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29.06.2017

It’s only fitting that it’s been raining all day. Today the sun is a fictional construct; all around us, a gloom is begging to be lifted. 

Just this one day, thousands of people across the country have decided that the murder of Junaid Khan, all of 15, cannot go unremarked, or at least #NotInMyName. A neatly barricaded road opposite Jantar Mantar plays host to the protest in Delhi. It’s a digital hypothesis, driven by Facebook, sparked in Delhi and spreading through urban India. Many others already occupy this small corner of Lutyens; on the way to this particular expression of dissent, one man, desperate to raise his voice against mob lynchings, is fasting in a tented booth. Another man is holding a sign that says, “Nafrat ke khilaaf, hum sab ki aawaz” - our voices against hate. He’s casually pointing everyone to the location of #NotInMyName, lest we be confused.

At 6 pm, in between downpours, the humidity is well over 100%. An off-duty journalist (attending as a civilian) is soaked head to torso in his own sweat, his kurta a cascading mosaic of different shades of maroon. The ice-cream seller set up by the police vans can probably afford to take the rest of the week off; so also, perhaps, can the enterprising salesman hawking packets of popcorn and naariyal. 

At 6.30, close to a thousand people have arrived, and more pour in, an endless stream of human faces. Rumours fly about a bus-full of JNU students on their way. It is said the filmmaker Deepa Mehta is somewhere in the crowd. Three women cops are standing at the back, speaking softly to each other. “We’re not expecting any trouble,” one of them tells me. It’s a peaceful protest. There are emotions more powerful than anger or rage, the journalist in maroon suggests.

Grief, for one. Junaid Khan’s immediate family is unable to attend; one of the witnesses to the lynching reportedly faced some official intimidation, and was almost attacked the previous night. “Shaaaaaame!” the crowd chants in unison. 

Two separate flags of India wave together in agreement. (What an omen.)

A young researcher at a law college is here, holding up a board suffixed with a hashtag that says Muslim Lives Matter. You can’t address mob violence and public lynchings without addressing the fact that a lot of it is directed at minorities, she tells me. Religious fundamentalism filtering through from the top needs to be tackled. 

A ponytailed, bespectacled man named Shibesh, an acquaintance I recognise, has draped the official sign of this movement — nafrat ke khilaaf, hum sab ki aawaaz — like an apron across his front. He’s there in protest against atrocities committed against Muslims and Dalits in India since 2014. What’s the point, I ask. How does this help? It’s a way of reaching the administrators, the policy makers, he says. The guys in power, when they learn about this agitation, will have their hand forced. They’ll have to respond, even if it’s only to keep hold of valuable votes. 

Shibesh has hope. You have to keep poking, he says. Escalation, if it happens, will be met by counter-escalation, until someone, somewhere, finally starts to move. Yes, there are a hundred different intellectual wankfests to each argument brought by everyone here. But without hope, Shibesh and so so many others here would be bringing in Hump Day drinking cocktails through straws.

~

I’m not, myself, a protestor. I get very upset, sometimes angry, when terrible things happen where I live, to people I live with. But my heart does not bleed. At a protest such as this, I’m here in the hope that I’ll be surrounded by people who’re better than me: who care deeply, and can act with a transcendental passion. I want, today, to be part of something that’s much bigger than me.

When a 15 year old is murdered on the outrageous pretext of his Muslim-ness, cynicism must fall by the wayside. At Jantar Mantar, it has stirred a rousing passion among even the most casual of visitors, the hesitant but curious bystanders. On the stage erected for the occasion, several different performances take place. Rabbi Shergill sings. Rousing Hindustani poetry — a pushback against the regressive ideals of Hindutva, of “imagined homogeneity” — presented splendidly by a woman who can’t be seen from the back of the gathering, receives a noisy response. On the signs, words from the Bible translated to Hindi, Urdu poetry, and heartfelt messages of resistance abound. Two separate flags of India wave together in agreement. (What an omen.)

The protest is no more or less than a community gathering, a baithak, with a cause attached. We’re all here meeting old friends and acquaintances, catching up on each other’s lives, taking selfies and going on Instagram Live and discussing lynchings like idle gossip. If there’s a negative emotion at work, it is disillusionment, rather than anger; the longing to be part of something larger than ourselves is, in some cases, borne of exhaustion.

Which is really okay; my sweaty maroon friend points out how somberness and seriousness can be two different things. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re there, if only for the novelty or the obligation. 

The semantics of #NotInMyName have come in for some criticism, especially the specifics of what - and who - it stands for. Will nothing come of this? Is this battle being fought wrongly? Is this protest against the killing of minorities, a general atmosphere of violence, anti-Hindutva, or just against the overall rottenness of humans? Who the hell is listening, anyway?

At this protest, as I read the signs and try to decipher all the chants, the soundest answer I can glean is that it may not matter who is listening. It's the silence that is no longer acceptable to us. It’s amazing how meaningful it can be to know this. Over the two hours of this protest, the skies remain overcast. But the air, when I leave, is a little clearer.

This story was contributed by Akhil Sood, an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi. 

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