‘This is a festival of democracy’: What it’s like to Occupy Gateway of India for two nights

Singing Faiz and chanting slogans, the protest was an organic coming together of people from across Mumbai.

WrittenBy:Binjal Shah
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On January 5, as the night of terror started at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, a protest in Mumbai grew up in response, at the Gateway of India. About 12-15 people arrived, of their own accord, wielding candles and organising themselves into a circle, humming Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib. 

Expecting nothing, those who had gathered issued an informal call to Occupy the Gateway.

Two nights later, it had turned into a mammoth gathering, with sustained activity for 31 hours. It finally ended on January 7, when the Mumbai police rounded up protesters and forcibly shifted them to another venue, Azad Maidan. 

So, how did a gathering of 12 people snowball into hundreds occupying one of Mumbai’s most prominent iconic sites?

Legally, one is not allowed to occupy a public space like the Gateway of India. But this sit-in happened almost organically. “I received visuals of the attacks [in JNU] while I was on my way home from another protest taking place at the Grand Hyatt,” said Mayank Saxena, a film writer and activist who stayed the full 31 hours at the Gateway. “I decided immediately to do just a peaceful candle march [at the Gateway] to show our solidarity. We issued a call on the way about this informal gathering. When I arrived at the venue at 11.45 pm, there were already 200 people.”  

A little after midnight, nearly 300 people — including several celebrities and public figures like Konkona Sen Sharma, Sayani Gupta, Kunal Kamra, and Umar Khalid — joined the group. Songs were sung and Azadi was called for — electrifying moments in the lead-up to two eventful days and nights. 

By the end of the first night, at 6 am, only 25 footsoldiers remained to hold down the fort. It was starting to look like the protest had peaked already. Their optimism started to run thin, but the remaining group remained resolute about continuing the occupation. 

“As a group, we honestly looked like ‘Yeh kya occupy karenge?’ We had already started making strategies about how we would resist if the cops decided to intervene at any point and order us to clear out the space,” said Saxena. “But we held a meeting and decided to put out videos of performances and sloganeering on social media, so people know we are still here and still going strong.”

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From 10 am to 4 pm on January 6, the organisers said they saw something they had not expected. People from across Mumbai — students, professionals, homemakers, entire families — started showing up in massive numbers. 

By 4.30 pm, the gathering was a huge crowd. A couple of other staggered protests happening in South Mumbai converged at the Gateway, bringing nearly 1,000 more protesters to join the 2,000 people already present.

Saxena said, “Even the cops were like, ‘Hum yeh gate khol denge. Aap jitna samay, jitne din baithna chahe, baithe!’”

Some representatives of the protesters mutually decided that the sit-in would continue indefinitely unless five conditions were met. These included the release of political prisoners across the country held in connection with the recent citizenship law protests; the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath; a just inquiry into the violence perpetrated against students on university campuses across India; and the repeal of the Transgender Act, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Citizenship Amendment Act, National Population Register, and National Register of Citizens. 

When news broke that FIRs had been filed against 19 JNU students attacked on January 5, the fifth condition was added: the rolling back of the cases slapped against the JNU students.

Stand-up comedian and popular critic of the government Kunal Kamra was at a protest at Carter Road, Bandra, at 8 pm on January 6. He arrived at the Gateway of India at midnight and spent an hour there. 

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“Some people have been here for 12 hours, some 24,” Kamra told Newslaundry. “Everyone’s helping each other out, with food and water and ensuring everyone is comfortable. It’s really special. BJP ko bhaari pada hai yeh.”

Kamra said the media is “as responsible as the administration” for the attacks on JNU students. “Without understanding what the children study there, the media has spread misinformation about them and tainted their image,” he said. “And that has led to them being brutalised today.”

Ramit Verma, who runs the social media handle Peeing Human, was at the protest too. “This isn’t a protest anymore, this is a festival. Of democracy,” he said. “Protests can be curbed but not festivals. Most people with no political affiliations have turned up to dissent organically, and that is beautiful to watch.”

For Mumbai-based homemaker Munira Gigani, the protest was a family outing. She arrived with eight women from her family and her five-year-old, Umera, who scuttled through the crowd, handing out bouquets, juice boxes, and packets of biscuits. “I love my India, and I’m proud to be Indian,” said Umera when this correspondent managed to slow her down for three seconds to ask what she was doing at the protest.

Gigani told Newslaundry: “We oppose the NRC and the CAA. The students have braved atrocities to protest these unconstitutional acts, so we decided to stand in solidarity with them. I was awake all night and terribly disturbed.”

For Amjad Hussain, who works in the film industry, joining the protest was a family affair too. He sat with a poster propped up, alongside his 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, on a mat on the promenade that stretches beyond the Gateway area. As his children ate biryani and sandwiches, Hussain told Newslaundry he had been at the protest since that morning and planned to take the first train back home from Churchgate station at 4 am. 

“I have brought my children along so they know their father didn’t stand by and do nothing while the government put their futures in serious jeopardy,” he said.

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Music composer Vishal Dadlani, who joined in the protest, said,In a time when one has started to feel that our democracy is an eyewash, seeing people pour into the streets is beautiful. The CAA and the NRC threaten everything that my worldview is based on. Besides its unconstitutional, non-secular nature — which is the key reason I condemn it — it is also ill-thought out economically and logistically, and India cannot afford to have another folly like demonetisation rolled out.” 

After 1 am on January 7, the crowd began to disperse. The last ones standing settled in for the night — huddled in blankets as slogans and songs of freedom continued. The organisers used the lull to iron out logistical and operational challenges of the protest. This included cleaning the protest site and organising resources brought by protesters, like food, water, blankets, sanitary napkins, and T-shirts. They asked volunteers to come forward to help.

One of the organisers announced that this core group of conveners needed to be truly diverse, belonging to all walks of life. Saxena said, “The essence of a movement is not only having its demands fulfilled, but also in all the mindsets it transforms during its course. An older man applauded a trans person and a queer person giving a speech…Girls who can’t stay out beyond 8 am slept on a pavement. The movement will change their lives forever — whether or not its ultimate goals are achieved.”

While poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz were consistently evoked, discussions also steered towards keeping the language and approach of the protest civil, and the importance of staying informed. 

Hum ek taraf Habib aur Faiz gaa rahe hai, and saamne ‘Modi ko kutte ka pishaab pilao’ waale naare lag rahe hai. The one thing our side has that they don’t is nuance,” said Navaldeep Singh, one of the organisers. “We cannot become like them; that would be the worst defeat. Moreover, the BJP IT Cell is hard at work, trying to manipulate and doctor what they see and overhear at this protest to supplement their lies and misinformation campaigns. Furthermore, the only way to counter this ignorance and misinformation is knowledge. We have to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as possible to make the debates more effective.” 

Singh added, “We are not taking a chill pill. In Shaheen Bagh, people are peacefully sitting, chatting and protesting. Shaheen Bagh historically has been the place for intellectual charcha, and they are keeping that spirit up. We have been chanting passionately for hours but this is a race, not a marathon. We need to pace ourselves, we can’t get fatigued. This is a golden opportunity for community-building. Take this chance to speak to the people around you.”

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At about 4 am, after half an hour’s hard work cleaning and organising the space, Yash Malviya’s Dabe Pairon Se was performed. Everyone stopped what they were doing, humming and nodding their heads. But not for long — the music eventually ended in impassioned cries of “azaadi” punctuated by drumbeats, claps and some dancing as well.  

By now, 28 hours of the Occupation of Gateway of India had passed. 

A few minutes shy of sunrise, the crowd rang in the new day with singing and dancing. Moments later, the police — who had circled the arena the entire time — closed in. A police officer then took over the microphone and “sincerely appealed to the protesters” to move to Mumbai’s “official protesting venue”, Azad Maidan, as the congregation at the Gateway of India had been “unlawful” and “disrupting traffic and normal life in Mumbai”. 

The police added that they would drop all the protesters at Azad Maidan. The core committee rejected the offer, reasoning that relegating the protest to a closed and confined space would dilute its impact. 

However, the police personnel descended upon the crowd, peeling people off the ground and shoving them into police vans. Protesters tried to resist, linking hands to stay on their feet. In the scuffle that followed, four women police officers used pressure to move a protester named Anjana Natarajan. Natarajan later posted on the now-deleted Occupy Gateway page on Facebook: “This incident has severely triggered my psychological trauma about being a rape survivor. But no matter how hard it gets for me personally, I will continue to fight.”

About four vans filled with nearly 100 sloganeering protesters drove to Azad Maidan. Here, the police presented the protesters with a choice: either continue the protest at Azad Maidan or be “detained” for a few hours at Azad Maidan. 

As the crowd grappled with this dilemma, confusion ensued about whether to ask the protesters who were arriving in batches that morning to reoccupy the Gateway or assemble at Azad Maidan. 

Lara Jesani, a lawyer and human rights activist who was in the core organising committee of the protest and provides all legal counsel and support au gratis, said reoccupying the Gateway would lead to certain arrest — and that would be futile. “The important thing about protests is not just knowing how to start one, but also knowing when to end it,” she said. “The occupation has created noise around the country, and has sent the message across loud and clear. Rather than getting legally detained and having everyone’s energy spent on sorting that out, why not conclude this protest, rest and recharge for the mega ones being held in the city on January 8?”

After much deliberation, an impromptu press conference was held at Azad Maidan to formally conclude the Occupy Gateway protest, and call upon everyone to attend the protests happening around the city instead. Jesani bargained to have the detentions — which were denied by the Mumbai police — lifted so that the protesters could go home. The police finally agreed to let everyone off on one condition: that they provide their names and IDs for “internal reporting purposes”. 

The protesters, now a small close-knit community, some of whom had been together for 37-38 hours straight, started singing Faiz once again as they waited for updates. Some protested giving their IDs to the police but eventually agreed, and left the Maidan. 

“Today was so special. I feel like the ones who have stuck it out till the end are like family,” said Natarajan. “This is a safe space, and the entire protest unfolded as beautifully and organically as it did thanks to the passion and energy of everyone still present here.”

Today, a nationwide bandh call has been issued by trade and labour unions around the country — except the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh — to protest increasing unemployment, public sector layoffs, inflated food prices, arbitrary arrests, militarisation and, of course, the impending CAA, NRC and NPR.  


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