A Barricade Diary: the Protests Against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act



With Narendra Modi’s government, India has seen a surge of Hindu nationalism that has further marginalized the 200 million Indian Muslims. Sarover Zaidi provides us with a personal account of the ongoing protests (in Delhi and elsewhere) against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Bob Dylan, Desolation Row (1965).

In order to understand what the CCA is about, I asked social anthropologist Maya Ratman (Ahmedabad University) if she could summarize the situation. Here is what she wrote: “The anti-CAA protests in India have been ongoing since the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 12, 2019. The Amendment to India’s existing Citizenship Act of 1955 essentially permits persons adhering to six religious faiths (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, Jain, and Christian) who have citizenship of either Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, but are residing in India without appropriate documentation, to apply for Indian citizenship through a speeded-up process. In effect, the Act offers a fast track to citizenship for all persons residing in India ‘illegally,’ except those who are Muslim. The implicit rationale for this discriminatory provision in earlier iterations of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, was that non-Muslim citizens of Muslim majority neighboring countries suffer from religious persecution. In a progressively bizarre set of exclusions, this law posits India as the natural refuge of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, but not Muslims — or for that matter, non-Muslims from other countries, such as Tamils from Sri Lanka. The enactment of the CAA sparked immediate protests, as many correctly read it as explicitly targeting Muslims in India- and requiring them to ‘prove’ their citizenship.

The CAA must be read in conjunction with a proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is a register meant to weed out those who are non-citizens by means of isolating those who cannot show the required documents as proof of belonging, residence, territory, etc. Those deemed non-citizens, through an as-yet unspecified bureaucratic process, are likely to be lodged in ‘detention centers’ although, following the protests, the government has denied this. Thus, vast numbers of citizens have interpreted the CAA as a filtering exercise for the NRC, safeguarding some while throwing many others, predominantly Muslims, and poor Muslims at that, into a condition of potential statelessness. Two other pertinent factors are to be borne in mind when trying to understand the CAA-NRC imbroglio: one, the updated requirements for the National Population Register (NPR), a register of the usual residents of a country, that the government asserts is part of its routine Census exercise. The data sought by the NPR now includes categories such as the birthplace of parents, and also contains clauses that allow the officiating bureaucrats to mark people as ‘doubtful citizens.’ The second fact is that the NRC exercise has already been implemented in the northeastern state of Assam, resulting in an ongoing humanitarian crisis, with millions of residents now declared stateless (Hindus as well as Muslims).

Zaidi Funambulist (1)
Barricades in a stretch of about 5kms, from Jamia road to Shaheen Bagh. / Photo by Sarover Zaidi (Dec. 2019 – Jan 2020).

The inducting of religious criteria into a hitherto secular citizenship law, and the potentially disastrous consequences, especially for Muslims, the poor, and other vulnerable groups, have been a lynchpin of the protests. This glaringly discriminatory provision sparked immediate protest from a students belonging to Jamia Millia Islamia, a prominent university in Delhi, and the subsequent brutal crackdown on Jamia students has snowballed into what is now a nationwide protest against not only the CAA, but also the NRC and the NPR. The linkages between the CAA, the NRC, and the NPR have been stridently denied by the Hindu majoritarian BJP government currently in power. The BJP casts any critique of the CAA, and especially the protests as ‘anti-national,’ and has unleashed in response, a brutal crackdown on students, citizens, minorities, women, and intellectuals.”

January 30, 2020: As I return from work today, hoards of Delhi Police and riot control police fill the road to my house. There are about 11 buses of the riot control police and this time they are carrying guns and batons. It’s martyrs’ day, a day that commemorates Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu nationalist, 72 years ago. A sudden loop of history seems to happen down the road by my house, where peaceful protestors walking to the Gandhi memorial are attacked by a young Hindu nationalist. The police fill up the area; it becomes hard to distinguish the police crowd from the crowds protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Seven buses full of riot police are parked on the main road, four fresh checkpoints/barricades have appeared within a distance of 200 meters from this incident. 

Something there is that does not like the barricade. 

Something there is that will not let you protest. 

Zaidi Funambulist (2)
Barricades in a stretch of about 5 kms, from Jamia road to Shaheen Bagh. / Photo by Sarover Zaidi (Dec. 2019 – Jan 2020).

December 19, 2019: People come out to protest. Those who have never protested also stepped out, took the day off, or just went from work to the protest. The main call for protests was to assemble at the grounds in front of the Red Fort, also known as the Lal Qila Maidan. The Red Fort, a national monument, used by the Indian government as a venue to celebrate national independence, witnesses today another face of the nation. Phone networks are jammed as we approached the building, the main road was barricaded, the police have fashioned a whole new sub-city of barricades, as protestors move into the main square in front of the Red Fort, barricades guided them into buses meant to take them to detention. In three hours of standing at the Red Fort barricades, I see hundreds of groups of protestors coming in towards the protest grounds and being driven towards buses. The police and the state use virtual barriers, physical barriers, and legal barriers on this day. Suddenly the archaic law, section 144 of the Criminal Code, is imposed in several public places in Delhi. The barricade and the policeman are its loyal executors.

(Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code [CrPC] of 1973 authorizes the Executive Magistrate of any state or territory to issue an order to prohibit the assembly of four or more people in an area. According to the law, every member of such “unlawful assembly” can be booked for engaging in rioting. Section 144 is imposed in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger of some event that has the potential to cause trouble or damage to human life or property. The Section generally prohibits public gathering. It has been used in the past to impose restrictions as a means to prevent protests that can lead to unrest or riots.)

Something there is that wants to protest, that wants to form collectives, that wants to march on the street.

Something there is that will not let you protest. 

Zaidi Funambulist (3)
Barricades in a stretch of about 5 kms, from Jamia road to Shaheen Bagh. / Photo by Sarover Zaidi (Dec. 2019 – Jan 2020).

Delhi was always a barricade-city, some visible, many invisible ones. There were the early barricades of old Delhi, keeping it apart from New Delhi, the latter planned and built by Edwin Lutyens for the elite. In it was the gated community, which appropriated public roads, as private “colony” roads, to protect the mansions of the rich; there were migrant colonies, the ghetto colonies, and villages trying to become city, but could not; and there were desolation rows as re-settlement colonies, demolition colonies, incremental colonies. All of these worked with each other through barricades and gates that people knew not to cross. 

Something there is that can now see the barricades. 

December 20, 2019: At midnight, we go towards the Delhi Gate, Daryaganj, and three points of entry are barricaded. We squeeze through the third one, under the police watch, and walk fast into the cold night. The police have beaten and detained 49 men in that area earlier in the evening. We are gathering outside the police station to call out these detentions. A shield of people against the police barriers. We are trying to interpret the law, to fight for those beaten and detained. We are there to reach out but we don’t know how far we can go. 

How many barriers do we need to cross to think of freedom? We must think of freedom in this barricaded city. 

January 6, 2020: It’s 4pm. About 10,000 people have already gathered at the protest site at Shaheen Bagh. An old couple is making its way through the crowd, to the “Detention Center,” an art installation by a local artist. The artist has welded together a frame which looks like a jail and hung on it images of famous Indian revolutionaries who were jailed. He is pointing to an imagined future when India could become a country with large detention camps for those who cannot produce authentic papers of citizenship. 

We will protest, we will barricade the government. 

January 12, 2020: We walk holding candles. We walk a road we have never walked before. At first, there are possibly a hundred people walking, but slowly the protest march folds in a hundred others. People join in from different areas of Delhi, from their houses, mohallas, colonies. For the past few weeks, a group of protesters walks from the Jamia Millia Islamia Gate 7 to Shaheen Bagh. Shaheen Bagh has become that infinite crest of protest, a mimetic figure for protests across the nation, the only zone where people can feel their freedom. It is January 12 and the protests are about to complete a month. New kinds of people are coming to protest: those who have never protested before, those who have never been to this part of town, those who only grew up here. We are walking with candles, the evening is cold; if freedom came to desolation row, it must look like this. New maps are being set, new routes for protesters, for navigating barriers, for experiencing freedom and the nation. 

Zaidi Funambulist (4)
Barricades in a stretch of about 5 kms, from Jamia road to Shaheen Bagh. / Photo by Sarover Zaidi (Dec. 2019 – Jan 2020).

Some people are managing the traffic with flag signals, giving out candles. We are all in it, we are all in the protest march, we are the traffic and we are the jam, but we are walking briskly, keeping up with others who have moved ahead. We make friends as we walk, we break into song sometimes, separated from friends, we meet others — we meet those we would never meet within our gated colonies, in our barricaded city. A group of young men pull out a huge Indian flag held across by some twenty of them high above their heads. I am under the flag sometimes, sometimes outside it. It feels like a funeral, it feels like a wedding, it feels like walking with friends, and with strangers. We jump over puddles, pacing ourselves to the flow of humanity on the road, we let others into the protest, we who are inside it, so that even those watching from roof tops feel like they are inside it too. We are a walking wall of people singing songs of freedom, we are a barricade against the barricades of the city. We are a wall of freedom. We are steering through these makeshift forms, these barricades, our freedoms. ■