At the moment, an atmosphere of divisive opinions and anger seems to have taken over political and emotional sentiments across India. They’re all either against or for the highly controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which seeks to provide citizenship to all persecuted minorities from neighbouring nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but has been criticised for categorically excluding Muslims.
And while the situation has been tense since the passing of this bill, it got worse when, last weekend, students, who claimed to be peacefully protesting, were attacked by the police even in libraries and hostels. As solidarity protests erupted (and continue to erupt) across the country, there are reports of police brutality, including the use of tear gas, batons and stones to provoke protesters. Additionally, on-ground clashes are accompanied with false claims, doctored photos and exaggerated anecdotes on the digital space. All of this, in the middle of government-imposed internet shutdowns and detention of people posting their activism online, have led to more chaos.
It’s easy to get confused or carried away. But there’s help out there. If you feel you've figured the 'why' part to the protest but not the 'how' even as you prep to show up and take a stand at a protest site near you, there are several things you should keep in mind, especially in case things turn violent.
VICE asked some student protestors—who are at the frontline of the movement and have spent the last few days dealing with death threats, hate speech and the impending fear of being locked away—to help us tailor a guide on how to prepare yourself for a protest.
Even when provoked, resist reacting to it
“We don’t want the protests to get violent. Violence is just a way to suppress the student community’s protests,” 22-year-old Ayesha Renna told VICE over the phone. Renna is a Jamia Millia Islamia University student who has emerged as the face of resistance over the last few days, after a video of her and her friend Ladeeda standing up to cops and protecting their friend from getting beaten up, went viral.
Renna maintained that even though the students from her university were protesting peacefully, the police tried to disrupt that. “It’s easy for [people] to propagate hatred against the protesters, but we have to stay strong and not give in to provocation,” she said. “We have to resist reacting to it, continue fighting for what we believe in, despite how emotionally and physically distressed we may get.” Renna has not only received death threats against her and her family, but has also seen her social media accounts get blocked. But despite it all, she is not backing down. To make sure there’s no violence, Renna abides by one rule: Move around in a circle of trusted people, and be very wary of those who may pose as students but will try to stir up some trouble
Maintain decorum, especially on the streets
In the face of the storm, be calm. Or at least do so for the sake of the law. “We must all behave legally. No aggression and definitely no violence, through actions or even verbally,” said 26-year-old Fahad Ahmed, a protest organiser pursuing his PhD in minority issues at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Ahmed swears by maintaining decorum, especially on the streets, which seems impossible considering how things can get crazy. But any kind of “fun and frolic”, added Ahmed, can be used against the protester. “In case of confrontation with the police, keep your hands behind your back, don't touch anyone and let your senior leader deal with it directly.” He summarises it succinctly: “Do not be silent, but do not be violent.”
Carry protective gear, just in case
“When the police came to our college and began throwing stones at the students, we sat down on the road and tried to surrender, but the violence still did not stop,” Nafis Haider, a student at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told VICE. Last weekend, Haider witnessed his batchmates getting brutally beaten up and injured. “Right in front of my eyes, people were being shot at with rubber bullets and hit on the head with tear gas,” he said. “The police had shields and armour, but we had nothing because we never expected things to become so violent.”
Which is why it has become important to carry along protective gear such as goggles and gas masks, just in case things end badly. And recent history has shown that it actually could. In a notice issued by Amnesty International, protesters are being advised to wear comfortable shoes they can run in, a scarf to cover their mouth and nose, clothing that covers all their skin, avoiding contact lenses and jewellery, or loose hair that can be easily grabbed. “While we never anticipated this level of aggression, it’s something that happened in the heat of the moment, so it’s best to always be prepared,” says Haider.
Use salt to save yourself from tear gas
“Whoever is protesting should keep in mind that the police are turning aggressive and using force,” Talha Mannan Khan, 22, told VICE. Khan is a student at AMU who personally witnessed the violence and describes it as a “war-like situation.” Khan said that the police charged at the students, fired tear gas, and beat the students up with sticks. But when they didn’t know what to do, a few Kashmiri students told them to cover their faces with salt, or eat it. “This is to reduce the impact of the stinging tear gas,” she said. While Renna adds that toothpaste might also be helpful, Haider advises protesters to push away tear gas shells with a stick the second it falls near you, and avoid touching it with bare hands since it could explode and cause permanent damage to your body.
Download these apps in case of an internet shutdown
“When the internet was suddenly shut down in Aligarh, I was surrounded by some 20-odd people,” said Khan, who realised that, in the face of a communication clampdown, the key is to stick to a group and not get separated. “It will be tougher to defend yourself if you are alone. Also, make sure you have enough balance on your phone to make calls and send text messages once you lose data.”
Meanwhile, there’s a low or no-internet tool kit tailored by the Polis Project, a non-profit research organisation, which lists out a number of apps to help you communicate in case of an internet shutdown. These include Firechat, an instant messaging platform that lets you talk to people in your proximity without internet; another is Txti, a resource to create quick web pages without internet; and other offline secure messaging services are Manyverse, Rumble and Briar.
Be innovative to make more impact
This week, an all-women protest took place in Delhi, which Renna felt was a step in the right direction. “Instead of mothers asking their daughters to stay at home and not get involved, these mothers were fighting for their rights,” said Renna, stressing the importance of involving family members in protests.
Even as avenues to protest shut down for the protesters—with the internet shutting down or Section 144 restricting the gathering of people for protests—many are thinking out of the box, and making a positive change alongside. We saw this when young boys in Delhi took off their shirts despite the biting cold, or many resorting to sharing politically-driven memes, art and other relatable posts online to sound out their sentiments with their digital-first peers. Khan told VICE about how 15,000 students held a hunger strike in their college dining hall to stress the urgency of the situation. Meanwhile, others like Ahmed are relying on social media tools like hashtags and stories to push their movement and keep people engaged.
Know your legal rights
Given that protests in places like Bengaluru have been cancelled due to Section 144 being imposed, while those in Chennai, Delhi and Ahmedabad have either had their permissions revoked or not granted, there’s a lot of speculation that shit could go down if you’re planning to take to the streets. In such tense times, it’s crucial to keep yourself safe. If you’re heading out to fight for what you believe in, go in a group that you rely on in case the peace is disrupted.
Also, given the amount of people being detained right now, even for posting things on the digital space, it’s important to know your legal rights and not let the police potentially bully you. As per Article 22 of the Constitution, you have the right to know why you have been detained and must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours. You can also question under what section you are being detained. If you are a woman, you can only be detained by a woman officer after sunrise and before sunset. It’s also important to inform friends and family of the exact location and reason you are being taken away, and to post about it on social media if possible. To know more about your rights as a protestor, you can refer to the handy guide crafted by Jhatkaa.org below.
We don’t need to tell you this, but given all the fake news that’s going around, it’s important to take photos and videos that support your statement. And this is especially important if things get violent or the troublemakers cross the line. After all, evidence is everything.
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