For over seven decades after World War II, the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu hardline group which sought inspiration from Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, played little role in post-colonial India. That changed in 2014 with the election of Narendra Modi to the office of Prime Minister. Elected into a second term of office in 2019 with a majority, Modi, an RSS acolyte and his ministers have professed interest in turning India into a Hindu religious state, much along lines of the Islamic religious state of Pakistan.
To the public, two key pieces of legislation betray this intent: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which aspires to grant citizenship to Hindu and non-Muslim refugees victimized for their faith in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), which mandates that all individuals residing in the country prove their Indian citizenship to the government.
Fury over the government’s passing of the CAA into law in mid-December has seen protests spill over into streets across all cities in the country. But whereas in other places, police brutality has assumed a new norm, the southern Indian city of Bangalore has stood apart. The police commissioner here has expressed his determination to preserve the city’s reputation as a bastion of peace, civility and economic opportunity
1 The First Fracas, Dec 17, 2019
Anxious to prevent any public show of dissent against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) into law, Bangalore police, acting on intelligence gleaned on social media that students from various colleges are preparing to hold a protest at Town Hall, move to disrupt young people wherever they are found in the area.
In these first hours of a neophytic, un-cohesive desire to dissent, scores of students are ejected from the area, and in many cases “detained” - police-speak for holding individuals without actually arresting them or charging them.
In the above photograph, a group of women students who had intentions of protest at Town Hall are hauled into a police van on the orders of Inspector Tanveer Ahmed (standing at right) of the Silver Jubilee Park Police Station. The police crackdown proves a shock to the undergraduate students, many of whom are reduced to tears.
Although worried that the police would seize my camera, I managed to get a few frames of this scuffle of a student organizer from Mount Carmel College being manhandled into the police vehicle. There were so many images in the hours which followed that when this photograph appeared across six columns in the paper, I initially didn’t recognize it as mine.
With a pro-government rally of suspicious timing allowed to take place at Town Hall at the same time as the planned student rally, many of the students instead headed out to Freedom Park, some three kilometres away, to stage their sloganeering there.
Top Below: Nineteen-year-old Mirika, from Mumbai, makes her feelings for the CAA clear. She said that her anti-CAA sentiments clash with her family’s pro-BJP stance. “I have had to exit several family WhatsApp groups as a result,” she said.
2 Things Start to Change, Dec 19, 2019
After their first brush with the student protesters on Tuesday, December 17, the police realize that opposition to the CAA is growing. Under orders from their superiors and the state government which is allied to Prime Minister Narendra Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), police impose Section 144 on the city. This is an archaic British colonial-era law prohibiting more than four people from congregating in the streets.
The police are optimistic that the threat of “detention” will deter even small groups from forming. They are badly mistaken. Scores of activists and ordinary citizens descend on Town Hall at 10 am. Among them is the famed international writer, Ramachandra Guha, known for his sweeping biographies of M K Gandhi. Guha, who is giving an interview to a TV channel, is the first person to be manhandled into a waiting police van. Then, the police begin a vicious crackdown of isolated clusters of people in and around the streets at Town Hall.
Top: A 44-year-old Muslim professional carries a T-shirt that reads “India against CAB” - in reference to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) when it was still a proposed bill. The man told me that he is a seventh-generation Bangalorean. “Now, they [the BJP] think, they can bring in these laws to question our citizenship. They have no right,” he said.
Within two hours, an estimated 150 people are in police custody - where they are politely treated to cups of tea and a full lunch. The contrasts of India are on full display on this day.
However, the police crackdown around Town Hall and the imposition of Section 144 collapses when over 1,000 people, gathered by a coalition of 30 NGOs descend on Silver Jubilee Park, a stone’s throw from Town Hall, proving immune to police efforts to remove them. Their refusal to budge from the area, prompts senior police officers to admit that their attempts to curb dissent have failed. In a remarkable show of restraint, however, the police commissioner refuses to authorize force to clear the protesters.
3 A Strong Show of Support, Dec 22, 2019
Finally, five days after the start of the CAA protests, the first large-scale pro-CAA rally is held in the city, at Town Hall. Organized by the RSS, an estimated 800 people attend, the majority of them men.
The government’s sanction of the rally is evinced by the surprise appearance of a 28-year-old rising star in the BJP, Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya, who declares that his party is creating a new India.
“This is an India which will have a $5 trillion economy. Your namby-pamby secularism, that you people have built so far will not work anymore," he says.
He also declares that those opposing the implementation of the CAA are “puncture-wallahs”( tire-repair folks) - a veiled reference to indigent Muslims. The comment triggers a social media uproar.
In the crowd is a quartet of recent graduates, all 22-years old former army and air force brats, brimming with optimism about what the CAA hopes to achieve. "I think there is a lot of misinformation about what the CAA is about. It is, at its core, a humanitarian gesture," one says.
When asked if they were concerned if the dual legislations would disenfranchise minority groups in India, they looked thoughtful. “No, but if it did, we too will go into the streets and protest,” they said.
Top Below: Curiously, the divisive and politicized language of the liberal-conservative divide of the United States is becoming increasingly used by Indians on either side of the religious-secular issue, as this pro-CAA supporter’s placard illustrates.
4 A Counter Rally, Dec 22, 2019
No sooner had the RSS-organized pro-CAA rally ended on December 22, when another demographic began to filter into the Town Hall venue with placards condemning the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Young, twenty-something, college-going and primarily female, this 900-strong crowd, clustered in front of the building with alacrity. A number were art students from a famous art college some miles away, others were white collar professionals interspersed with blue collar types, in contrast to the predominantly working-class crowd which comprised the earlier pro-CAA rally.
Among the prominent speakers invited for this anti-CAA rally was Harsh Mander, a former civil servant who had quit his profession after becoming disenchanted with government service. Now, a social activist and professed follower of the Gandhian ideal, Mander has been conferred with a supernatural status to sainthood. At one event, I had watched as a sixty-something had gushed to him: “Mr Mander, to me you are the next Mahatma Gandhi,” - a statement which made Mander flinch.
Still, the aura of being India’s potential next savior hung around Mr Mander as he spoke at Town Hall. When he castigated the Modi government has trying to alter the nature of India, he reminded the crowd that the BJP hailed from a movement which never played a part in the Indian freedom struggle against the British empire - to cheers from those assembled.
On the following day, the BJP called up my paper to criticize us for publishing a photo of the anti-CAA rally, while declaring that the focus should have been on the RSS-organized event which they claimed had more bodies.
An art student from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology draws the scene as he sees it at Town Hall. “Azadi,” a Hindi meaning “freedom,” is increasingly being used to link the protests to the 1930s-1940s Indian freedom movement.
5 A Candle for Support, Dec 24, 2019
A day before Christmas Eve in the coastal city of Mangalore, 190 miles east, came with violence and bloodshed, when police opened fire on an unruly mob protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Two people died.
By now, an anti-CAA collation had sprung up in Bangalore, made up of various social NGOS, activists, students and private citizens. Angered by the reports of the deaths, coupled with initial reports that the police opened fired without provocation, this coalition planned a candle-light vigil for the victims. But by the evening of Christmas Eve, camera footage showed that the police had indeed been provoked and so, and so vigil appeared to lack its central heft.
Nevertheless, the vigil for the victims progressed as general protest against the CAA, with scant mention of police actions.
Within the 200-strong crowd which gathered at a postage park near the city’s race course for the vigil was a 12-year old boy who was with his mother. Vasanth, a seventh grade student, said that he was opposed to the CAA after he read an article about the implications of the law while on a field trip to Goa.
6 A Forced Parade, Jan 2, 2020
On the morning of January 2, a Thursday, I was told by my editors about a large pro-CAA rally happening in the northern part of the city. To my surprise, I discovered that students from four, all-girls government colleges were participating.
Their march cut through six-kilometers of roads in Malleswaram, one of the densest neighborhoods of “old” Bangalore, turned heads and disrupted traffic. Among them was this bus conductor, whose vehicle happened to be stuck at a junction because of the march.
The rally was organized by the youth wing of the RSS, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which in a day or two afterwards became notorious for an alleged attacks on college students at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.
Meantime, back in Bangalore, over 1,500 students swept through the streets, shouting slogans such as "student power, nation power, long-live ABVP," and carrying 80-metre long Indian tricolors. The National Secretary of the ABVP, Harsha Narayan, described the students as active supporters of the rally interested in spreading truth and awareness about the CAA. However, several students said they had been pulled from classes at the last minute and pushed into participating in the rally - a fact corroborated by a senior source.
It turned out that the opposition Congress Party would do the same thing in another part of town a week later.
7 In Solidarity, Jan 16, 2020
In the weeks after the eruption of the anti-CAA protests, the ardor for the scale of protests which marked the start of the anti-CAA campaign had largely cooled off. Then, on January 9, a confrontation transpired between BJP party workers and students of Christian girls college in the southern part of the city. This incident, coupled with an incident of intimidation of students at the Sristhi Institute of Art, Design & Technology north of the city, plus the attack on JNU students in New Delhi, appeared to indicate a trend of right-wing groups increasingly targeting students.
Rallies were launched to condemn violence against students, which attracted only a few hundred participants. At one particular rally on January 16, I spotted this distinguished looking elderly lady who was possessed of a gravitas that appears to manifest itself among members of the old families of the city.
She appeared embarrassed when I spoke to her, saying that she did not want any publicity for attending the rally. Eventually introducing herself as Ila, 86, she explained that she had attended a few rallies because she was appalled at the violence against students.
“I rather like young people, and I don’t want to see them harmed. That is what prompted me to come to these rallies,” she said, adding that she has seen the three era of India - colonial India, independent India and now, the BJP’s India.
She did not want to speculate on the direction the country was headed.
8 All-Night Objective, Jan 17, 2020
A plan by student groups to start a 48-hour protest at Freedom Park collapsed four hours later at about 10 pm, under threat of police arrests and charge-sheeting.
At 6 pm, a small, two-dozen-strong group of students initially gathered outside the Park to go ahead with the protest even though there was no police clearance.
Twenty-two students made their way into the Park and began holding placards against the CAA. Police reacted swiftly by blocking further students from entering the park by blocking the entrance with barricades, forcing a larger group of about 60 students to conduct a sit-in protest on the sidewalk outside the park. In some, way, the police reaction was nonsensical. Freedom Park had been built to host protests, and in addition, the Supreme Court had approved the holding of 24-hour protests.
By 10 pm, however, facing the threat of outright arrest and criminal charges being filed against them, student leaders moved to disperse their people.
9 Ten-million Rupee Protest, Jan 21, 2020
Angered by the government’s refusal to withdraw the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and other divisive legislations, traders at the city’s historic old market decided to close down all business for a day and gather for a protest at the market.
The resulting shut-down allegedly cost the market community Rs 10 million in lost revenue. But it was a price worth paying, explained S A Imtiaz Pasha, the General Secretary of the Trader’s Association for Ibrahim Sahib Street, which participated in the closures.
Pasha, who said that he owns three shops, added his personal losses for day at almost Rs 80,000 ($1,122). “Despite the financial hardships prompted by the closures, we are prepared to repeat the exercise if the government does not repeal the CAA,” Pasha said.
“We don’t care about salvaging our businesses at this stage, because the stakes are so much higher. We are protesting against laws that may affect us through the generations. We are fighting for the future of our children and for their right to stay in this country of their birth,” he added.