By Maya Ratnam, Sarthak Bagchi, Mary Ann Chacko
December 2019 to February 2020 witnessed widespread popular protests in resistance to India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, and its corollaries, the National Register of Citizenship and the National Population Register (hereafter, CAA, NRC and NPR). As protests spread to different cities and towns, people experimented with different ways of occupying and reclaiming public space, and these protests mutated in form, borrowing from each others’ organizational creativity and symbolic vocabulary. An insecure state was quick to categorize this spread as a contagion, and retaliated with varying degrees of repression. In New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, the sit-in led predominantly by Muslim women became particularly iconic, successfully weathering several attempts to shut it down. Shaheen Bagh inspired similar demonstrations in many other cities, one of which was in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat. In Ahmedabad’s old industrial neighborhood of Ajit Mills, women, children, and men gathered in the months of January and February to mount a landmark peaceful protest against the CAA.
A resettlement colony of about 700 houses, allotted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to the oustees of the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, the Khwaja Garib Nawaz (KGN) housing society in Ajit Mills is home to several hundred workers and small entrepreneurs, the majority of whom are Muslim migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Although drawing its legitimacy and moral force through mimesis of the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, the KGN society residents’ sit-in at Ajit Mills was compelled to innovate according to the specific constraints and possibilities available to that neighborhood. In a highly segregated city like Ahmedabad, with widely prevalent experiences of ghettoization, the KGN society protest at Ajit Mills demonstrated how the specifically “local” character of neighborhoods shape the forms, discourses, and practices of a “national” protest (see Susewind 2017, Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012).
The Anatomy of a Protest
Numerous studies and reports have documented the congealing of neighborhoods in Ahmedabad into enclaves marked by ethno-religious boundaries through repeated enactments of state-backed communal violence (Dhattiwala 2016). Broader processes of town planning, land allotment, trade, and industrial practices have also tended to favor Hindus, while enclaving Muslims in ever shrinking physical, social and economic spaces (Susewind 2017). In social terms, this has meant, as historian Arvind Rajagopal (2010) notes, the virtual absence of any substantive, inter-community interaction and sociality, and a fertile field for the generation of rumor and misinformation. These long-standing polarizations have been exacerbated by the more recent, aggressive remaking of Ahmedabad as a neoliberal business hub, a city that attracts global capital, headlined by major infrastructure and urban renewal projects, notably the Sabarmati Riverfront Development project.
Such projects attempt to gloss over the memories of resistance that Ahmedabad witnessed in the post-independence period. From the violent protests of the Navnirman Andolan in 1974, the anti-reservation protests of 1985, to the recent Patidar Anamat Andolan of 2016, the state’s handling of protests and people’s resistance in Ahmedabad has had a checkered history. Given this historical landscape of resistance amidst restrictions, it is important to consider the recent protests in Ahmedabad as shaped by the forms in which they were allowed and disallowed, and to examine whether they signal the possibility of new mobilities and solidarities across entrenched spatial, social, economic and religious divides.
In Ahmedabad, demonstrations and marches against CAA erupted across distinct geographies which had an impact on their spread and the mechanisms through which they were contained. In the relatively affluent western part of the city, students, activists, academics, and other concerned citizens gathered with police permission outside prominent locations such as IIM-Ahmedabad, Gandhi Ashram and Gujarat University.
Holding placards, protesters stood in solidarity with other protests raging across the country. However, heavy police presence at these demonstrations meant that slogans, songs, and speeches were frequently censored by anxious protest organizers. The police thus prioritized containment over outright curbs, succeeding in muting protest messages while earning kudos for protecting spaces for civic performance in a “smart city.”
In sharp contrast, the protests held in the eastern, Muslim-dominated areas of the city were not viewed merely as demonstrations, but rather as violent disruptions interfering with the maintenance of law and order. For instance, the police denied permission to hold marches and assemblies by repeatedly invoking the “violent turn” taken by protests in the Shah-e-Alam area of Ahmedabad on December 18, 2019.
Both the Shah-e-Alam neighborhood and the KGN society in Ajit Mills illustrate the combination of civic abandonment and heightened police surveillance that Muslim neighborhoods in Ahmedabad have been subjected to since the riots of 2002 (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012). However, much like the Shaheen Bagh sit-in in Delhi, the protest in Ajit Mills by the KGN society confounded categories of peaceful and insurgent protests.
On a cold evening on January 14, 2020, a group of women from the KGN society, supported by young, male organizers, came together to sit in indefinite protest of the CAA. While the privatized space of the housing society enabled bypassing the need for police permission, police constantly monitored and intimidated protesters at the sit-in. In the central square of the housing society, protesters constructed a stage on a high platform, equipped with a microphone. A mosque adjoining the compound sent out the call for prayer. Over many weeks, the stage was occupied by women demonstrators of all ages accompanied by children, while visitors gathered around in the large, sandy, partially carpeted area in front of the stage. The women were joined in solidarity by men from the neighborhood, along with students, activists, artists, and academics from across the city and beyond, under the rallying cry, “Awaaz Do, Hum Ek Hai” (Raise your voice, we are one!). The stage was enlivened with cries of freedom, constitutionalism, democracy, and songs of protest and revolution. On the sidelines, fierce debates raged about the injustice of the NRC, the discrimination that Muslims face in everyday life, the Indian state’s biased carceral politics, and the challenges of keeping the protests “secular.” Such dialogue permitted the flow of information between divergent protestors, enabling them to find and exercise a common vocabulary. From the wings, children watched, absorbed, and sang in the protests, bestowing an atmosphere of carnivalesque conviviality upon otherwise serious proceedings.
Women demonstrators often took the mike, but also listened attentively to presentations by academics, activists, poets, and students on NRC, CAA, secularism, and the integralness of Muslim belonging in India. When asked what inspired them to leave their households and come and sit in protest daily, one protester responded, “If we don’t leave our homes now, soon we will be made to leave this country and go to Pakistan.” Another woman quickly interjected, while pointing to a small room reminiscent of a jail cell located adjacent to the stage, “No! Not to Pakistan, we will be sent to detention camps where we will be crammed into small rooms that look like that.”
Similar anxieties, but also irrepressible hope, were discernible at the immensely popular children’s drawing competitions. Such articulations appeared to challenge longstanding appellations of “Pakistan” or “mini-Pakistan” levelled at Muslim-majority neighborhoods, as well as the common stereotype of Muslim women as veiled and constrained to the domestic sphere (Mehta and Chatterji 1999; Abu-Lughod 1992; Vatuk 2016). For the relocated residents of KGN society, already facing “social disarticulation” (CEPT Report 2018) and embroiled in everyday struggles over housing rights, employment, schooling, health and sanitation, the anti-CAA protests represented a new moment of alignment with a “national” struggle for citizenship.
The women of the KGN housing society occupied the protest space from 3 pm to 5 pm, leaving in the afternoon to cook dinner, and rejoining the protest later in the evening. Lively conversations about household chores, daily happenings, and children’s schooling animated the stage, before one or the other women would rally everyone with slogans or poems they had penned for the occasion. Each night, organizers and protesters made inquiries about dinner, and offered visitors cups of sweet tea that brewed continuously in a corner. Such mehmaan-nawaazi (hospitality) reflected the ordinary forms of sharing and commensality that have long informed neighborly relations in South Asia. The many ways in which women claimed the protest as their own, the unique public/private character of the protest locale, as well as the shared “infrastructures of care work” between men and women (which Ghertner and Govil (2020) also observed in Shaheen Bagh), instantiated a distinct new moment in the relationship between gender, protest, and space.
Specific tactics of rule and governance construct the spectacle of a “Muslim” protest as disruptive and threatening in the public imagination, distinguished from progressive and liberal protests. The Ajit Mills protest by the KGN society residents, with its emphasis on the agentic Muslim woman, constitutional rights, and inter-communal fraternity, powerfully challenged the notion of protesting Muslims as insurgent and sectarian. While these efforts encouraged Ahmedabad residents to overcome their reluctance to participate in a protest organized in a “Muslim neighborhood,” the barrier of geographical distance and the estrangement of these neighborhoods and their residents from the rest of the city prevented civil society activists and student protestors from going to Ajit Mills sit-ins on a regular basis (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012). Nevertheless, we contend that the anti-CAA protests in Ajit Mills were to a large extent successful in creating common goals and vocabularies in a spatially and socially differentiated city. State-backed policies and practices continue to entrench suspicion between communities, inhibiting the formation of fraternity imagined by B. R. Ambedkar (2014), the chief architect of the Constitution of India. Nevertheless, the Ajit Mills sit-in demonstrates how the anti-CAA protests have allowed other forms of solidarity—along lines of gender, generation, class and religion—to emerge, albeit tentatively.
Maya Ratnam is Assistant Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. She is an anthropologist interested in the environment, land and forest rights and space, indigeneity debates, the politics of cultural memory and critical social theory.
Sarthak Bagchi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. He is a political scientist interested in state-society interactions through both formal and informal political networks. He is interested in the politics of clientelism, populism and their electoral impacts in India and elsewhere.
Mary Ann Chacko is an Assistant Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. She is an educational anthropologist interested in critical childhood studies, youth citizenship and the role of police in schools.
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