Protestor to patriot
It is within the confines of dissent that we make true sense of patriotism which bestows upon us the duty to stand for what’s right
For the longest time, riot and protest meant essentially the same thing to me. I associated the concept with hordes of angry people marching on the streets, the smell of burning tire and a need to feel afraid of them. Azaadi meant azaadi from India, the need to break us into tiny little states such that we existed divided as we did in the past. The most suitable manner to express one's dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs was to sigh when you read the newspaper, have angry dinner table discussions and watch late-night television debates where people talked over each other. Anything beyond that was unnecessary, uncouth and those who crossed the line beyond such meaningless expressions of disapproval were necessarily miscreants (even, anti-nationals!) — basically, people who were ungrateful and hated our country with their inelegant protests, and deserved to be 'thrown-out' (no idea where?). Growing up with a knee jerk subservience to authority was instilled in schools, and I grew up with the childish notion that only those in the power knew best, and they did the best!
In India, entering a University is coming of age, where one is encouraged to think and question — especially so, in a law college where sophistry is always challenged. In my first year of college itself, my fauji-background of a default patriot was automatically challenged as something seemed terribly amiss and unfair in its 'Indianness', as an eighteen-year-old, understood it. Suddenly, many of my friends and acquaintances of a certain religious denomination felt acutely vulnerable, targeted and helpless, and my instinctive curiosity to understand the government's position, reasons and oft-contradictory statements, left me unconvinced and very concerned.
Finally, I found myself amongst a few thousand people at India Gate protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens. Other than my own group of still wide-eyed college students who were driven by our own convictions and concerns, we were suddenly a nameless mix of multiple identities that makes 'India'. Some were Leftists, some were Delhi University, JNU, IIT or Jamia, some were LGBT, some were Dalit rights activists, writers, professors and independent journalists. No one was paid, herded or dressed to be present, the diversity was the colours of India. One of the first placards that caught my eye, read reassuringly 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism'! The air was rife with slogans like 'Inquilab Zindabad', tricolor was waved justifiably and the infamous Azaadi, returned — only to beseech azaadi from ignorance, insensitivity, unconstitutionality, division and hatred. Then someone movingly read the Preamble in English and Hindi, explaining each word in its solemn dignity and inclusive spirit. Again and again, we vowed never to let divisive politics separate us on the basis of religion. This was certainly not the protest that my mind was earlier conditioned to accept, even as a remote possibility.
In hindsight, the insipid and thoroughly uninspiring Civics and Political Science classes in school that were given to rote learning sprung forth and made so much sense. The majesty and sacredness of the Indian Constitution and the necessity of asserting the Constitution came alive in three hours, like years in school never taught. I stood moved, responsible and thoroughly proud of being an Indian. While news of violence at other protest sites did the rounds, I have too much respect for the heft of the 'uniform' to ever condone violence against the same. Again, the haunting lament of 'dissent is the highest form of patriotism', gripped — the dissent was against a partisan thought, not against the state and certainly never against the soldier!
The safety of protests at India Gate with the swarm of media vans, opposition leaders and public gaze ensured that the disciplined protest made its mark, without any unruly or unbecoming situation — but thousands who had braved the bluntness of the state, away from the prying eyes in Delhi at the risk of their life and limbs, remained unsung. What we essentially debunked was that these protests were limited to minority neighbourhoods (identifiable by people who wore certain kinds of clothes?), limited institutions or by professional protestors — this was probably our first answered call-to-conscience for many of us, beyond the temporary sting of reading the newspaper headlines. We were repeatedly advised that it wasn't about 'us' and yet we understood the shameful indignity of 'us-versus-them' and truly felt the 'unity in diversity', that we used to parrot so insensitively and unmindfully. The banal school projects that had robotically insisted on Ambedkar as the architect of the Constitution or memories of school assembly recitation of 'We are one' or 'Ekta Mein Bal Hai', made me realise my numbness, and that also said something about our education system. I now make sense of the beautiful experiment of 'Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic' and implore its significance for India, as proposed by our founding fathers.
For a nation that was born as a result of non-violent protests, it is ironic that the state (which supposedly prides itself on nationalism) would condemn peaceful protests with various attributions, some very personal, disturbingly-misinformed and others, deliberately small-spirited. This hurts when all we sought was asking to uphold the power of the Constitution (Article 14). Having personally witnessed individuals getting stopped and questioned for carrying the Tricolour and posters of Gandhi and Ambedkar as 'political symbols', I choose to disagree with the stance that participating in protests is necessarily political, riotous or worse, seditious. I acted based on my own conscience against acts that, I believe, short-sold the morality of our Constitution, demonise minorities, legitimise fear and disdain contrarian opinions. Sadly, in a country that is caught in its worst economic situation with an underperforming economy — protest against further polarising and therefore distracting moves, is not a political stance, it is a moral obligation. Indeed, my limited tryst with the protest made me, even more of a responsible and concerned patriot.
Sanah Singh is a first-year law student. Views expressed are strictly personal