Over the past week, the country has witnessed raging protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 that was passed in Parliament in the recently concluded winter session. Chennai too saw its share of protests led by opposition parties, citizen groups and civil society organisations and even a pro-amendment rally led by the BJP.
In the aftermath of the Jallikattu protests at Marina, the beach has virtually become a no-go zone for any kind of protest in Chennai. This, coupled with the stipulations of the Madras City Police Act, means that protests in the city require prior written permission from the Commissioner of Police.
Students lead the way
As in the rest of the country, students were at the forefront of anti-CAA protests in Chennai. Students carried out many forms of protests including sit-ins, readings of the preamble of the Constitution and sloganeering against the CAA.
Students from Loyola College held a demonstration on their campus and raised slogans in solidarity with the students of Jamia Millia Islamia university, who were attacked by the police during their protest on December 15th against the CAA. The students raised placards in support of fellow student protesters.
The protest also extended to Mohammed Sathak College, where students sat outside the gates of their college and raised their voice in support of students of Jamia Milia and Aligarh Muslim University.
Students of New College in Royapettah joined in the protest against CAA and raised slogans demanding the rollback of the Act. They expressed apprehensions about what could happen to those who lack documents in the case of implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Madras University saw protests by students who staged a sit-in that lasted three days before they were detained and subsequently let off by the police. The students had been asked to leave campus once the protests broke out and their holidays advanced. But the protesting students continued their demonstration. Actor-politician Kamal Haasan trued to reach out to them before being turned away at the gates by the Chennai Police.
Students of IIT Madras also staged protests within the campus. Slogans were raised against the CAA and to express solidarity with other protesting students. The campus saw a gathering of students for a reading of the preamble of the constitution.
The protests spread to other parts of the city with the major opposition parties in Tamil Nadu holding a protest meeting in Chepauk on December 16th. At this meeting, the opposition outlined their objections against the CAA and the linking of the CAA to the NRC. There were participants from the general public and the student community as well in this gathering.
“I knew this had been called by political parties but I am here to show my objection to the CAA. I am not affiliated to any party but I am against what this law could do to the marginalised people of the country,” said A Ram, a student who joined the protest.
The biggest gathering against CAA in Chennai so far saw around a thousand protesters gather at Valluvar Kottam. The call for the protest came from over forty civil society organisations and civil liberty activists working at the grassroots in the city. The Chennai Police originally allowed the gathering to take place before revoking permission on the night before the protest. Despite this, protesters turned up in large numbers at the site on December 19th, defying police orders, among them singer Thol Thirumavalavam, MP, singer T M Krishna and actor Siddharth.
The gathering saw anti-CAA slogans, explanations on why the law is discriminatory on religious grounds and what the consequences could be when viewed in conjunction with the NRC exercise. The protest remained peaceful and was watched on by a contingent of police. But the next day, the Chennai police booked cases against 500 people in attendance for unlawful assembly.
“I was not sure if the protest was going to happen as the permission was revoked. But I decided to be here anyway as I felt it important to raise my voice against this law and the NRC. This is not a political issue for me. I think the government must listen to its people and not clamp down on protests,” said Rishi*, a writer at the protest.
Pro-CAA rally gets green-light
Meanwhile, there was a call for a protest against the widespread anti-CAA protest by the state unit of the BJP. The gathering saw speeches by party leaders projecting the government’s line on the CAA. They urged the students to give up protests and enjoy the early holidays offered by the respective educational institutions. The opposition to the protests was denounced as politically motivated, and students and the general public were requested not to be misled by them.
The pro-CAA event raised questions over the Chennai Police’s decision to allow the event to take place at the same venue where permission had been revoked for the anti-CAA protest.
Where is the room for dissent?
While Chennai did not see the imposition of section 144 as in Bengaluru and other cities, the events of the past week have once again raised important questions on the shrinking space for protest and democratic dissent in the city. With the beach being off limits and written permission required by the police under the Madras City Police Act, organising peaceful protests in the city have become difficult.
In the past, permission has been denied for a slew of protests. Arappor Iyakkam, a civil society organsiation, had to move the Madras High Court to be allowed to protest against the severe water crisis faced during the summer of this year. Singer Chinmayi was denied permission to conduct a peaceful protest against the clean chit given to then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi on accusations of sexual harassment. Farmer’s association leader Ayakkannu was denied permission to hold protests and go on hunger strike highlighting the issues faced by farmer. Civic group Chitlapakkam Rising was denied permission to hold a protest against the long delay in desilting of the Chitlapakkam lake. The police also did not allow the screening of an eight-minute documentary on police excesses in Thoothukudi during the Sterlite protests, which was to be screened at the Chennai Press Club.
While the police argue that they withhold permission only for events that could cause disruption in law and order, people have begun to feel the need for a balance between the right to peaceful assembly and reasonable restrictions.
Suresh Veeraraghavan, lawyer and member of People’s Union of Civil Liberties says, “The law is very clear and the Supreme Court and Madras High Court has said many times that the police cannot use maintenance of law and order as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression and assembly. It’s the duty of state to provide protection.”
On the trend of muzzling protests by denying permissions, he adds, “In general, the response of this government in Tamil Nadu over the last two to three years has been that they don’t want citizens to come out in protest. Ever since Jallikattu and the impact of the protests then, they don’t want to see young people coming out on the streets and want to crush any possible dissent by creating an authoritarian state structure.”
There are also other unintended consequences of the denial of right to peaceful assembly. “This has had a negative impact in that it has been pushing citizens to go to court. There is a public cost to citizens having to go to court. It is a drain on their finances and a waste of time for the courts. These attempts by the government to stifle opposing voices scares citizens. The right of non-violent civil disobedience is fundamental to us. It is our democratic duty to question the government and to challenge and oppose anti-people laws and this is being stifled,” said the lawyer.