How the women of Shaheen Bagh stirred a nation to stand up for the ‘idea of India’

Challenging the government and rallying a nation to reclaim the ideals of equality and freedom, their anti-CAA protest inspired millions.

Published : Dec 12, 2023 18:51 IST - 7 MINS READ

The women of Shaheen Bagh launched what became a call for revolution and azaadi—freedom from discrimination, freedom to live by the ideals of our founding fathers, by the Constitution of India.

The women of Shaheen Bagh launched what became a call for revolution and azaadi—freedom from discrimination, freedom to live by the ideals of our founding fathers, by the Constitution of India. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Anyone who follows the news knows that the Muslims of India are under siege. To be a Muslim in India today is to live with the reality of daily stigmatisation and ever-increasing threats of violence. In several places, Muslims are expected to abide by the preferences of the majority community. At others, they might be killed on mere suspicion of cow slaughter, or much worse, just because they “look” Muslim. There are attacks on their attire, language, and culture.

Ziya Us Salam’s Being Muslim in Hindu India is an impassioned cry for attention, an attempt to highlight just what has gone wrong with our polity and society in recent years. Painstakingly researched, the book talks of the constant “othering” of Muslims, using tactics of both peace and violence. But despite these grave challenges, there is still a glimmer of optimism.

This was evident in the countrywide protests against the passage of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) that took place from December 15, 2019, after the Act received Presidential assent on December 12. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which sought to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, had cleared both the Lok Sabha (December 9) and the Rajya Sabha (December 11) amid much debate and heated exchanges between the Treasury benches led by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the Opposition MPs.

The following excerpt (from the chapter “The Shaheen Bagh Women Show the Way”) recounts how the women of Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi’s Jamia Nagar neighbourhood, following the targeting of unarmed students at Jamia Millia Islamia University nearby, began a sit-in protest on December 16 that lasted over 100 days until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. These women inspired thousands of similar peaceful demonstrations across the country and stirred the conscience of a nation to stand up for the “idea of India”.

The CAA of 2019 gave legitimacy to discrimination and sought to turn tiered citizenship based on religion into a reality. What it offered and to whom were not as important as whom it denied. It denied Indian citizenship to Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, no matter how persecuted, even as it opened the doors to all Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, etc. Nowhere did it use the word, ‘persecuted’ for those allowed to seek Indian citizenship; just being the nominal adherent of any faith other than Islam was good enough to seek Indian citizenship. The addition of Christians seemed a little like an afterthought, more with a view to keep the West quiet.

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Otherwise, the CAA gave definition to what Savarkar and Golwalkar had preached nearly a century ago; India belonged to Hindus, and all others whose sacred land and motherland lay within its frontiers could stay here on condition of good behaviour, maybe even expect to be treated as guests, but they could never treat India as their home. It was a terrible responsibility to impose. And a disrespectful denial of self-worth.

The Act went against the Constitution of India, the right to equality, the principles of fraternity. Political commentators, human rights activists, some lawyers and authors spoke out against the new, discriminatory law. Most political parties, barring a stray voice of dissent here or there, went on silent mode. It was too risky to raise one’s voice for Muslims; the Hindu vote was in perennial danger of being lost. Not gifted with anything better than a selective conscience at the best of times, many of the Opposition parties almost disappeared from the scene when voices were raised against the CAA. For a hundred days, the common citizens protested—from 15 December to 24 March—in scores of places across the country. No Opposition leader deemed it necessary to speak up for them.

The resistance from armchair critics, commentators and human rights activists was on expected lines—totally predictable, easily manageable. What was not was the stirring fight launched by the gutsy students of Jamia Millia Islamia. They gathered in hundreds against the new law, coined slogans against it, organized a march. Some male students marched naked waist upwards. It was a show of hyper masculinity meant to send a certain signal to opponents. In the chill of Delhi’s December, it was a health risk. The students were sought to be silenced through tear gas and stun guns. Some were lathi-charged even as they sat with their books and notebooks in the library. One student lost his eye. Many were left to groan with broken bones and bruises. For days many were seen with a sling, a plaster and a bandage.

“Dadis” of Shaheen Bagh holding a gift (teddy bear) for Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to come to Shaheen Bagh, in New Delhi on February 13, 2020. The presence of these women gave an altogether different dimension to the movement.

“Dadis” of Shaheen Bagh holding a gift (teddy bear) for Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to come to Shaheen Bagh, in New Delhi on February 13, 2020. The presence of these women gave an altogether different dimension to the movement. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Yet the most potent symbol of resistance came in the visual of two girls in hijab protecting their male colleague from policemen who rained blows on the man who had fallen to the ground and was literally hiding behind his friends. The girls covered him with all their might even as they looked the policemen in the eye. The visual sent out a strong message of hope and defiance. Muslims had lost their sense of fear, and the timidity that had overcome their character due to the pressure to always be the one maintaining the peace. They would take this much, and no further. The visuals signaled to the government, too, that India’s largest minority was not ready to succumb, not ready to accept the discriminatory law or resign to being browbeaten. They were determined to assert their right to be here as much as anybody else. They were not guests meant to be suffered for a while and then sent packing, and they would say it out loud. Then, social media went into a frenzy—on 15 December 2019—when unarmed students were targeted by the police.

By the next morning, the early shoots of the revolution became clearer still. And from the most unlikely of quarters: the women of Shaheen Bagh, located barely a couple of kilometres beyond Jamia Millia Islamia, rose as one. History has witnessed many a fightback by the oppressed; many revolts and revolutions were started by the young and the armed; many a rousing counter too was posed by unarmed youngsters on university campuses. There have not been many cases of housewives and unlettered, frail, old women speaking up, united not just as a community, but as right-thinking people and lovers of justice against the actions of an increasingly authoritarian government. This time they did, and the women sent a message of equality and freedom with such zest and fervour that even a historian as seasoned Romila Thapar came down to join the protest. As did famous author Arundhati Roy, with her limited Hindi and abundance of enthusiasm.

Also Read | Do you hear the people sing?

The women of Shaheen Bagh launched what became a call for revolution and azaadi—freedom from discrimination, freedom to live by the ideals of our founding fathers, by the Constitution of India. For the first time since Independence, Muslim women were out on the streets, holding the tricolour aloft; the same flag which had in the past been used to question the patriotism of the community by far-Right proponents. Under the same tricolour the women took shelter, and then rallied the nation around it.

Shaheen Bagh was made well and truly memorable by its remarkable grandmothers—women in their late 70s and 80s who had never taken part in any social uprising or even a rally until now. Some had never even been to elementary school. Yet, at Shaheen Bagh, they stood and fought like tigresses for their grandchildren, for their education, their jobs and businesses, and above all, their right to be considered Indians.

At the height of the protest, Bilquis Dadi and others like Sarwari and Asma Khatoon were invited by the studios of NDTV to present their reason for the protest to a wider audience. On the live show, they challenged the prime minister to reel out the names of seven generations of his ancestors even as they gave out the names of the male members of their family tree. It was no idle banter. It was a strong message to the powers that be that they belonged here, have lived here, and would die here.

The presence of these old women who attained fame as the ‘Dadis or Grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh’ gave an altogether different dimension to the movement. The world sat up and took notice of how unarmed, uneducated, grand old women were on the streets, protesting against a new law in India and shaking a whole nation up from its slumber.

At a time when many institutions stood compromised, the doughty women sent out a signal of hope. David could still defeat Goliath.

Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins India from Being Muslim in Hindu India: A Critical View by Ziya Us Salam.

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