Protest at Shaheen Bagh

CAA protests: Making it count in Delhi

Print edition : January 31, 2020

On the night of December 31 , protesters ring in the New Year raising slogans against the CAA and the NRC at south-east Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Photo: shiv kumar pushpakar

A protester at Shaheen Bagh holding a poster showing a detention camp. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh lead a silent revolution against the CAA, the NRC, and the NPP, braving cold weather conditions.

TO be a Muslim is to be an orphan or the “other” in new India. Since 2014, there have been systematic attacks on the identity of the country’s largest minority community. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has denied its members the ticket to contest elections, and in States such as Karnataka, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh, the name of every sixth Muslim has been deleted from the electoral rolls. Add to this the Centre’s decision to turn Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority State, into a Union Territory, and the picture of marginalisation of Muslims is complete. Since 2014, the community has been silenced. Muslims have been browbeaten into accepting the Muslim Women’s Representation of Marriage Act and even the renaming of cities that had names associated with the community. But now there is resistance, not by some dubious cleric or shrewd politician trying to fish in troubled waters but by veiled Muslim women.

The women—homemakers, schoolteachers, college lecturers and professors, the old and the young—have emerged as the strongest rallying point in the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). The site of their protest, Shaheen Bagh in south-east Delhi, has attracted international attention. The venue is just a few minutes’ walk from Jamia Millia Islamia, the Central university campus that saw the Delhi Police force their way into the library, hostel and other areas and fire tear gas shells on December 15, 2019. With their peaceful and relentless dharna, the women have given hope and courage to the men to carry on the fight another day.

The women gathered at Shaheen Bagh in response to the police action on the Jamia Millia Islamia campus and startled their detractors by staging a protest replete with the imagery of India. The national flag on the two flanks of the stage, tricolour buntings and tricolour balloons provide an idea of India. To the left of the stage are handwritten or hand-drawn placards demanding the withdrawal of the CAA, the NRC and the NPR. A few of the placards take a dig at the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.

One placard notably shows a woman wearing a hijab with a bindi on her forehead. The legend reads: “Mr PM, now recognise me by my clothes!” It is not so much a challenge to Narendra Modi, who had remarked that the protesters could be identified by their clothes, but an expression of their new-found political savvy. When Home Minister Amit Shah claimed the government was not moving back an inch on the CAA, the women thundered: “We are not moving back a millimetre.”

In spite of the freezing cold in Delhi, the women have been resolute in their protest. Braving chilly winds, sitting on a rug on the road, with just a tarpaulin sheet over their heads, the women derive solace from each other’s company. When Shabana feeds her six-month-old baby, there is a Nabeela or a Shah Jehan to lend a shawl to cover her. “If we do not sit here today, we might have to sit in a detention centre tomorrow. So we will fight for our rights here and now. We will not allow Modi to change our Constitution. People of all religions cooperated to give us this Constitution,” Shabana says.

Rehana Khatoon, with her 20-day-old baby in her lap, says: “If I do not protest, when my child grows up, he will ask me ‘what were you doing when India was protesting against the CAA?’ What will I say? I do not want my child not to respect me or think of me as a coward.”

When Salma had to go home to check on her ailing mother-in-law, her neighbour of many years in Abul Fazal Enclave, Suraiya, stepped in. Rifat, who teaches at a school, joins the protest in the afternoon. “They have awakened a sleeping giant. They call us Pakistanis. It is our land. Kisike baap ka Hindustan thode hi hai [India belongs to nobody’s father]. You tell the world it is Muslims versus the government. It is not true. Yes, I am a Muslim. And I am proud of being one. Why should I hide my Muslim identity to be accepted as an Indian? But with us there are Dalits who are being killed in Kanpur. There are people from all communities. You go to India Gate and Jantar Mantar, everybody joins. They all realise that today it is the Muslims, tomorrow it could be them. You want to divide us. We will not let you.”

As the women sit on a dharna, their husbands and sons, in a role reversal, do household chores. Doctors are available at the venue round the clock as the women brave extreme cold conditions. Lawyers have offered their services, if a need arises, for free.

Young boys and girls run errands for them. Every evening, they form a circle around the women protesters to prevent anti-social elements from getting into the crowd and indulging in violence. The best support comes from local shopkeepers who have either downed the shutters or do not spread out their wares outside the shop to attract customers.

Amidst endless rounds of tea and biryani twice a day, the women compete to render patriotic songs. Often they sing “Saare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara”; occasionally, they sing, “Hum laye hain toofan se kashti nikal ke”. “Hum Dekhenge”, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem against the oppressive regime of Pakistan’s military ruler Zia-ul-Haq, gets a feisty rendition here. They sing Habib Jalib’s Dastoor, too. Words such as “aise dastoor ko, subhe-be-noor ko/ main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta (This system, this morning bereft of light/I refuse to accept, I refuse to acknowledge) rend the air.

Whenever a speaker from outside addresses them, the women listen with rapt attention. Each speech ends with cries of Inquilaab zindabad (hail revolution). Importantly, politicians of almost all hues have been kept out, with only the Aam Aadmi Party’s local legislator being allowed to join the protesters. The women ushered in the New Year by lighting candles and singing the national anthem. The women, holding copies of the Preamble in their hands, pledged to uphold the Constitution of India.

Giving these women strength are grandmothers, in their sunset years but refusing to bow to injustice. Their home-grown wisdom leaves everybody stunned. “What do I have to lose by coming here? At the most I will die! But I will ensure when my grandson or his children grow up, they will not have to give evidence of being Indians,” says one, her name a bit difficult to comprehend. “Media walon ko hamare naam bhi lena nahin aata. Lekin woh bhi yahan hai. Kuchh baat to hai hamare aetejaj mein (Media personnel cannot even pronounce our names. But even they are here. There is something remarkable about our protest).

There is 90-year-old Asma Khatoon, who won the hearts of many by going to a private channel’s news studio and reeling out the names of nine generations of her family. Not content, she threw a challenge to Prime Minister Modi. “You give me the names of seven generations of your family! You ask us to prove if we are Indians? We are not going to show any documents. Do what you want.” Blaming the Prime Minister for drawing old women to the streets of Delhi, she said: “There can be fire at home. There are floods. How is a poor person supposed to save documents?” The protest slogan is “Kaagaz nahin dikhayenge” (We will not show any papers when the NPR guys come knocking). Speaker after speaker just had to say the word “kaagaz”, and the women would respond, “nahin dikhayenge”.

Confronted by the Prime Minister’s assertion that no discussion had taken place in the Cabinet on the NRC, Asma Khatoon said: “He speaks like that only. Do we trust him and leave our menfolk to die? If they can attack our boys studying in a library [referring to the Jamia Millia Islamia attack], they can do anything. How can we trust the Prime Minister when his own Home Minister speaks in a different voice?”

Sarwari added: “We kept quiet when there was a ruling against the Babri Masjid. We kept quiet when they came with a ruling on triple talaq. We kept quiet when there was demonetisation. But when they entered Jamia and assaulted students in the library, in toilets, hostels, we decided enough is enough. Modi mistook our silence for weakness. We were quiet not out of fear but because we had faith in the Constitution. Now, when he wants to change the Constitution, enough is enough. We will speak up. Hamari awaaz na dheemi hogi, hamare qadam na thhamenge, hum peechhe nahin hatenge [Our voices shall not dim, our steps will not stop, we will not retreat]. It may take a year. It may take two. But we will not move away.”

Whatever the fate of their protest, the women of Shaheen Bagh have ensured that posterity will recall their brave action of a long, peaceful protest, of being combative, aggressive but not taking resort to violence.

They hurled no stones; heaped no abuses. They just stood their ground in the face of a grim attack on the values of the nation. They changed the stereotype of the helpless, exploited Muslim woman living in danger of instant triple talaq. In fact, they might just have given the men a shot in the arm with their actions.

With such brave women making their presence felt, the nation may just have an anchor. As a protester keeps shouting: “Hindustan kisi ke baap ka thode hi hai.”

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