The India Gate replica is positioned in the middle of the road. A huge steel map of India, with the slogan “We the people of India reject CAA, NPR, NRC” emblazoned on it, stands tall over the replica as thousands of men bow in prayers to the call of the azan. The road around is strewn with posters, placards and paintings opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)/National Population Register (NPR)/National Register of Citizens (NRC). It is Friday afternoon at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, a locality which has now emerged as the Tehrir Square of India.
As jumme ki namaz (Friday prayers) concludes and the men disperse, volunteers swiftly rearrange the place for the women protesters to take their place at the site. Once again, there is a rendition of the national anthem followed by the usual protest speeches, songs and slogans. People, both men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, are seen coming to the protest site in groups after alighting at the nearby Metro station. Some are seen rushing back to tend to their homes or children or their work.
It is a continuous stream that has been going on unbroken, uninterrupted, come rain or hail since December 15, 2019. Even when Delhi shivered in near-zero-degree winter chill, with rains lashing and no sign of the sun anywhere, the women kept vigil at Shaheen Bagh, some frail with age, some cuddling infants in their arms, some accompanied by small children holding on to their hands. College students with their backpacks, young professionals, civil society activists, artistes, Shaheen Bagh has been seeing them all coming together in solidarity. The protest here has many forms: poetry rendition, songs, street plays, shayari recitals, painting, sketching and even cooking the langar [community kitchen] way. Men and women of different castes and religions are all protesting together, determined to make the government take back the CAA.
On January 22, as the 144 petitions against the CAA came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, there was an air of optimism in the crowd there. It slowly turned into a steely resolve to continue the fight until “the government withdraws the Act”.
“We have been sitting here for 38 days. When we started, we knew nothing about street protests. We will sit here for as long as it is required. We are now veterans in this,” said an elderly Nasreen Begum, with a glint in her eyes. True, for the majority of these women, used to leading a sheltered life in purdah , coming out and sitting on the road was something unheard of, something their menfolk would not have agreed to at all. But now, with that first hurdle crossed, there was no stopping these women who have been sitting as sentinels, demanding a secure future for their children even as they simultaneously attend to their domestic responsibilities.
Small schoolgoing children and college students, too, have made the protest site their home. They come with their books to study after their return from school/college.
Nine busloads of Sikh farmers from Punjab have landed at Shaheen Bagh and provide two langars every day. “We have come to express solidarity with our sisters here as we too are opposed to this unconstitutional law,” said Parminder Singh from Jalandhar.
Interestingly, Shaheen Bagh, a relatively little-known locality, suddenly burst into the city’s political landscape after the brutal police crackdown on Jamia Millia Islamia students. Since Shaheen Bagh is nearby, the brute reality of the implications of this law exploded on these women as they watched the police beating up Jamia students, including girls, bursting tear gas shells and opening fire. “My children are small, but they will grow up and go to school and college one day. I shudder to think about the day when something like this happens in future,” says a hijab-clad Afreen, accompanied by her little girl holding on to her hands. The fear of an uncertain future when they might be made to stand in queue to prove their Indian nationality has suddenly gripped a huge section of Indian Muslims, as what has been happening in Assam, where the NRC has left out lakhs of genuine Indian citizens, could not be ignored.
It is, thus, no surprise that Shaheen Bagh has become a template for protests elsewhere in Delhi, as well as the rest of India. In Delhi, spontaneous protests, mostly by women, have erupted in areas such as Khureji, Turkman Gate and Seelampur. In Khureji, for example, about 200 women gathered on January 13 and have been sitting there ever since. The crowd swells to 10,000 sometimes in the evening, but their 24-hour vigil has continued despite efforts by the police to chase them away. On January 22, after the Supreme Court refused to stay the CAA and gave the Centre four weeks’ time to reply, Khureji saw a unique protest as thousands of black balloons with “No CAA No NRC” written on them were released into the air.
The steps leading to the Jama Masjid in Delhi also turn into a protest site by evening as hundreds of women from nearby areas gather for a sit-in for three hours every evening. Hijab- and burkha-clad women, holding candles and placards, turn the protest into an ethereal sight.
Elsewhere in India, too, women have come out to protest a la Shaheen Bagh. From Waseypur in Jharkhand to Jaipur in Rajasthan, from Allahabad, Kanpur, Etawah and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh to Patna and Gaya in Bihar, from Azad Maidan in Mumbai to Park Circus Maidan in Kolkata, women have come out on the streets for 24x7 vigil, demanding answers from the government on the CAA, the NPR and the NRC.
What is striking is that even in small towns such as Gopalganj, Kishanganj and Bahadurganj in Bihar, Muslim women have come out and are protesting. Cities such as Raipur in Chhattisgarh and Pune in Maharashtra, which have not been known for public protests, have also seen women come out and protest. And if Shaheen Bagh is the template, then these protests are not dying out anytime soon. Not until the government comes out with some satisfactory answers.
The protests have largely been peaceful except in Uttar Pradesh, where the police apparently has been given the signal to adopt high-handed tactics with women. In Lucknow, for example, where a group of women have been sitting at Ghanta Ghar, the police took away their tents and blankets and filed first information reports (FIRs) against 60-odd women for rioting and inciting hostility between communities. Among those against whom FIRs have been filed are Sumaiya Rana and Fauzia Rana, daughters of the noted Urdu poet Munawwar Rana.
In Delhi, however, the police have been trying to persuade the women to lift their siege of the main road in Shaheen Bagh, which connects Delhi with Noida. The matter reached the Delhi High Court as the advocate Amit Sahni filed a petition demanding that the road be cleared as it was causing difficulties to lakhs of commuters every day besides leading to loss of business in the nearby market area. The High Court asked the Delhi Police to take a call keeping in mind the larger public interest and the law-and-order situation. Since then, Delhi Police personnel have visited the protest site twice and appealed to the women to vacate the road, to no avail. Sahni has now filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that the Delhi Police be ordered to clear the road.
When asked if they did not fear arrest, the women at Shaheen Bagh gave a resounding no. “Kitne logo ko jail me bharenge? (How many people can they put in jail?)”, they said in chorus. They were all ready to go to jail.
In fact, all eyes were on the Supreme Court, where a three-judge Bench, headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justice Abdul Nazeer and Justice Sanjeev Khanna, were to hear 144 petitions opposing the CAA on January 22. Everyone thought the court would stay the new law until at least the hearing was completed. But the court, refusing to stay the CAA, gave four weeks’ time to the government to file its replies. It also asked the High Courts to stop hearing such petitions. It gave the Centre two weeks’ time to give its reply regarding the petitions relating to Assam and Tripura. The three-judge Bench said a Constitution Bench could also be formed to hear the matter.
What, however, was surprising was that the government has not softened its stand despite such countrywide protests. Professionals have joined the women protesters. While doctors and medical students at Aligarh Muslim Universtiy held a white coat march, chanting azaadi slogans, holding banners and placards, lawyers, too, held a protest march at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
But the government remains adamant as was seen when Home Minister Amit Shah, addressing a pro-CAA rally on January 21 in Lucknow, thundered: “CAA will not be withdrawn, those who are protesting may continue to do so.” Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while welcoming the new Bharatiya Janata Party president J.P. Nadda at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, said: “This bunch which is protesting now, had never supported us in any case, so no point wasting time trying to convince them.”
With such political obduracy on display, the only way out of this stalemate is the Supreme Court. Until then, Shaheen Baghs across India will continue to chant azaadi . Whether the protests result in the government diluting the law or not remains to be seen, but it has already led to one splendid achievement: the emancipation of sheltered, home-bound Muslim women, which has taken them out of their purdah into the political mainstream without the mullahs and maulanas directing them. It has given them a new identity: fighters for their own space and rights. No longer seen only as victims when issues such as triple talaq dominated public discourse.