from controversial national issues, joined the protests online and on the ground. Sushant Singh, actor and general secretary, Cine and TV Artists’ Association, believes they were also touched at a personal level and spoke out despite threats. “A celebrity should not have to bear a greater moral obligation to come out and speak about issues of national importance, because we all bear the same debt to society. We should not come out because we are celebrities, but because we are humans,” he said.

‘New age protest’

But perhaps the most noticeable thread running through the protest was the participation of the youth. For Mr. Pendharkar, this is the “new age of social activism.”

The youth believe they have a voice, he said. But there is also a larger reason. “This generation has no choice. For instance, it’s no longer climate change, but a climate crisis. There is a level of finality, theirs is the risk generation.”

Fahad Ahmed, former student leader at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, too, said youngsters are the ones with the most at stake. “State-sponsored violence doesn’t scare students anymore; fear is dead. The revival of student politics is driving the spirit of protest in the city,” he said.

Social media platforms that bind the youth have had a huge role to play in the changing nature of protests. They have not only allowed for the creation of communities that take on the responsibility of the protest, but have also made dissemination of information easier. “Earlier, we had to push people to get involved but now people are on the streets on their own, no matter who calls for the protest. Anger and disenchantment are driving them to the streets. There is a shift in the national fabric of protest of the country and Mumbai is reflecting that change,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Ms. Jesani said the youth now realise technology and social media (as mediums of protest) are not enough. “Students coming onto the streets makes others in society feel morally responsible and obligated to join while providing strength to smaller communities to protest.”

Mr. Kulkarni hopes political parties understand the scale of what is happening. “The young are not going to be swayed by divisive issues. They have aspirations for better governance and development in the true sense of the term.”

Out of this student activism, he said, a new crop of leaders will emerge, “who will take India into the next decade.”

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