By Sonali Kokra Dec. 17, 2019
I’m tired of the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over those Mumbaikars who don’t show up to protest. Instead, I want to talk about those who did. The young woman in her 20s who appointed herself the protector of the scared teen protester, the blue-haired girl who booed away the Congress rep who tried to use the gathering as a ground for campaigning.
Can a group of angry, scared, fed up people change the course of politics by waving flags, holding placards, banging on daflis, and screaming themselves hoarse? I really don’t know. The Mumbai in my DNA makes me want to roll my eyes, curl my lip with well-practised cynicism, and mutter an acerbic, “Yeah, right. As if.” I have to. “Iss desh ka kuch nahi ho sakta” is the chant that allows Mumbai to justify its inaction – or as we Mumbaikars prefer to label it, the “spirit of resilience”.
We are, after all, the land of the apathetic, of the self-centred, and selfish. Delhi and Kolkata, we’ve been reminded on more occasions than we care to remember, are politically plugged in, always at the forefront, taking to the streets, protesting, registering their rage and civic discontentment. They care. But Mumbai? We look on, disinterestedly, half-heartedly. Once in a while, we will tweet in solidarity and feel disproportionately proud. It is well-earned criticism.
The day Delhi’s students were being choked with tear gas, fired at indiscriminately, beaten up with sticks, assaulted in their libraries and dormitories, and made to suffer other assorted horrors by the very people tasked with protecting them – simply for exercising their right to protest against the vile Citizen Amendment Act – Mumbai was congregating in one of the farthest suburbs to hear U2. Of course, the concert preached about the importance of activism, ahimsa, and speaking truth to power. The irony was delicious. For those willing to pay, there was even a one-way chopper service to deliver them to the venue, because, hello, everyone knows how little Mumbai cares about the idea of trekking to the suburbs.
Students and activists hold placards during a protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Mumbai, India on 16 December 2019. Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Students and activists hold placards during a protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Mumbai, India on 16 December 2019.
Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The next day, as student bodies and activists scrambled to organise solidarity marches, nailing the location was the toughest part of the process — hold them too far away from town, and SoBo won’t show up. Hold them too close to town, and Bandra, Juhu, Andheri will decide it’s not worth the time and effort. And Bollywood… oh, wait, never mind Bollywood.
But I’m not here to admonish my fellow Mumbaikars. There’s nothing I can say about our collective self-absorption and narcissism that we haven’t already heard a thousand times before, with increasing levels of shrillness. I’m tired of the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing I put myself through every time over those who don’t, who won’t show up, while all the time wondering what has to happen for some of the apathy to finally be shaken loose. What has to happen before Mumbai finally gets mad enough, and roars, “No. Enough. Not anymore. Not on my watch.”?
Instead, I want to talk about those who did.
I want to talk about that young bespectacled woman in her 20s who appointed herself the chaperone and protector of the teen protester who was scared when she saw the number of stern-looking policemen circling the perimeter of the protests at the Mumbai University campus. I want to talk about the panic and distress I saw her feel when her charge — whose name she didn’t know — disappeared from her line of vision for a few minutes.
What has to happen before Mumbai finally gets mad enough, and roars, “No. Enough. Not anymore. Not on my watch.”?
I want to talk about the silver-haired activist who huddled next to a 20-something protester holding up a blisteringly angry placard that could well get her on the radar of the BJP and RSS’ troll army. “At least if I’m next to her, they’ll focus on attacking me, instead of her… God knows if her parents know she’s here,” I heard her tell her colleague wryly.
I want to talk about the blue-haired protester who led the crowd into booing and shooing the Congress rep who tried to grab the mic and use the protest as an opportunity for campaigning and propaganda. There is something deeply satisfying about watching a young woman in pink pyjamas and blue hair squaring off against a political prashasak and forcing him to back down.
I want to talk about how no one complained — not about the stench of sweat that hung heavy in the air, or the stubbed toes, or the many, many, stumbles. About all the times I watched strangers stepping in and taking over from strangers, to give their tired, aching arms a break, just so that the flags, posters, and placards kept bobbing over the heads of the gathering. About the kind lady who cleared a spot for me to stand comfortably when she found out a broken bone wouldn’t allow me to squat on the road. About the friend who gave all her employees half the day off to participate in the protests, even though her fledgling agency could ill-afford the activism in the midst of the busiest season of her year. About that one lone Bollywood celebrity who showed up to stand by his city. And also about the many, many bottles of water being passed around and shared among strangers.
I watched strangers stepping in and taking over from strangers, to give their tired, aching arms a break, just so that the flags, posters, and placards kept bobbing over the heads of the gathering. Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images
I watched strangers stepping in and taking over from strangers, to give their tired, aching arms a break, just so that the flags, posters, and placards kept bobbing over the heads of the gathering.
Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images
I want to talk about the father who brought his toddler kid along, whose eyes were as large as saucers the entire time, as he took in the protest perched on his dad’s shoulders. And I want to talk about the crackling energy and throbbing emotion as the crowd sang the National Anthem, in one voice, as one; but this time without being forced, without fear of violence or retaliation.
Was it a small crowd? Of course it was, compared to the size of the crowds spilling onto the roads everywhere else in the country. I would be lying if I say that doesn’t matter. But what matters more is that for one brief moment in time, some of Mumbai came together — without knowing what would happen: Whether we’d go back home that night or find ourselves rounded up and taken to police stations like Delhi was. If our chief minister and youth leaders would lead from the front the way as in Kolkata or whether we’d have our celebrities speak up on our behalf like Assam’s did — to fight for India’s right to take to her streets, to demand change without the fear of being smothered or muzzled. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t matter that our political bigwigs and celebrities were nowhere to be seen. But what matters more is that our police, unlike Delhi’s, didn’t let us down. For now, even that much is enough.
If you’re in Mumbai, I strongly encourage you to participate in the protests on December 18 and 19. One of my favourite lines from my all-time favourite show, The West Wing, is this: “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Mumbai, it’s time to decide. It’s time to show up.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.