Blackpool in England turns into a ghost town every winter. The beachfront is deserted once the snow starts to fall. Except for the odd bachelor party, January is a quiet month. There is no major university here that manages to grab the attention of foreign students.
And so on January 4, as residents walked onto the high street for a bit of Sunday morning shopping, they couldn’t help but wonder why three students stood in the cold holding a banner.
“There aren’t many Indians here. But you don’t need a large number to make your stand clear. If you can find even one person to connect over a common calling, you have your protest,” says Sumeet Bose, 33, a merchant navy officer who is in Blackpool for a short-term course. Bose and his two classmates stood for three hours in the biting wind to protest against the proposed CAA and NRC.
Over 800 miles away in Switzerland, Harshal Kate, a 29-year-old researcher from Alibaug, attempted to approach the protest entirely on his own before finding support for his cause online.
He stripped down to his shorts in front of the Swiss National bank in Bern as a comeback against Prime Minister Modi’s comment that rioters can be identified by their clothes.
In Sydney, 60 Indians distributed flyers that had details of the CAA written down outside a Starbucks outlet.
From the streets of Germany’s Munich to the campuses of Colombia University in New York and Tampere University in Finland to the neighbourhoods of Cape Town in South Africa, a small but vocal community of young liberals are standing up against what they feel goes against the very ethos of their homeland.
Not that easy
It is not easy to arrange a protest in the West. From detailed permissions which list the size of the group and the streets which can be used for a march to arranging a loudspeaker permit, the paperwork and logistics involved can be daunting for a single individual to handle. But connecting through social media and email, Indians abroad have arranged close to 50 protests now.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, you care about your country, your heritage, and humanity,” says Sindhuja Sankaran, 34, assistant professor of social psychology at Jagiellonian University, Krakow in Poland.
“What attracted many to our protest in Warsaw last month was the fact that we didn’t just do sloganeering, we made it an information drive where we explained the social consequences of the CAA and the NRC. Both should be viewed as a combination. Together, they go against the idea of democracy and refugee rights…they go against the secular and free-flowing fabric of India. Concerned, educated people should be able to see and understand the level of discrimination and bigotry that exists in them. Our research at Krakow, which predicts why people support the government’s new schemes, notes that it is a combination of authoritarian ideology and attachment nationalism; people tend to see the out-group [be it Pakistanis or Muslims] as a threat and therefore seize any information disseminated by their leader. In other words, people are resistant to knowledge because of this perceived threat,” says Sankaran, adding that she was surprised to find around 50 Indians turn up for the protest in Warsaw.
“The Indian community here isn’t very big, and yet many came.”
In London, the Indian fraternity is sizeable, however, it was still a surprise to Prateek Khanna, 27, when close to 500 people turned up for a protest outside the Indian Embassy on December 14.
A student of SOAS, Khanna says most of the Indian community’s Facebook groups and student societies are dominated by right-wing members. “In the UK, most India societies in colleges and residential areas are Hindu societies where a Hindu-version of India is propagated. The same goes for Facebook groups. The administrators of these groups never let you put up content about protests against the present government,” says Khanna.
A similar reaction was experienced by 30-year-old Alokeparna Ray, a psychoacoustics engineer based in Germany, who says she was removed and blocked from the Facebook group ‘Indians in Germany’ when she tried to post information about an upcoming protest in Berlin against the CAA.
Kate, after his protest in Bern, also received threats and hate. “After a news article on my protest in Bern, I did get some share of abuse on social media. All sorts of labels have been put. However, I feel this is not about being left or right or centre or pro-party. This is about basic human rights,” says Kate.
Why are Indian students protesting in foreign lands
Kate adds that pictures and videos of violence against students in Jamia University and Aligarh Muslim University really shook him. “So far issues like the economic slowdown, electoral bond, children dying in government hospitals due to malnutrition didn’t directly affect Indians studying in foreign countries. Episodes like Jamia, AMU and JNU woke everyone up. It was alarming. It is relatable for any Indian student in a foreign country because there we are also a minority in some way or the other,” he says.
Khanna too feels that there are plenty of isolated Indians in the United Kingdom who want to convey a contrarian view but so far haven’t been able to find a channel for doing so. While previous movements on issues such as women’s rights and Kashmir’s lockdown saw the odd international protest, the present anti-CAA protests have managed to breach the barriers that kept like-minded individuals apart through a combination of technology and ideological appeal.
“CAA and NRC had an emotional effect on me. When you are away from home for many years, you tend to stop connecting with the smaller problems. But when you see the country gripped by violence and you read up on an act which pitches community against community, then you want to be involved again,” says Kritika Nair, 36, a student in New York City.
Nair attended protests organised by Colombia University last week. “Initially, I did not know how to get my point across but then I came across Facebook posts on planned anti-CAA protests. At the protests, I connected with people who have the same ideological grounding. Now the liberal NRIs who have been kept on the fringe are finally coming together here,” adds Nair.
How social media is enabling global protests against CAA
In Germany, Ray and her friends also turned to technology to gain traction for protests. “Initially, it was just me and my friend Shahbaz Ahmed Azmi who started discussing about a protest in Germany. Soon there was a WhatsApp group with seven or eight members figuring out logistics of arranging a protest in Berlin. However, to our surprise more and more people joined the group, and, in some days, there were more than 200 members,” she says.
The group has held around 10 protests across Germany, bringing together close to 600 Indians. A protest held at Munich’s Odeonsplatz on January 12 was put out on Facebook Live and garnered close to 19,000 views and was watched by 6,000 people. “At one of the protests I attended in Berlin, there was a point when slogans were being shouted in five or six different languages. Everyone started looking at each other and then realised the strength in that: Unity in diversity. So many people were simply grateful to the organisers for giving them a platform to express their anger and concern,” adds Ray.
With 300 people scheduled to protest outside the Indian Embassy in Berlin on January 18 and another 1,000 to gather outside the United Nations compound in Geneva on February 1, having a platform and a passionate argument has clearly crafted out a group of young Indians abroad, and for the first time many feel they aren’t speaking in a singular voice but tackling the issue as a collective whole.
Also Watch | Will PM Modi’s assurance pacify anti-CAA protesters?