SHORTLY after Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad made an offer to talk to protesters in Shaheen Bagh, a human rights activist quipped: “ Kaun se Shaheen Bagh [Which Shaheen Bagh]? There are a million Shaheen Baghs now.” The remark, though a bit of hyperbole, conveyed the spirit of Shaheen Bagh and the more than a dozen similar protests it has spawned in the capital. In fact, wherever you are in Delhi, a 24-hour anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protest is within reach. From the eastern fringe of the city to central Delhi, from south to north, women have been sitting on endless dharnas, raising their voices against the CAA, the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and telling whosoever cares to listen: “ Aap chronology toh samajhiye [Please understand the chronology]. First, they will bring the NPR which is the doorway to the NRC. Then they will bring the NRC and divide us on the lines of religion through the CAA.”
The new “Shaheen Baghs” did not spring up suddenly. As the fame of Shaheen Bagh spread far and wide, women flocked from all parts of the city to the protest site, which had become some sort of a pilgrimage site. Some changed three, even four, Metros to reach Shaheen Bagh. A few visits later they realised that the crowd at Shaheen Bagh was swelling and it was not easy to commute such long distances every day. It also dawned on them that it was equally important to take the message of Shaheen Bagh to new places. Moreover, there were some women whose families were opposed to the idea of them travelling long distances by themselves. So, the protesters did the next best thing: if they could not go to Shaheen Bagh, they would bring Shaheen Bagh to their doorstep, to their colony, their locality.
Thus came about the first protest site outside Shaheen Bagh, in Khureji in east Delhi. A Muslim-dominated area, it is barely a kilometre from the crowded Vikas Marg and the Nirman Vihar Metro station. The protest here started exactly a month after women sat on an indefinite strike in Shaheen Bagh on December 15, 2019. In Khureji, women gathered one evening in the second week of January, lit candles, raised slogans, sang the national anthem and, surprising the police, stayed put.
The police swung into action, and on a cold wintry night when Delhi was celebrating Lohri, they took apart the protesters’ tent, tore the rugs and confiscated their blankets. The women stood under the trees but refused to leave the protest site. The police allegedly switched off the lights too. The women remained unflustered, holding on to each other for support. A few hours later, now armed with fresh rugs, blankets and several rounds of tea, they resumed their battle to “protect the Constitution”.
The women got a shot in the arm with the likes of the human rights activist Sadaf Jafar, the lawyer Prashant Bhushan and the Delhi University academic Prof. Apoorvanand either taking up their cause or speaking at the protest site. The camaraderie among the women stood out when the Jamia Millia Islamia student Ayesha Renna, whose picture of taking on policemen even as she shielded her male companion in the university had made her something of a hero, came to address them. Hailing from Kerala, Ayesha Renna knew little Hindi, even less Urdu. And the audiences knew at best limited English. Yet in a spirited interaction, she got hundreds of women to shout slogans, even sing along with her Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s protest poem “Hum dekhenge”.
Later, the women set up a photograph gallery of Ashfaqullah and Ram Prasad Bismil, the freedom fighters who were hanged for the Kakori train conspiracy (1925) that became a prominent chapter in the history of the Independence movement. December 19 is the anniversary of the death of the revolutionaries. Sticking the black-and-white pictures of the revolutionaries together, the women wrote Bismil-Ashfaq, hyphenating their names. For anybody who needed a message of togetherness and communal amity, the picture provided it loud and clear.
Even as the protests in Khureji soon grew in stature and size, another one sprang up at Inderlok, near the Metro station, reverberating with the same spirit as in Shaheen Bagh far away. Hardly any celebrity visited the place though some local people hoped that the film star Zeeshan Ayub would come calling. They got hands-on support from the advocate Mahmood Pracha, who helped the women set up a tent and a small stage. A few hundred sat on a dharna 24x7.
Every evening, a couple of hours after sunset, at least a thousand people gathered at the site. Taking inspiration from Shaheen Bagh, they too set up a wall with photographs of freedom fighters. Interestingly, they brought back the freedom fighters Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Zakir Husain and Surya Sen back into public discourse. A few drawings on the road were lit up in the evening with candles.
The Inderlok protest encouraged budding poets to read out their works. As evening came, the going got more serious, and speakers dwelt on how the CAA impacted not just Muslims but all poor people and the landless. “It is wrong to see it through a Hindu-Muslim prism,” a speaker enlightened the audiences one evening. “It is important to understand that the government wants to sell this Hindu-Muslim binary to confuse the common man. In reality though, rich Muslims, like rich Hindus, will have proof, birth certificates, their land deeds. But the poor, be they Muslim, Hindu or of any denomination, will not have any evidence to substantiate their claim. If their father had left land behind, would they have been living in a jhuggi [slum] or by the roadside?” he asked. And the women replied in unison: “No.”
Nizamuddin & Hauz Rani
Inderlok’s women were allowed to protest peacefully at the site but not so their sisters from Nizamuddin who were forced by the police to leave the road they had occupied and shift to a local park. Here, too, the women kept their nerve. They came back a few hours later, this time setting up a tent over their head and spreading durries under their feet. The protest resumed with “Hum Dekhenge”. Initially, only a couple of hundred women sat there in protest, but once the tent was set up, nearly a thousand women poured in, mostly from Nizamuddin and adjacent localities.
The women at Hauz Rani, a Muslim-dominated area, however, had to have nerves of steel to survive in the crowded lanes near the upmarket Saket. Constantly living under the fear of being uprooted, the women showed exemplary fortitude to carry on the protest. The threats from the police remained constant, with the women being defiant, ushering in each evening by reciting the poetry of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and ending with the national anthem. Interestingly, with handwritten placards, they called on moviegoers frequenting the DLF multiplex nearby to spare a few moments to join in protest because “detention centres will not leave you untouched either”.
Jafrabad, Mustafabad & Seelampur
There were protests in places like Jafrabad, Mustafabad and Seelampur too where the poor reside. These places have a high density of daily-wage earners, rickshaw-pullers, zardozi (embroidery) artisans and those helping with recycling of electronic waste. The women earned a few extra rupees for the family by working as part-time tailors or zardozi workers at home. Yet they all found time to sit in protest against CAA-NPR-NRC, knowing that they have no proof of land ownership in case the Assam model of NRC was replicated in the city.
Most of them are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, a few owning the houses they live in or the shops where they work. For them, the CAA coupled with the NPR and the NRC is like a hangman’s noose in waiting. Hence, every day, the women took turns to sit on dharna, establishing a tacit understanding with others at the site. They made up a significant portion of the 17 anti-CAA protests going on in the city. Most Delhiites were not aware that there were protests in that part of the city, but right from the time violence was reported on anti-CAA rallies in mid December, the women here had been steadfastly refusing to move. When Home Minister Amit Shah talked of “not moving an inch from CAA”, the largely uneducated women responded by saying: “We will not move a centimetre either.”
The best, though, came from the hijab-clad, unsung women of the Walled City. Most would have spent years listening to the praises of Shahi Imam Ahmad Bukhari of Jama Masjid. Yet when the imam spoke in favour of the CAA, the women took no time in coming out of their homes to oppose him. To the shock of the imam, they made the staircase of the historic mosque their home. Every evening women lit candles at Jama Masjid, having walked from the Chawri Bazar Metro station. Every evening, they would debate on the CAA and raise slogans against the new law. Some of them even taunted the imam, asking him to join them. Every night, they would go to sleep after singing the national anthem at Jama Masjid, having hoisted the tricolour there, and having reminded the imam that the mosque was as much theirs as his, much like the country.
It is no stretch of imagination to say that Delhi accommodates a Shaheen Bagh in every corner of the city. Meanwhile, the National Alliance against the CAA held a protest at Jantar Mantar, the usual venue for protests. For a change, women from Shaheen Bagh left their place and came to Jantar Mantar to raise their voice alongside men. It was the only occasion they ceded space to men. Otherwise, almost all the anti-CAA protests in Delhi have been dominated by women.