Amid anti-CAA, NRC protests, artists in India are creating — and sharing — a portrait of dissent
Protest art and music have been at the forefront of the nationwide agitations against the CAA and NRC. Comics, illustrations and posters created over the past few weeks have helped raise awareness about the flaws in the NRC and CAA, while also refuting the government narrative surrounding these policies.
Protest art and music have been at the forefront of the nationwide agitations against the CAA and NRC.
Public outrage and anger have also found an outlet on social media, where artists and cartoonists have been steadily posting work that questions and critiques government policy, while championing peaceful protest.
Comics, illustrations and posters created over the past few weeks have helped raise awareness about the flaws in the NRC and CAA, while also refuting the government narrative surrounding these policies.
On social media and in protest marches, the civil resistance is being drawn, painted and lettered.
Students walking in a single file with their arms raised in the universal gesture for surrender. Chairs overturned in a reading room. Shattered glass. A campus being emptied.
In the aftermath of the 15 December 2019 police action on Delhi’s Jamia University, as a shocked nation looked on at the visuals, Delhi-based artist Tanzeela too was aghast at the violence perpetrated on her alma mater. The Jamia campus had been a safe space, home to its students like Tanzeela. Now, the horrifying violence brought them out on the streets to protest against police brutality as also the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Tanzeela, who describes herself as “hijabi doodler”, began working on an illustration — a woman in a tricolour hijab, enraged, mouthing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s immortal words, “Bol ke lab aazad hai tere”. She shared it on her Instagram page and other social media, and the image quickly struck a chord. People began re-sharing it, or carried it as a poster to the protests.
For Tanzeela, the image had another message as well. “Many people believe hijabi women are oppressed. When the photos of the Jamia University student protestors wearing hijabs were circulated, they showed people that hijabi women can also revolt and resist, stand up for themselves and for others,” she says.
That the woman in her illustration wears a tricolour as her hijab was also a carefully thought out response to the narrative that paints Muslims as unpatriotic and non-Indian. “Even when we participate in peaceful protests, we are met with suspicion and disdain,” Tanzeela points out. “Why do I have to show my loyalty to this country? Why is my patriotism questioned?”
Protest art and music have been at the forefront of the nationwide agitations against the CAA and NRC. Public outrage and anger have found an outlet on social media, where artists and cartoonists have been steadily posting work that questions and critiques government policy, while championing peaceful protest.
Comics, illustrations and posters created over the past few weeks have helped raise awareness about the flaws in the NRC and CAA, while also refuting the government's narrative surrounding these policies. On social media and in protest marches, the civil resistance is being drawn, painted and lettered.
Mussoorie-based designer and illustrator Ashwin Chacko, for instance, has created a series of works that depict police brutality against protestors. In Chacko’s editorial-style illustrations, shadowy figures thrash, arrest and detain unarmed individuals.
The attempt is to consolidate a larger, complicated thought into something simpler, easily grasped. “I think of my style as poetry. The simpler the poem, the more hard-hitting it is, and the starkness of it is seen,” Chacko says, explaining his work and also what makes it so accessible. “We’re so used to the same kind of propaganda and visuals, that abstract illustrations like mine stand out, and make people pause and question.”
Of what prompted him to create his resistance-themed art, Chacko (@whackochacko on Instagram) says he “was alarmed” on hearing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill being passed by Parliament. “I wanted to wake people up,” he says. “It’s easy to be compliant and let things happen around us. Ignoring the truth is like walking around with a blindfold, hoping not to fall into a pothole.”
Well-known environmental cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty too was struck by the “Orwellian nature” of the Citizenship Amendment Bill when he read of it. To Chakravarty, the parallels between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the current situation in India were evident, and his very first cartoon in response to the NRC and CAA was of an “Orwellian pig” declaring, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Chakravarty’s cartoons (@green_humour) are subtle and encourage the reader to form their opinion. Still, his decision to share political cartoons critical of the establishment has been met with a certain amount of criticism, with many fans of his wildlife and conservation-related art choosing to unfollow him. But Chakravarty is unfazed. “My work is impacting these minds, so it fulfills the purpose of my cartoons. I am losing out on readership, but it’s their choice to unfollow me,” he shrugs. “We are a free country — at least on Instagram.”
Like Chakravarty, other artists too must contend with the fallout of espousing their views through their work. Lamya aka @agraphicnerd, a 21-year-old self-taught artist, made her first politically themed illustration in response to the CAA and NRC row. One of her best-known works features Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah standing before a structure that resembles the Supreme Court of India. They are flanked by a policeman and a man wearing a saffron bandana and stole — gatekeepers all. A swastika is scrawled across the flag fluttering atop the dome of the court, and the gates are nearly barred.
Lamya’s illustration received a lot of attention, especially after journalist Rana Ayyub shared it on social media. “This should have been exciting for me as an artist, but it scared me,” Lamya says. “As scary as it is to go to a protest, it’s even scarier when one of my posts gets a lot of attention.”
Not that it has stopped her from creating more art critical of the dispensation, and how it has dealt with dissent. In one series, Lamya depicts New Delhi, Lucknow, and her hometown Meerut in the aftermath of police brutality. The setting changes from Jama Masjid to the Bara Imambara and Ghanta Ghar, but the violence is the same. A simple message accompanies the illustration: “Stop police brutality”.
The violence in Guwahati was what triggered Abhishek Dhar’s zine Pathhar (Stone). The Bastar-born illustrator is currently pursuing a Masters in Design at IIT Guwahati, and couldn’t shake off a haunting photograph he saw, of a “deserted street, with only stones and blood splatter, and nothing but silence”. He began crafting a story about the string of events that might have led to an outcome such as the one in the photo: “What if one of the victims of the violence had meant the world to his son? What is the son saw his father’s broken glasses and kept them? What if his anger and pain gave rise to a desire for revenge, and so he picked up a stone, wanting to kill he person who did this to his father? But what if another boy — a Muslim — were to stop him? This second boy felt the first’s pain, but knew violence isn’t the answer.”
Dhar hopes readers of the zine will understand the twin messages he meant to convey — that violence begets further violence, and that anyone can effect a change by stopping this vicious cycle.
Artists are exhorting the populace to educate themselves about the CAA and NRC, and to protest peacefully against discrimination. Silence, they say, is no longer an option.
Assamese illustrator Priyanka (@phophophoworld) addressed apolitical residents of her state with an early cartoon.
She also flagged how the anti-CAA protests in the Northeast differ from those in the mainland, cautioning that Assam’s botched NRC exercise is one the rest of the nation would do well to heed.
“While the rest of India seems to be fighting on communal lines, with many wanting inclusion of Muslims in the CAA, Assam and the Northeast are not fighting on communal lines at all. Our indigenous lands have been occupied by illegal immigrants, our demography is rapidly changing, and we are on our way to becoming a minority in our own region. We want the influx to stop,” Priyanka says.
In a recent comic, she problematised the rumour that Bangladesh will take its citizens back if India could prove they were Bangladeshis.
Another anti-CAA poster saw Priyanka etch five figures in silhouette, each wearing an Indian flag lapel pin and the traditional Assamese gamusa. The figures represent the indigenous, Assamese-Bengali, mainstream Assamese, and Assamese-Muslim communities. A caption declares: “We are one, protest as one”. “Assam is a heterogeneous state, and we Assamese are as proud of being Assamese as we are of being Indians. All of Assam stands united against the CAA,” says Priyanka, of the message she wished to impart through this particular poster.
To amplify the Northeastern perspective — one she feels is being “drowned in the mainland’s jingoism” — Priyanka and other artists from the region have recently founded a collective called ‘Artists Against Fascism’. Via the handle @ozin_patoki, the collective shares protest posters that can be downloaded and used by anyone.
‘Creatives Against CAA’, hosted by the Kadak Collective, also has a repository of original, downloadable posters delineating varied aspects of the CAA and NRC. One of the founders of the initiative says there was a need to combat the false information about these two policies while creating accessible, engaging content that was shareable on the very platforms — WhatsApp, TikTok, etc — where fake news abounds.
Among the artists whose work is included under Creatives Against CAA, Sonaksha Iyengar’s posters have been used in protests across different cities. Her ‘We The People’ poster series is inspired by the text and design of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, connecting it to the NRC and CAA. Another set of posters call the NRC and CAA “a human rights violation”. A third set reminds people that dissent is fundamental to a democracy.
Iyengar believes that posters are an extremely powerful tool of protest. “Posters foster a sense of solidarity and community among protestors,” she says. “They remind us that we are all fighting for something bigger.”
Tanvi is a writer and researcher from Kolkata. Follow her on Instagram.
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