‘This Earth Will Shiver’: How Artists Are Helping India’s Protesters Reclaim their Country’s Voice

The inspired demonstrations include singing, dancing, poetry readings, impromptu exhibitions and a monumental fluorescent light sculpture

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Opinion | 24 JAN 20

On 15 December 2019 – a Sunday evening, at dusk – police stormed into the main campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, the National Islamic University in New Delhi, firing tear-gas shells and swinging fibreglass batons at unsuspecting students. Shaky mobile-phone footage shows people scrambling for cover, hiding beneath desks, running over crushed glass and metal in an effort to escape. ‘There were continuous sounds of tear gas,’ a 22-year-old student told Reuters, ‘[the police] were just beating any student they saw so cruelly.’ Blood splattered the library floor and university corridors. The police allege that they entered the university looking for vandals and rowdy protestors, but no eyewitnesses have corroborated this account. Only students were injured that night, most of them Muslim.

This police brutality was a ham-fisted response to the nationwide protests calling for the immediate rollback of the discriminatory and Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The bills will ask citizens to prove their ancestry, further disenfranchising those that have been historically marginalized by the National Population Register (NPR): indigenous people, people of lower castes, trans people and those that live below the poverty line. People not able to prove their citizenship will be considered stateless, have their assets seized, lose their voting rights, or be sent to detention camps (which are being actively erected across the country). The bills will also determine who India considers a legal immigrant: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan may pursue citizenship, but Muslims have been intentionally left out.

Delhi University students protest against violence at JNU and Jamia University, January 2020. Photograph: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times; courtesy: Getty Images

The underhanded passing of these new regulations in parliament was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the end of a tumultuous five and a half years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – characterized by insidious and ruthless state-sanctioned violence (mob-lynchings, caste-discrimination), the military occupation of Kashmir and a complete collapse of the national economy – a young, tireless and impassioned India has had enough.

Exactly three weeks after the Delhi police entered Jamia Millia, on 5 January, a group of around 50 masked men and women burst into the campus of the (famously leftist) Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, armed with iron rods, hammers and stones. They attacked students and teachers, 20 of whom had to be hospitalized due to the severity of their injuries. Outside the university campus, police gathered on standby but did not enter, as though awaiting further orders. The violence, according to most, was state-sanctioned; its precedent set by the Delhi police.

Faiza Hasan, Shaheen Bagh, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

On the day of the JNU attack, the footage on social media was more detailed than that on television news channels. Most news networks are right leaning, showing propaganda materials or fake news manufactured by the BJP’s efficient ‘IT cell’. They cover the protests and attacks dishonestly – branding protestors as ‘anti-national agitators’. The few channels that still operate without bias are slow on the uptake. Social media has thus become our primary source of information, and also a public space for dissent. Artists, designers, writers and photographers have been creating commentary and resources that are being shared online. These include satirical works, images from protests across the country or uncopyrighted posters for appropriation.

Journalist Faye D’Souza has taken to making daily Instagram reports entitled ‘News that should be headlines’ of everything that the mainstream media has failed to pay attention to; artists, illustrators, graphic designers, like the anonymous collective Artists Unite, have made artworks that respond to the energy of the protests; and a new publishing project Akademi Magazine is quick to put out infographics that explain complicated legal jargon and break down the implications of new regulations. The Instagram handle @sodonechilling posts regular ‘WhatsApp-fwd’-style artworks, mimicking the aesthetic of the veiled propaganda materials that otherwise circulate on mobile messaging groups, and subverting them by adding in critical inflections.

@sodonechilling, WhatsApp FWD, 2020. Courtesy: Instagram

The Secular Artists Movement, a group comprised of Ambedkarite fine artists, held a day-long peaceful protest in Mumbai in early January, painting canvases and handing them out to the attending crowds. In Kolkata, artists, theatre groups and musicians held a ‘People’s Carnival Against Fascism’, with an eight-hour long programme. Nearly all of these politicised cultural events have come from outside of the so-called ‘art world’, led by groups that have organised themselves spontaneously, and that are not supported by any private institutions. While a new aesthetic of protest and resistance is being actively invented on the streets, those that are close to the corridors of right-wing power continue undeterred. On a recent visit to Kolkata, PM Narendra Modi inaugurated a show organized by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) together with the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Ministry of Culture. As thousands of protestors took to the streets during Modi’s two-day visit to the city, the irony of this was not lost on many.

That the most significant assaults by the state so far have been on students and at university campuses is significant: this war has declared itself to be both anti-intellectual and anti-cultural. As news of the attack on JNU spread, people across the country took to the streets at midnight. In Mumbai, we gathered in front of the Gateway of India, each of us rattled and left speechless by the senseless violence. This sit-in lasted just over 24 hours, after which the Mumbai police roughly relocated demonstrators to an enclosed sports ground, Azad Maidan, and held them there for hours. Protestors were photographed, had their IDs checked and their information recorded before they were allowed to leave. One woman was booked under Section 153b (‘assertions prejudicial to national interests’) for holding up a sign that read ‘Free Kashmir’.

Satyaraj Singh, New India, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

This treatment of protestors was mild compared to what is happening in Delhi or in its neighbouring state, Uttar Pradesh, where tear-gas shellings and baton charges still continue, and where people have been killed in confrontations with the police. As of 17 January, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi passed an order enabling the police to arrest without cause and hold people for up to ten days without letting them know why. This National Security Act stipulates that once arrested, a person has the right to appeal in the courts but is explicitly not allowed to employ the services of a lawyer.

The violence with which the protests are met does not match the nature of the demonstrations themselves. Intimate moments of togetherness and collectivity, they comprise chanting, singing, dancing and poetry readings. In Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighbourhood of New Delhi, a large group of women and children have been occupying the streets for well over a month. They have set up libraries and arts centres. The area is filled with collectively made drawings, wall paintings and installations. Shaheen Bagh is the movement’s most permanent and powerful set-up. On the same day that the National Security Act was put into action in Delhi, a group of artists stayed up all night to install a 35-feet-tall iron sculpture of the map of India, its borders illuminated by fluorescent light. The structure reads, in Hindi: ‘We the people of India reject CAA, NPR, NRC.’ One of the artists involved with the making of the piece, a student from Jadavpur University, told CNBC, ‘The map [of India] has been held hostage.’ The sculpture is a response to this: an act of reclaiming the country’s voice.

Sahej Rahal, Inquilab Poster, 2019. Courtesy: the artist

It is a moment of inspired revolution, but the conditions under which we are able to demonstrate – per our constitutional right – are worsening. These protests are not just a political act, they are cultural events in themselves: in response to anti-intellectual tirades, people read poetry and hold up copies of the Indian constitution. One poem has been recited in cities across the country, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge (We will see). Faiz, an Urdu poet from Pakistan, wrote it in 1979 during Zia-ul-Huq’s oppressive martial law regime, in order to critique Zia’s dictatorship and make a plea towards a return to democracy. In one installation at Shaheen Bagh, over a hundred folded paper boats are inscribed with the lyrics of the poem and lit by candlelight. ‘When these high mountains of tyranny and oppression evaporate,’ read the lines of the poem, ‘Beneath our feet this earth will shiver, shake and beat.’ 

Main image: Satyaraj Singh, We the people, resolve to defend values of the Indian Constitution, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.