Kolkata’s Shaheen Bagh

Print edition : February 28, 2020

Asmat Jamil on February 2, the 28th day of protest at Park Circus Maidan. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri

ON January 7, two days after the brutal attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University students in Delhi by Hindutva goons, seven women, led by Asmat Jamil, sat in protest at Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. All of them are homemakers with no political connections. One of them sat at the protest site with her one-year-old baby on her lap; another was an octogenarian. They are resolved to remain there until the controversial Act is withdrawn.

“Someone, not from the media, took my interview and posted it on his Facebook page. In that interview I had appealed to all the women of Bengal to come and join us in our protest. Responding to my appeal, women from different parts of Bengal, including Birbhum, Murshidabad, Purulia and other places, began to join us,” Asmat told Frontline.

Within days, the protesters swelled to tens of thousands. “On an average, every day around 20,000-25,000 people come to our protest from morning till night; on Republic Day more than one lakh assembled. On holidays the crowd is particularly strong,” said Asmat. Although there are men present at the protest site, they are there just to provide a protective circle around the women; the protest is conducted by women themselves.

The energy, enthusiasm and commitment of the protesters have made the atmosphere at Park Circus Maidan electric. The women have made it clear that there is no room for mainstream politics in their peaceful agitation, and there is none of the rancour or aggression that is often associated with protests; instead, a feeling of warmth and camaraderie pervades the protest ground. All are welcomed with smiles, and there is an infectious sense of participation. “You may be a journalist,” Asmat told this correspondent, “but first you are my brother.”

When the Park Circus protest captured the imagination of the younger generation, students and young activists began to arrive not just to voice their support but also to extend assistance by providing blankets for the cold winter nights, food, water and medicines. “We were touched by their warmth. There were so many non-Muslim students from Jadavpur University, Presidency University and other places who had come forward to support us,” said Asmat.

For 44-year-old Asmat, who runs a non-governmental organisation that provides medical assistance and social service, this prolonged protest has not been easy to sustain physically. She has had a kidney transplant, and sitting in dharna for so long and for so many days has been taking a toll on her health. But she remains undeterred and cheerful. One of her fellow-protesters, Shamida Khatoun, 57, who in spite of her failing health continued to sit in protest, died on February 2 after falling ill at the protest site. Thousands came to pay their condolences.

Shamida’s death, instead of breaking the spirit of the protesters, further strengthened their resolve to continue. On February 2, after 26 days of continuous protest, Asmat said: “We are not leaving this place before the Supreme Court verdict comes.”

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