Controversy

Shaheen Bagh protesters: Showing the way

Print edition : April 24, 2020

Police use an earthmover to clear the Shaheen Bagh protest site in Delhi on March 24. Photo: PTI

At midnight on December 31, 2019, the Shaheen Bagh protesters rang in the New Year with slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The Shaheen Bagh protesters departed from their now iconic sit-in site in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, but not before they overturned several stereotypes and inspired similar protests all over the country.

It went the way it started. The 101-day-old Shaheen Bagh protest was dismantled by Delhi Police in the early hours of March 24. There were only a few women present when the police swooped in to remove the tents, the tables, the microphones and the other paraphernalia of the protesters who had made Shaheen Bagh the epicentre of one of the best-known Gandhian satyagrahas in modern times.

The police action, which came in the period of lockdown in Delhi and just a little before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a similar lockdown across the country to tackle the COVID-19 menace, surprised many. A little more than a day earlier, the women of Shaheen Bagh, in response to the Prime Minister’s call for a day-long “janata curfew” on March 22, had moved away from the protest site peacefully. They had left behind their shoes and slippers, alongside posters in a symbolic gesture. At the end of the “janata curfew”, a few women gathered again at the site, but with masks and sanitisers.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (South East) R.P. Meena said: “The step has been taken because of the current health situation. The protesters were informed that Section 144 had been imposed in Delhi.” According to him, a first information report (FIR) was registered under Sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the Indian Penal Code. Three men and six women were detained, though the women were released shortly after. The men, Syed Taseer Ahmed, Shan Mohammed and Syed Masood Ahmad were granted bail a week later by a Delhi court which asked them not to visit Shaheen Bagh for the purpose of any protest. “The applicant shall not be posting any opinion regarding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act/National Population Register/National Register of Citizens on any social media, instant messengers, nor will be giving interview in this regard to print and electronic media,” the court stated.

Immediately after the Shaheen Bagh protest site was cleared, the other protest sites at Nizamuddin, Seelampur and Turkman Gate were also cleared. The move brought the curtains down on the unique protest by women that started immediately after Delhi Police entered the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus on December 15, 2019. Many students protesting peacefully against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were injured in the police action and some were detained. It was, however, the visuals of students being subjected to tear gas and violence in the university library by the police that inspired the women of Shaheen Bagh to come out of the confines of their homes to protest against the CAA.

Initially, only a dozen or so women came out. None of them had ever before participated in a public protest. Let alone staying away from home at night, many of them had not even ventured out alone to the local bus stop. Not all of them had a formal education. Some were in the autumn of their lives and worried for the future of their children and grandchildren in the face of new discriminatory laws. In the initial days, the Shaheen Bagh protesters needed hand-holding. They got it, courtesy, two IITians, Aasif Mujtaba and Sharjeel Imam, though the latter dissociated himself after the first two weeks. With help from other men and students from Jamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, the women blocked the much used G.D. Birla Road connecting Delhi and Noida on the one side, and Delhi and Faridabad on the other.

In February, the Supreme Court was approached over the blocking of traffic on this road. The apex court appointed two interlocutors, Sadhana Ramachandran and Sanjay Hegde, to interact with the protesters. Their interaction was followed by a petition in the Supreme Court by former bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah, who contended that the barricading of several roads around Shaheen Bagh by Delhi Police had led to traffic hold-ups in the area. “There are a number of roads that have no connection with the protest site that have been barricaded by the police unnecessarily, abdicating their responsibilities and duties and wrongly laying the blame on the protest,” Habibullah said. His affidavit pointed out that the roads parallel to G.D. Birla Road, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Friends Colony, Maharani Bagh and Sukhdev Vihar, had been blocked by the police. “If the police removed these barricades, the problem of traffic snarls will be taken care of,” he said.

The G.D. Birla Road had not been blocked for the past 40 years or so. The Shaheen Bagh residential locality itself is not much more than 30 years old.

However, the women of Shaheen Bagh knew that protesting at Jantar Mantar, the usual site of protesters, would not get any attention. Blocking a frequently used road would. Concrete slabs and police barricades were used to stop the traffic from day one. While men took care of the initial infrastructural support, the women sat on the road. They sat through rain and hailstorm and did not budge even when Delhi registered its coldest night in 120 years towards the end of 2019. They protested peacefully, persistently and persuasively, asking the government to repeal the CAA.

When the protest started, many of them did not know the full form of the term, but they understood that it was meant to give citizenship to everybody except Muslims. As Shaheen Bagh is a predominantly Muslim locality, the women read it is as a collective insult and pledged not to move back. They understood that the amended law went against the values enshrined in the Constitution. And with the good sense that comes from lifetimes dedicated to nurturing and making homes, they also told the young men taking care of the elementary requirements of the sit-in that violence was not an option.

Then came the hand-written placards explaining the CAA-NPR-NRC nexus, followed soon after by flex banners. The National Population Register (NPR), the women pointed out, was the first step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC), as the Home Minister, no less, had said.

Clarifications by Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi that the CAA had nothing to do with Indian Muslims did not cut much ice. In giving expression to their pent-up anger, the women of Shaheen Bagh, unapologetic about their identity as Muslims or as women, were claiming their rightful place as equal citizens of the country. In the process, they turned many stereotypes on their head. They made it clear that Muslim women were not browbeaten and voiceless victims in need of rescue. They had a mind of their own and could rise to the occasion in the face of challenges.

For days on end, they held copies of the Constitution in their hands, and the Tricolour fluttered at the site all the time. The protest site carried a replica of India Gate, a detention centre, an art gallery and even a library at the nearby bus stop.

Insinuations were made that the women were there for Rs.500 and a plate of biryani. A day after a man opened fire at the Jamia protesters, a terrorist did likewise in Shaheen Bagh. The women remained unfazed through it all. As more women trooped in from all parts of Delhi, the protest began to catch media attention. Women of all faiths started gathering in a show of solidarity. Soon, there came a contingent from Punjab, followed by farmers from Chhattisgarh and nurses from Kerala.

The elderly women of Shaheen Bagh, Sarwar, Bilquis, Mehrun Nisa and Asma Khatoon, became cult figures.New Shaheen Baghs sprang up in Khureji, Mustafabad, Chand Bagh, Kardampuri, Seelampur, Turkman Gate, Jama Masjid, Inderlok, Nizamuddin, Hauz Rani, Shahi Eidgah and Shastri Park, which in turn were followed by protest sites in Zakir Nagar Dhalan, Joshi Colony, Mandawali, Azad Market, Sundar Nagri and Wazirabad.

Within two weeks of the first protests, women in Bhopal gathered at Iqbal Maidan, followed by Park Circus in Kolkata and Roshan Bagh in Allahabad. Then came reports of women-led protests across Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mahashtra, Telangana, Kerala, even Gujarat.

Soon women from Chennai and Bengaluru joined the trend. Even reports of police atrocities on peaceful protesters in Lucknow’s Clock Tower failed to dim their enthusiasm. In Lucknow, the women braved police lathis and did not shy away from the cold when the police snatched their rugs and blankets.

Remarkably, each new protest was called that city’s Shaheen Bagh. For instance, Bengaluru’s protest was dubbed Bilal Bagh as was the Ahmedabad protest. Each site used a similar strategy: they had prominent placards of B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi with good space given to Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah, Ramprasad Bismil, Maulana Azad and Begum Hazrat Mahal. They were all peaceful protests, replete with slogans and songs of resistance. They drew inspiration from literature, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib being favourites. They sought fuel from the past and frequently quoted Rani Laxmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal.

One protester in Shaheen Bagh brought her infant son to the site every day. The infant succumbed to Delhi’s harsh winter. The mother later said that she had heard of Rani Laxmibai taking her son to the battlefield and that she felt that if she did not speak up today, there might be no tomorrow.

No matter what the tangible gains of their protest, the women of Shaheen Bagh set an example that was emulated across the country. Their voice will not be drowned easily. As Sarwar, one of the grannies in Shaheen Bagh protest, declared, “We will be back.”

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