In late December, the Chennai police came under fire for people who were peacefully protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The criticism seems to have had no effect. For, last week, the police violently cracked down on another group of protesters at Washermanpet – which has come to be known as “Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh” – injuring several of them. They also detained around 250 people.
The police brutality, and a rumour that a protester had been killed, sparked protests across Tamil Nadu. At several places, they are still going on.
It wasn’t lost on many people that the violence happened on Valentine’s Day, the day of love. As if pose a counter to the police’s brutality, Washermanpet’s Lala Gunda area on Monday hosted the wedding of a man and a woman who had been beaten up by the police on Friday. They said “CAA qabool nahi hai” – CAA isn’t acceptable – while taking their wedding vows. Muslims in parts of the subcontinent say “nikah qabool hai” – I consent to the marriage – as part of their vows.
“I like this bride. But I do not like NPR. I accept this woman to be my bride but I don’t accept this law,” said the groom, M Shahensha, drawing cheers from those gathered at the protest site. He was referring to the National Population Register, which is seen as the precursor to the dreaded National Register of Citizens.
He added, “Our wedding was fixed long back. Since the protests against the citizenship law are persistent, we had to conduct the marriage amidst them. We didn’t do this for publicity.”
Arguing that the citizenship law “is an attempt to imprison everyone who raises their voice against the government”, he said it was “futile to think it only targets the Muslim community”. “It also targets Dalits and other marginalised communities, seeking to push them into refugee camps.”
The protest at Washermanpet started last Friday. It was the first major sit-in demonstration against the CAA in the state, where the governing AIADMK has backed the law but most opposition parties have opposed it.
The demonstration was organised by the Muslim community, which had faced criticism for not joining the nationwide protests against the law last month. As at Shaheen Bagh, it is led by women.
On February 14, around 40 women had gathered at the protest site by 10 am and their number grew as the day progressed. They sat on the main road and raised slogans against the CAA. Then the police came and told the protesters they would have to disperse by 5 pm.
As the deadline approached, Additional Commissioner R Dhinakaran and Joint Commissioner C Mageshwari spoke with the women, telling them to end the protest. When the protesters refused to disperse, the police launched a lathicharge. They also detained around 40 women.
As news spread of the police unleashing violence, enraged members of the Muslim community and other citizens gathered at the protest site. By 7.30 pm, the crowd numbered in the thousands. At this point, the police started another round of lathicharge and arrests, detaining nearly 200 more people.
Soon, a rumour spread that a protester had died in the lathicharge. Protests, mostly by Muslims, erupted across Chennai – blocking several arterial roads such as Anna Salai, Thiruvallikeni, Alandur – as well in Trichy, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Salem, Vellore, Madurai. Five days on, Muslims in several places continue to take to the streets, including in Thoothukudi, where the police police shot dead protesters against the Sterlite Copper factory two years ago.
As the situation threatened to go out of hand Friday evening, Chennai police commissioner AK Viswanathan met with leaders of Muslim organisations at Washermanpet police station. The talks concluded with the police agreeing to release the detained protesters immediately.
Speaking to Newslaundry, the protesters slammed the police for unleashing violence without any reason. A Shabana, a housewife who was at Washermanpet on Friday, said they had asked the police for permission to protest in mid-January but it was never given.
“This is why we began protesting at Washermanpet. Though the protest was held in a way that it caused no inconvenience to anyone, the police attacked us. Policemen were sent to attack female protesters,” Shabana said. “Unless the Tamil Nadu government stands with our people in opposing the CAA , the protests will continue.”
P Mohan, a journalist with News7 Tamil, who witnessed the police brutality, said, “The police didn’t want the protests in Chennai like they have in Delhi. So, they used force.”
Opposition condemns police violence
Criticising the police for attacking peaceful protesters, Nellai Mubarak, chief of the Social Democratic Party of India, said, “The protest was being held with no inconvenience to the public. The protesters only became violent when the police used force against women. Mohamed Rasheed, head of the SDPI in North Madras, was seriously injured as a result. Silent protests are a democratic right. The government of Tamil Nadu and the police are trying to make them violent. This has to stop. We request that action be taken against policemen who were involved in disrupting the peaceful protest.”
MH Jawahirullah, head of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, whose members were part of the protest, urged Chief Minister EK Palaniswami to take action against “policemen involved in this act”. “There have been nationwide protests against the CAA but the Tamil Nadu government has not been permitting protests. It is acting in support of the BJP government at the Centre.”
DMK chief MK Stalin accused the police of “doing a dirty job” by using violence against peaceful protesters.
On its part, the state government has taken note of the spiralling protests. The chief minister held a meeting on Sunday to review the “law and order situation” in the wake of the protests. At the , state police chief JK Tripathy detailed how the situation had “escalated” at Washermanpet on Friday and how the protests had spilled over into other areas of Chennai.
Tripathy has since appointed six special officers to look at the situation in different cities where protests against the CAA are continuing.
Mydeen Abdul Kathar is a freelance writer and a member of , a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.