On December 18th, Bengaluru, which had seen near-daily protests for the previous few days, was gearing up for two simultaneous protests at 11 am the next day – one at Mysore Bank Circle and the other at Town Hall. This followed a nationwide call to hit the streets on December 19th, to protest against the recently-passed Citizenship Amendment Act (which would fast-track citizenship for non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and against the nationwide NRC promised by Home Minister Amit Shah.
Bhaskar Rao, the Bangalore Police Commissioner announced that Section 144 was going to be imposed from December 19th 6 am to December 21st midnight as a precautionary measure to prevent violence. The reason was very clear – ensure anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests do not happen in Bengaluru as planned.
Bengalureans, enterprising as ever, decided that a flash protest at midnight at the Town Hall, six hours before Section 144 was to come into effect, was the perfect way to begin the day.
And thus began a day of detentions, with police rounding up the midnight protesters, only to release them a short while later.
Dec 19th 11 am, the Mysore Bank Circle: The exits of Visveshwaraya Metro station were chock-a-block with riot-gear-clad cops standing right at the entrance, not far from a couple of police buses. Closer to the Mysore Bank Circle arch, a bunch of students looked anxiously across the junction.
Around 30-40 people, some students, some members of left organisations, had gathered around in a loose fashion for the protest, only to be completely swamped by cops.
A couple of police buses and a couple of empty BMTC buses stood nearby, waiting for its occupants. Soon enough, the aggression came out in full display, as the police started shouting at us and shoving us around, ordering us to vacate the area. Inching along every few minutes did not evidently cut it. The police finally decided to start picking up people, and students were the first targets.
At Mysore Bank Circle junction, the police picked up two bus-loads of protesters. Soon enough, word came in that the Town Hall protest had been emptied out by detaining everybody there, including noted historian Ramachandra Guha. The visuals of Ram Guha getting dragged into the police van while giving an interview dominated national news for the rest of the day.
More pertinently, his detention appeared to force the Karnataka CM B S Yeddyurappa to ask his police not to take law into their hands, following which Bangalore police even issued a statement that “hot vegetarian food” had been served to the detainees as it was lunch hour. One can only wonder if the same courtesy gets extended regularly to working class Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi-Muslim detainees whenever they are hauled up in police stations.
Traffic delays, and detentions that came to a stop
The aggressive police action at Town Hall was losing steam fast. It wasn’t long before the detentions descended to farce. Rumour had it that police buses got stuck in Bengaluru’s famed traffic which forced the police to bring in private buses. Several Town Hall protesters were forced into this private bus, only for the clueless driver to turn around and ask the detainees where they had to be taken to. Soon enough, at the next red light, the detainees alighted from the back door and went back to Town Hall.
Another guy was shoved by cops into a KSRTC bus and this guy got into the bus shouting slogans, only to find puzzled passengers staring back at him. The bus was a regular passenger bus going to Chintamani, a nearby town. After briefing the passengers about the protest, he calmly got down and made his way back to Town Hall.
Lessons in solidarity
Did the police think that civil society would cave in after the first group got detained? Or did they believe that by jamming internet and phone lines in the heart of Bengaluru, they could prevent a determined populace from making its stand? Either way, people kept pouring in towards Town Hall, and soon enough the police relented.
Leaderless but clearly not rudderless
Having observed multiple protests at Town Hall, this was easily the biggest and the most spontaneous protest, and it showed no signs of ebbing well into the afternoon, despite several rumours flying around thick and fast that lathi-charge or tear gas might begin any minute as the protest no longer had “permission”.
People from different backgrounds responded in one voice to slogans that invoked everybody from Ambedkar to Fatima Sheikh to Gandhi, and most of all the Constitution that appears to be the target of the central government’s legislations. Protestors condemned centre’s ‘Hindutva agenda’. Bananas, biscuits, water bottles and even candies were being distributed along at regular intervals.
There was a huge representation of students, who were in some cases, even accompanied by their parents. Protests in India are seldom family affairs, but this one might just have been one. By late afternoon, as word went around that all the Bengaluru protesters had been released, (no doubt thanks to the tireless efforts of the many advocates who stood by the protesters) clean-up of the disposables had also begun in right earnest.
The day ended with horrific news coming in from Mangaluru of two people being shot dead by the police, and CCTV visuals showing policemen barging into a hospital, trying to break their way into a room and even tear-gassing it. Following the prescribed playbook, Mangaluru – where several thousand people turned up for the anti-CAA, anti-NRC protest on December 19th – now faces a 48-hour mobile-internet shutdown.
Bengaluru might have had its say for now, but for citizens who came out to register their disagreement with the law, it looks to be a long journey.
[Karthik Ranganathan is a citizen reporter]