NEW DELHI — The print shop in Jabalpur, his hometown, is owned by an elderly Sikh man named Kawaljeet Singh, who employs one Akhtar Khan as his graphics designer, said Deepanshu Sahu, a 26-year-old lawyer from Madhya Pradesh. He calls them bhaisahab and bhai.
When Sahu told them that he was going all the way to Delhi to join the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Khan waived his fee to design the vinyl sheet Sahu would wear at the protests. He even gave him 200 rupees off on the printing charges. Together, they searched the internet for images of Ashfaqulla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil, freedom fighters who were hanged by the British colonists in 1927 on 19 December, which happened to be the day of the demonstration in Delhi.
“He did a good job of designing the sheet. This was important to me because I was planning to only wear the sheet at the protests,” said Sahu in a conversation with HuffPost India. “Akhtar bhai said, ‘You are going to do a good thing for all of us.’”
Days before leaving Jabalpur, Sahu had heard Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s now infamous comment that those protesting against the CAA “can be identified by their clothes.”
The vinyl-sheet costume, designed by Khan and printed by Singh’s shop, would be Sahu’s protest against Modi’s blatant attempt to communalise the dissent against his government’s unpopular law.
“I was hurt by what Modi ji said. When India’s Prime Minister is judging Indian citizens by their clothes and hurting them by his words, I wanted to show him that our clothes don’t matter,” Sahu said. “That is why I wore only the vinyl sheet and stood in the cold in Delhi.”
“If you are going to make a bigoted remark then at least be clear about it. Why is the PM misleading the country with these disturbing messages? That is what hurt me. I felt stirred. I wanted to do something,” he said. “I was going with a message for Modi ji. Jabalpur is far from Delhi. I was going to Delhi to deliver my message so that it would reach Modi ji.″
Sahu paid 500 rupees at the print shop and bought a sleeper class ticket for 497 rupees on the Sampark Kranti Express that covers 900 kilometers from Jabalpur to the national capital in 15 hours. Days after attending protests and demonstrations in Delhi, Sahu travelled by road to West Bengal to join up with a similar demonstration in Kolkata.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its representatives have sought to portray the nation-wide anti-CAA protests as the actions of a disaffected few. Sahu’s long journey suggests the opposite: the demonstrations against the CAA have forged unlikely connections and networked diverse segments of Indian society, united by their resistance to Modi, and his home minister Amit Shah’s divisive agenda.
Sahu, for instance, felt an instant connection in his conversations with the Delhi students he met at Jantar Manta.
“They were confident. I was impressed by people with higher education. Now, I feel like doing my LLM and getting a PhD in Delhi,” he said. “What I noticed was that so many people had read up and come to the protest. They knew why we were all there.”
“I was going with a message for Modi ji.”
Sahu’s train was two hours late when it reached Nizamuddin Railway Station on 19 December. He checked into a budget hotel near the railway station after making sure it had a television with more than one news channel.
The patchy internet network on the train had made it hard for him to watch the news on his mobile phone. He was dismayed to find the Delhi Police had banned demonstrations and shut down the internet service on mobile phones in the city.
Four days earlier, on 15 December, the Delhi Police chased student protestors inside Jamia Millia Islamia University, throwing tear gas and beating them inside the campus. The Uttar Pradesh Police attacked students inside Aligarh Muslim University, that same day.
Sahu was livid at the brutal crackdown on students inside university campuses. The protests in Delhi had been largely peaceful and led by students. He longed to join them. He was stunned at Modi’s characterisation of the protestors.
“I felt stirred. I wanted to do something,”
The CAA offers a path to Indian citizenship to “persecuted religious minorities” — Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, but not Muslims — from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. For many Indians, this new law makes religion the basis for obtaining Indian citizenship and violates the secular principles on which India was founded.
The new law, its many critics argue, must be seen in the context of a proposed nationwide NRC, an exercise that would identify people living without papers in India. Non-Muslims left out of the register could presumably apply for sanctuary under this new law, but Muslims would suffer.
The widespread demonstrations against the CAA mark the first time that Indians across the country have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest against the Modi government.
While opposition parties have largely supported the protests, BJP-ruled states have responded with violence — none more so than Uttar Pradesh, where at least 22 civilians have been killed, mostly likely by the state police force.
Sahu says that he is horrified by the videos of the police crackdown in UP, devastated at the loss of life, bewildered by the differing accounts of the violence in the news, and conflicted by what to believe.
He does have a question about the damage done to private property by policemen in UP, as videos have revealed. If the Yogi Adityanath government is recovering money from people suspected of damaging public property, he asked, who would pay for the deliberate destruction of private property by policemen.
Sahu finds it disheartening that people he meets only talk about the violence in UP when the conversation turns to protests against the CAA. Nevertheless, he plans to continue with his protests.
“The peaceful protestors, the students, the youth are the face and back of the protest,” he said. “We are and have to remain the movement.”
“The peaceful protestors, the students, the youth are the face and back of the protest.”
Dodging Delhi Police
In Delhi, Sahu bought a white stick and black glasses to pretend that he is visually impaired to dodge the policemen.The white stick, he reasoned, doubled up as the staff of the Indian flag which he intended to hold at the protest site.
“I was swinging the stick side to side and walking when I saw any policemen. I could not risk being stopped and questioned when I was so close,” he said.
The Delhi Police had stopped metro services on several routes on that day of protests. The baggage scanner inside the metro station, Sahu feared, could have detected the vinyl sheet and the Indian flag in his backpack. He decided to take the bus.
“I thought if there is any trouble with the police, people will be there to help. I thought someone might even take a video that not just my friends but other people would end up seeing and calling for my release,” he said.
What his friends would think about him leaving to join the protests in Delhi was the question that Sahu pondered the longest over. He does not support the BJP, they do. He does not believe the negative reports that sections of the media file about the students in Delhi, especially Jawaharlal Nehru University, they do.
“Few are anti-Muslim. Most of them just like Modi,” he said, speaking of his friends. “They are not communal but I think they support Hindutva more.”
It was getting harder to talk politics with friends who did not share his beliefs, Sahu said. They consciously avoided topics that might cause flared tempers and emotions. That is why did not tell anyone about his plan to protest in Delhi.
“Not everyone talks to everyone about everything these days,” he said. “There are some things that you have to do on your own. I had to do this on my own.”
“There are some things that you have to do on your own.”
Jantar Mantar — Awkward?
Sahu says he has political ambitions. He meets with members of political parties like the Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party when he is in Jabalpur. “I have figured real power is in politics. The way to change things is through politics. I want to use that power for good,” he said.
But on 19 December, when he went into the public convenience next to Jantar Mantar to change into the vinyl sheet, Sahu felt strangely powerless.
“Tears came into my eyes as I was removing my clothes and changing into the sheet. I felt unsure of what I was doing. Was I crazy to go and stand without my clothes in the street? Was it going to make any difference,” he said.
“Tears came into my eyes as I was changing into the sheet.”
The first few minutes after he found a spot at Jantar Mantar were nerve-wracking. He was terrified the women protestors might object to his bare back and legs. He was nervous about the police having the same problem. But as time passed, he relaxed.
“The whole situation felt very awkward in the beginning. There were so many women around. I was really afraid someone would say something. I was afraid the police would say you cannot stand here in this state,” he said. “But then things changed. People came to talk to me, to give food, to give a hug, and to just say thank you.”
“People came to talk to me, to give food, to give a hug, and to just say thank you.”
Ravish Kumar, the famous NDTV India journalist, interviewed him at the scene of the protest — which was good. But saying the same thing over and over into a host of cameras and camera phones got tiring after a while, Sahu recalled.
“I don’t think I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “Everyone asked the same questions. I wanted to say so many things but all they ended up asking was my name and where I’m from and then a line or two about why I am here.”
His parents, who were not aware of his plan, saw him in video clip of Ravish Kumar’s news show which his mother’s friend sent them on WhatsApp.
Sahu’s father is a farmer who lives with his mother, a social worker, in another district in MP called Narsinghpur. He grew up in Narsinghpur before leaving to study law at Sagar University.
Sahu had expected his parents to be overcome by worry and then get angry.
“But they seemed more surprised than angry. My mother said, “Why did you not tell us,’” he said.
Sahu left Jantar Mantar at around ten at night on 19 December. Buoyed by how the day had panned out, he wore his vinyl sheet in the auto rickshaw ride to his hotel near the railway station. “Even the cold wind felt good that night,” he said.
“Even the cold wind felt good that night.”
Sahu went for the large demonstration at Jama Masjid the next day, and to the protests at Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh in the days that followed. He had planned to file a petition in the Supreme Court before leaving Delhi, but dropped the idea after calculating the legal fees.
The Supreme Court has not stayed the CAA, but has asked the Modi government to respond to the several petitions that have already been filed against it. The next hearing is on 22 January.
“Justice will come slowly but it will come, I’m sure,” said Sahu.
“Justice will come slowly but it will come, I’m sure.”
Sahu felt the momentum around the protests ebbing in West Bengal when he reached Kolkata on Christmas Day.
The protest that Sahu attended on Friday had a couple of hundred people, but he enjoyed not having having to worry about getting detained in the state run by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress.
“It felt very different from Delhi where I felt anxious all the time. There was no fear of getting arrested or detained in Kolkata and that felt good,” he said.
“There was no fear of getting arrested or detained in Kolkata and that felt good.”
As he headed home to Jabalpur, where the Congress government has imposed Section 144 in state, Sahu wondered how long the movement against the CAA and NRC would endure. He was also preoccupied with Modi’s recent claim of there being no detention centres in India.
Assam, the only state to have carried out the NRC, has six detention centres, constructed when the Congress government was in power in the state and at the Centre. The BJP government is building more in Assam and in other states.
Sahu wants to visit a detention centre to see what it feels and looks like. He believes every Indian citizen should.
If he ever makes it to Assam, Sahu imagines taking photos of a detention centre and sending them to the PM with a message — “PM Modi, you are the biggest beneficiary of India’s democracy. Please be secular.”