The Dawn of “Protest Fashion”: What India Wore to the Anti-CAA Protests

Fashion

The Dawn of “Protest Fashion”: What India Wore to the Anti-CAA Protests

Graphic: Reynold Mascarenhas

Fashion, I’ve realised, is less about how others interpret you and more about how you want to present yourself to the world, a reflection of one’s identity. And sometimes, it is a statement.

In the last two months, the anti-CAA/NRC protests have gripped the country. As people take to the streets to register their dissent, I’ve witnessed “fashion” and revolution go hand in hand. There’s no one who has embodied this more aptly than Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekar Azad. Sporting a moustache much like the freedom fighter he shares his name with, Azad has been sporting an electric blue scarf around his neck, a modern reminder of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s blue suit and the colour that unites Dalit communities across Maharashtra. One of the most electrifying images to spring from the protests has been Azad holding the Indian Constitution at Jama Masjid, registering his demand for a secular India that acknowledges Dalit rights.

The history of Dalit representation and the significance of the colour blue offers a fascinating detour – one of the things that blue signifies is the open sky, and how everyone under it must be treated equally. Azad’s accessory was only one of many symbols that are circulating around; another is the ubiquitous placard.

As people take to the streets to register their dissent, I’ve witnessed “fashion” and revolution go hand in hand.

There were placards that borrowed phrases like “Aazadi” and “Inquilab Zindabad” from India’s freedom movement and contextualised them to current protests. Then there were people who used placards as an extension of their freedom of expression. Armed with witty one-liners and biting wordplay, these posters made references to pop culture trends (“I Hate Big Bhakts And I Cannot Lie”), took digs at the the government’s “Divide and Rule” policies (“Don’t Love Us for Our Biryani”), and reduced politicians to punchlines (“Omit Shah”).

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There were people who used placards as an extension of their freedom of expression and reduced politicians to punchlines.

Youth Congress/Twitter

A day before the anti-CAA gathering at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan last month, a poster for “Scarves for Solidarity ” was freely shared across WhatsApp groups, urging protestors to wear scarves to the protest as a symbol of unity. The crowd did their part – colourful scarves were either worn as head scarves or draped as dupattas. Some even tied them to their bags. In Mumbai’s sweltering humidity, I took the liberty to switch between all three. As I was being swept in the crowd, I stumbled upon a heartwarming sight: I spotted two boys, each of whom held the ends of a lone scarf, making sure they wouldn’t lose each other in the crowd.

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The anti-CAA gathering at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan saw protestors wear scarves to the protest as a symbol of unity.

Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

That sense of solidarity was rivalled by protestors in Bengaluru’s Town Hall, where men sported bindis and skullcaps, while the women were in headscarves and burqas, reiterating how communities continue to remain unfazed by political agendas, no matter who says “protestors can be identified by their clothing”. Something similar unfolded at Kerala’s Marthoma Church, when kids wore skull caps and headscarves for their Christmas carol service. Standing in solidarity with the protesters were the kids dressed in monochrome, challenging the PM’s notion that a mere piece of clothing could determine a person’s religion.

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Through the bindi and burqa protest, people reiterated how communities continue to remain unfazed by political agendas, no matter who says “protestors can be identified by their clothing”.

MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

Forty five days on, the peaceful 24/7 sit-in protest led by women at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh is recognisable by colourful blankets and shawls, a sign of warmth and a symbol of resistance. The weapon of choice for the women organising a similar sit-in protest at Kolkata’s Park Circus? Mehendi. The Hindi refrain, “haathon mein mehndi laga rakhi hai kya?” is a common taunt that ridicules men for not seeming “manly enough” and women for not being “doers”. These women then, protesting with their adorned hands, challenge not only the government but also the prejudice that has forever questioned a woman’s ability and grit.

No one could have foreseen this. Not even Prime Minister Modi who implied that dissenters could be “identified by their clothes”. He might have had little idea that his statement would not only go on to shape how we protested, but also what we wore while protesting.

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