On February 20, 2020, 19-year-old Amulya Leona Noronha was booked for sedition under four Sections of the Indian Penal Code. In the midst of a media frenzy manipulated by local officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it had been alleged that her praise for longtime enemy and neighbor Pakistan was “anti-national.” I had met her a few weeks prior to her arrest, while I sat at an unassuming chai shop that always remained open beyond the timings permitted by state law. A friend introduced me to her. Before we met, I had not known much about her activism. She was a prominent speaker at then-frequent anti-CAA protests, but she mainly used Kannada, the local language. I, with my foreign, English-speaking tongue, remained unaware of goings-on that were not translated for my convenience.
It had quickly been revealed to me that in spite of laws that forbade protests from taking place at Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, Karnataka’s state legislature, this college student who was almost five years younger to me had risked her life, freedom, and attendance (a hallmark of the Indian higher education system) in order to fight for the rights of minorities. To force government officials to touch, hold, and fully experience in all its multitudes, her dissent. To give voice to her rage.
Amulya, like many young folks in the city of Bangalore — and several cities, towns, and villages across India — was at the time protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, a law newly-introduced by the current BJP government that would grant (or withhold) citizenship based on religion. India, a country defined and stratified by faith ever since the soles of its people — and then its invaders — first touched the country’s soil so many centuries ago, was set alight by the Act. Of course, everyone knew that the BJP operated on Islamophobia and bigotry as pillars of its party manifesto, but this was perhaps the first time the hate they for so long peddled had been actualized and emboldened by law. Those who believed in India’s Constitution, one of passionate and undisputable inclusivity, a Constitution unlike any other major democracy’s, could no longer suppress their frustration. So they took to the streets. To the parks, the town halls, the highways, and the public spaces. To anywhere that they decided would no longer belong just to the majoritarian. Though Amulya was but one voice in a sea of rising dissent, her grit, coupled with her youth, would soon have her find footing centerstage. Rapidly, she began receiving calls for statements from the press. She was welcomed to the table where shady, backdoor conversations about politicking were held. Her entry into the big, bad world of local politics had unduly begun. The few moments I spent with her that night, discussing the complexities of talking politics in classroom settings despite the fear of punishment, energized the activist in me. I still recall how she told me, as we drank chai after a day full of demonstrations, that country must always come before classroom.
I had the opportunity to talk to her a couple of times after that first meeting; once at a protest and then, again, while some of the city’s students navigated the creation of a city-wide students union. In Bangalore, student unions remain illegal. Any pupils found unionizing could be met with academic or legal consequence. Because so much who you are and the spaces you have access to as an adult are determined by your grades and ultimately, your degree, few are ready to make some noise, shake the elders, or help burn a broken system to replace it with a new one. Ignoring this reality, some of us came together to form the short-lived Bangalore Students Alliance. Admittedly, the group was a circle of elites: largely upper-class, upper-caste, and English-speaking. Almost none of us knew what we were doing or what on-ground activism really looked like. Perhaps we thought ourselves the grassroots movement of some liberal, intersectional, socialist, feminist, queer independence of our own, but we could not have been further from it. The “alliance” quickly toppled following Amulya’s arrest. The members left and deleted the WhatsApp groups we used to organize protests, develop press statements, and build support systems. Those who wished to remain were forcefully removed, lest the groups be used in court as evidence against them or Amulya.
It was a few weeks after her arrest that I found myself marinating once again in anger while in a political science class at college. My professor, whom I believed to be a closeted sanghi, had been discussing fascism and constitutionalism for the latter part of the semester and decided to open the floor for the entirety of a 50-minute class to questions from the students.
Those students, who to me, were a sort of miniature map of privilege in India — the upper-caste Hindus, the token Muslims, the well-to-do minorities — reeked of entitlement from their very bones. Sure, our oppressions intersected somewhere; not all of us experienced college in the same way. Sadly, little is known about the accurate socioeconomic composition of my 120-pupil course. My college, though it collects this data when we apply and gain admission into our course of choice, does not publish information about, for instance, how many Dalit students were accepted or what the average household income of a student is. Nonetheless, it was evident that these young folks were far removed from the reality of oppression in so-called Modern India.
When my professor asked if anyone had questions about the course material and how it applied in the current political scenario — a dangerous and contentious question to ask anywhere but especially when surrounded by students of largely conflicting political beliefs — no one rose to the occasion at first. At long last, the singular Muslim boy in my class stood and asked, “Sir, many political experts believe that India, due to the introduction of laws like the CAA and the National Register of Citizens, is moving towards fascism. What do you think about this?” As expected, my professor went on to defend the government’s actions. I remember clearly the moment he affirmed with confidence, “India has survived so much, it has even survived Mughal rule, it will survive this as well.” A silence echoed through the room and filled my mouth with blood. To me, the silence enraged me most. It was easier, as it still is, to handle someone outwardly bigoted. It was more difficult to tolerate the emptiness, the vacuum of those who remained ignorantly in the center, protecting no one but themselves.
I thought about the 23 Muslims who were brutally killed in the February Delhi Riots that had taken place just a few days earlier. I thought about the uncounted deaths, the invisible murders, of Kashmir, which was at the time (and still is) under lockdown after the BJP scrapped Section 370 of the Constitution, a legal protection for the disputed region. I thought about Amulya, who was then still in jail, for a crime she did not commit.
Then, I thought about my attendance: a pathetic 60 percent, a long shot from the minimum 75 percent I had to maintain in order to be eligible to write my exams. All the late nights I had spent at my full-time job had racked up, and my 8 am class had become a casualty. I also thought about all the other political arguments I had had in class with the same professor. He knew he had the ability to terrorize my mind. Yet, after some hesitation, I stood, not bothering to raise my hand. Reeling with a rage I did not know I had contained, I was listing off the number of people who did not survive the BJP’s first term as the ruling party. I brought up Amulya, the girl who put country before classroom. I wanted to do justice for and by her in what little ways I could. As I, impassioned and emotive, pointed a finger at my professor for upholding the inequitable status quo, the class watched on. Soon enough, the class also watched as he shushed me. As he swatted his hand at me as if to say, “Shush, little girl, you know nothing.” I yelled in defiance, “Do not silence me like they silenced Amulya. This classroom is not your parliament.”
Then I sat. Because that is what we all do, isn’t it? We are forced to bow before the powers that be, helpless and holding back tears in the face of injustice. I sat down and held the pieces of me I laid bare for a professor who, despite years of academic training, could not look past his political bias to see the humanity we had lost in that classroom that day. Like my country, my classroom was no longer the safe space I had expected it to be.
The next day, he did not let me enter his class — without reason, without explanation, without due process. My attendance, and thereby my ability to write my final exam and ultimately move on to the next year, was placed gently in the palms of a man who saw in me nothing but an adversary. The classroom had become a political battleground. Much like India, the power was wielded by one man. While he had been entrusted with our growth and learning, he used it to execute his own ideologies as he pleased, rewarding those who played along in his game of prey and predator, and shunning those who did not.
Sadly, this is the story of many a classroom in India. Students find themselves risking their futures and careers if they speak in contradiction to their professors. Though classes have largely been suspended across the nation and our lives have currently come to a standstill, Amulya continues to fight the unwarranted cases against her; she was granted bail only after spending three months languishing in jail. Our country’s students face (not to undermine the violence of incarceration) a similar imprisonment to hers; in the chokeholds of fascist professors, a deadly lack of freedom of speech, and the daunting arbitrariness of minimum attendance percentages, our dissent can no longer breathe. The Indian classroom has thus become a microcosm of sanghi country — in stark juxtaposition to the inclusive Constitution we had imagined for ourselves so many decades ago. If India is to fulfill its tryst with destiny, we must begin in our classrooms.