The anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests across India have ushered in a lot of firsts for the present generations—from powerful digital activism and art like never before, to women stepping out of the comforts of their homes for the first time to voice their dissent. And while the strength of the movement is visible through the sheer involvement and grit of the people across the country, a significant byproduct of resistance—art—is making its presence known.
For the last two weeks, protest sites across the country are being marked not just by huge volumes of people, but also by the massive influx of artwork and graffiti. They’re everywhere: on the walls, overhead bridges, residential gates and even the roads. Two of the most powerful protest sites—Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Shaheen Bagh—are drenched in protest art. In fact, in Shaheen Bagh, one entire street has turned into an open-air gallery. Despite the winter rains, and the damning cold and pollution, there are artworks and installations on the roads and bridges.
Protesters have created lots of artwork on a stretch of road that would otherwise be the bus stop for Shaheen Bagh.
Popular slogans in Hindi and Urdu such as “Bol ke lab azad hain tere (Speak, for your lips are yet free)” are painted all over the streets. They’re repainted if the rain washes the paint away.
While protest art has historically played a significant role in confronting important political and social issues, this is probably the first time it has emerged at the forefront of the anti-establishment protests, carrying messaging to do with dissent ("Inquilab Zindabad/Long live the revolution"), freedom (“Bol ke lab azad hain tere/Speak, for your lips are yet free") and follies of the government.
The protest site at Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi has turned into a massive open-air art gallery, featuring graffiti, posters, and artwork by the people here.
The overhead bridge at Shaheen Bagh is now a walk-in gallery where posters and artwork created by the people hang for all to preen over.
There’s also been an attempt to engage with the children and youth not only to help them vent in a creative manner, but also educate them about what exactly they’re protesting about.
Needless to say, this aspect of protest art has already stirred up some trouble. Three days ago, some graffiti work on Church Street in Bengaluru came under scrutiny after a few pro-CAA activists and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers covered them in saffron (the colour associated with the ruling BJP). Some of the graffiti on the site said things like ‘BJP is cancer, kill it before it kills you’, ‘Modi fascist’, ‘Free Kashmir’ (which is already in trouble in Mumbai), and the most blasphemous of them all, ‘Sab changa si (Everything is fine)’, which was said by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston last year.
“We know how they have drawn our PM and what they mean by it. We will not accept them insulting our PM, let alone our party,” BJP MLA SR Vishwanath told “There is another painting of our BJP’s lotus (party symbol), which is shown drooping and falling off a hand,” he added. “What are they trying to tell us? We know what their intentions are.”
Anti-establishment graffiti has been springing up all over the country. This one is in Jamia Millia Islamia.
“Anti-Modi” graffiti, like this one outside Jamia Millia Islamia, is being targetted by various pro-government groups and political individuals. The most recent incident took place in Bengaluru three days ago.
“Free Kashmir” slogans are being targetted by government authorities. Most recently, a woman in Mumbai was booked by the police for holding a “Free Kashmir” poster at an anti-CAA rally.
It’s interesting to note that the authorities have already been cracking down on protest messages and art, and anti-CAA accounts on social media. A report from December shows that in Uttar Pradesh, this crackdown has resulted in 124 arrests for “inciting” social media posts, while 9,372 Twitter profiles, 9,856 Facebook accounts and 181 YouTubers were affected for having anti-CAA content. But while street and public art is not illegal in India, there is a law against defacement of property, though it’s one that is somewhat vague.
Wall art in south Delhi that depicts the grit and bravery of women of Shaheen Bagh who have been holding the anti-CAA protests for more than a month now.
Some former students of Jamia Millia Islamia have made an explanatory model of how the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens, National Population Register and detention centres work.
A section of the same model shows how only people from the Muslim community in India will be picked out when CAA rolls out, and how they will end up at the detention centres across the country.
In the days leading up to January 26, India’s 71st Republic Day, students and protesters will be making more anti-CAA protest art on the streets. This will be a stark contrast to the cultural tableau that will march down Lutyens Delhi—one of the biggest national events to take place every year, which is heavily televised and watched across the country by millions. The protest art is set to voice national unity and culture. The only difference is that the ideas of nation and unity on the two sites will be wildly different.
Inside Jamia Millia Islamia, graffiti didn’t exist until the Delhi police used brutal force and violence to enter the campus and attack the students, even those who were not a part of anti-CAA protests.
But now graffiti like this is everywhere. And considering the kind of crackdown these messages are coming under, we have yet to see what the future of protest art could be in India.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.
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