Citizenship, Protest and Democracy: A Teachable Moment

December and January in Chennai are not just months of relatively decent weather, but also a time of holidays and disruptions. In a good year, students break for the Christmas-New Year week and then very quickly, for Pongal. In other years, climate emergencies disrupt their routine and they spend the rest of the academic year catching up.

This year, in Chennai and elsewhere, they would have spent some part of their time at home watching the news or hearing people talk about protests all over the country—no thanks to the self-imposed silence of mainstream media. Protest images and talk are viral on social platforms and impossible to miss.

Why are people protesting? Why are they not being allowed to protest? So-and-so was in the police station that day; what happened to them? Why did the police shoot? Why are these people being made to pay for the public property damaged? Is the government wrong?

This is a wonderful, even once in a blue moon, teachable moment for a number of topics.

Start with a discussion on the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens and we get to talk about citizenship. If students ask about the new laws and we are not comfortable with our level of knowledge, there is a wonderful opportunity to learn together. “Let us find out exactly what the laws say.” There are several good explainers out there, both text and video. Read or watch them together.


  • The News Minute team interviews lawyer Gautam Bhatia, video and article.
  • Sanchita Kadam, Frequently asked questions about the CAB/ CAA 2019, Citizens for Justice and Peace, December 12, 2019. There are four simple graphics based on this that have been circulating but I have not found a source page for them.

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  • Gautam Bhan from the IIHS has been sharing excellent infographic resources to help us to understand as well as to engage with others on this topic. See the NRC-CAA flowchart here. (You can also search his Twitter feed, linked here, to find Indian language versions of the same infographics.) The slideshow below is also a resource he posted.


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But why does citizenship matter? After all, we do not need it to move around or eat or to do everyday things, do we? What a gift of an entry point for a discussion on both entitlements and rights on the one hand, and obligations on another.

What is citizenship? Here is the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s answer. You can also look up related concepts (rights, nationality, nation, state) here for clear and contextualized explanations.

As human beings all of us have rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out a long list, with some surprising elements like the right to leisure that your students may enjoy learning about. Children have special rights, in addition. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights lists the rights we have to political and community activity that derive from our human rights.

You do not have to lecture on these. If we just read these rights charters together, and then discuss the rights that we want to discuss further, we are furthering our education as citizens.

You cannot talk about rights without bringing home the discussion by talking about Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution. The CAA debates are also squarely about rights, es660px-Constitution_of_indiapecially the Right to Equality. While most rights are available to citizens, the right to equality before the law is available to all persons. A close reading allows us to have a conversation about details that connect back to the question at the starting point: Who is a citizen?

The CAA debate also gets to the heart of what kind of a country India should be? A good way to start that discussion is with a reading of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. I would strongly suggest reading it aloud together and slowly, lingering over each word. Then you could discuss the words students choose to discuss. The original text itself capitalizes key terms and that is a good way to choose. Some central debates about the nature of the Indian state:

  • What is the place of religion? Should India have an official religion? What happens to people of other religions?
  • How do you accommodate people of many cultures and religions in one country?
  • What do terms like justice, fraternity and democracy mean when we are unequal in so many ways?

Just generating questions like these can be a wonderfully illuminating exercise. Try it! If your students speak and read multiple languages, try reading the same words in different languages!

Translations of the Indian constitution in Indian languages are available here.

Another set of questions you could discuss relates to the right to protest in a democracy. Why are some of the protesters getting evicted or jailed? Why do people talk about police permission to protest? The last is a great way to start talking about the security-democracy push-pull.

Finally, why has there been violence? What happened in Jamia Millia University and JNU and why? Why does the police sometimes use tear-gas or lathi charge? You can discuss whether there are and should be limits on the right to protest, but more constructively even with young people, what the various ways of engaging are. Protesters have used very creative means but even beyond the poetry and the art, there are also other modes through which we can challenge or question policy decisions.

And remember in order to understand how to protest, you have to know your rights, and the structure of government so that you can anticipate openings. For instance, you have to know what courts do in order to understand you can file a writ petition!

A collaborative imagination of what they might be would be a useful exercise that could be shared across the school, and maybe incorporated into the school’s ethos! This again circles back to the question of what it takes to be a good citizen.

Swarna Rajagopalan, If citizenship was earned and not given… TEDxChennai, March 2019.

This moment of political activism and debate is a rare gift to teachers. What you can learn and teach about civics in one week of disrupted class schedules and discussions is more than your mandatory ten points of fill-in-the-blanks can achieve. Use it and encourage your students to think of themselves as citizens, owners of democracy and peace-builders.







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