The privilege to protest

Something to write home about

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I went to my very first protest at 17 in a summery, hot Mumbai. At the time, I was interning as a journalist with the publication arm of a youth media company, and a large group of protesters had gathered by Mumbai’s Carter Road beach, standing in solidarity against the violence inflicted on 16-year-old Junaid Khan, who was stabbed to death on a train home after a shopping trip for popular Muslim festival, Eid. Khan’s attackers taunted him with religious slurs; his skull cap was grabbed off his head and thrown on the floor. I was in awe of everyone around me and of the very idea of a protest — so many people saw the need to fight a horrifying injustice and came together. Almost instantly, a new community was formed. Yet as activists listened to speeches about and chanted slogans for justice for the victims of hate crimes, I remember feeling empowered, though not particularly hopeful. I wasn’t sure why.

Less than a year later, I attended my first Women’s March in San Francisco in February 2019 and finally understood why I’d felt unhopeful a few months ago. At the Women’s March, time seemed to be dismissed entirely; I only realized I’d been protesting all day when I saw the sun set over Pier 39. Throughout the march, no one stopped in their tracks to look for the police. I was part of a massive group of feminists who were complete strangers to me, but I felt so safe. I wasn’t afraid of sudden, violent backlash. No one on the streets stopped to slander our movement; no aggressive arguments with the police could be heard. Even if we weren’t wholly supported by everyone in the city, our protest felt blanketed with mutual understanding and respect for opposing opinions.

In contrast, opposing opinions in India violently clashed once again Monday, over the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that uses religion as the basis for one’s citizenship in India and discriminates against Muslims. The protests were spurred by a tweet from the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kapil Mishra, who spearheaded a pro-CAA rally in the area. As the violence escalated, the Delhi Police resorted to using tear gas on protesters, and among those killed was a police officer. Schools in northeast Delhi were closed by the government for the entirety of Tuesday. I have a number of family members and friends who work in India’s social sector, who rely on the various ministries of the government for permissions and have thus chosen to be less involved in all things anti-government. That morning, however, I opened my social media to see vigils for those who had died in the Delhi violence being circulated by their friends and family members for the first time since the onset of the anti-CAA movement. The heartbreaking pictures signaled how deeply this event had affected the country — even people justifiably afraid of government backlash had torn down the curtains they were hiding behind.

Headlines such as these reiterate the glaring differences not just between protesting in India versus in the U.S., but also in Mumbai versus the rest of the country. In Mumbai, the protest remained peaceful and succeeded in mobilizing masses of people against the CAA, yet the protest wasn’t without measures of caution from the opposition. 

The open field was still barricaded by Mumbai police officers, and the peaceful protest was interrupted intermittently by groups of pro-CAA protesters, yelling slogans of opposition from the rear end of the field. In comparison to protests that have taken place in northern India and especially New Delhi, however, the protest I attended was a secure one. My parents supported me attending the Mumbai protest, but when I brought up the idea of attending one in Delhi right after extreme violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University, we got into a colossal argument. In hindsight, I realize they were scared, and with the state of activists in the country in general (and Delhi in particular), how can I even begin to blame them for their fear? 

Some things, however, I treat with equal importance in Berkeley and Mumbai when it comes to conversing or debating about the political state of India. I am aware of the significance of being wholly, factually correct about the issues I claim to understand and of truly listening to differing opinions because I believe that a deep understanding of one’s opposition is necessary for healthy debate.

That said, along with other politically aware Indians here, I voice my political opinions with more confidence than I would in India. Marching in the streets here does not terrify me the way it presumably worries the students of JNU or Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. I want to urge student activists in Berkeley and across the U.S. to make an active, informed effort to participate in creating change. No matter where we are in the world, it is vital that we stand up, write our opinions in no uncertain terms, walk into the protected streets of our home and hold our heads high.

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected].