February 3, 2020, remains etched in my memory for it is that day I got to be a part of something bigger than myself. I say this not because I was part of a movement or a protest, but because unlike the 2012 protests against rape, or the Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, I witnessed Shaheen Bagh as a remainder of the regime that we’re living in.
Although through various arguments and never-ending debates, my parents came to accept my opinion, I could never change theirs. I was in Delhi for an interview, and with the time I had left I wanted to see what Shaheen Bagh was all about. I asked a few friends of mine to join me, however, they saw ‘Shaheen’ Bagh as a Muslim protest, a notion I went in with myself too.
I get down at the station and from there a left turn and then a right – I witness ground zero. In what can we argue as the harshest winters Delhi has seen in years, Shaheen Bagh made me feel warm. I could hear the voices of thousands, the singing of Hum Dekhenge and “Humein kya chahiye? Azadi!” from a mile away.
However, these voices weren’t as aggressive I imagined them to be. Being part of only students protests in my hometown and following those in Jamia and JNU, I expected there to be rage. I expected people to boil with hate as to why their citizenship was being questioned.
However, what I witnessed was much different.
As I started walking around, I saw a placard hanging from the wall reading, ‘secular tea’ – haunting yet funny. I see women in hijab, women without it. I see students with guitars, with spray cans. I get to witness grandmothers providing warmth and artists providing entertainment – the kind our nation needs. I see a group of men along with some women frisking visitors for security. The area is filled with energetic yet calming chants of inquilab (revolution).
I see placards all around me. Women sit in a row one after the other, you can listen to hushed voices and loud chants all together. There’s a narrow lane-like space left for anyone to walk towards the podium. That’s another beauty of Shaheen Bagh, a protest that has no leaders but only organisers. There are a few women with 6-month-old infants who have to be breastfed, but at the same time, they make sure that no visitor goes back hungry.
There’s a group of volunteers who make sure that the food is distributed among the protestors and visitors. There’s a Gurdwara committee helping people and serving them tea. In the corner from the tent, you can see little children playing with one another, waving flags, and fighting fascism.
There’d be an argument that these kids are too young to even comprehend what’s happening but that doesn’t mean their voice doesn’t count. Kids often turn restless though, and there’s an activity centre for them that provides them with sketchbooks and organises games too.
Shaheen Bagh can be named a new kind of movement. Unlike all the other movements in India, this one rests on the simple phrase: educate, agitate and organise. The marketplace around remains close. However, a tiny corner shop, earlier the Shaheen Bagh bus stop, has been turned into a makeshift library – Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library.
This library is also a revolution of sorts. Literature and revolution have always shared a very deep relation. There’s a sitting area nearby for people who just wish to read. The library contains books by George Orwell, a collection of Premchand and the likes of Isaac Asimov. This is what makes it phenomenal – reading for a revolution. There are placards saying, “Hum Dekhenge,” (we shall witness) “Let’s read,” “Come sit and read,” “Study and struggle, learn and protest,” among a few others.
You are surrounded by readers of all age groups, religions, class, caste, and gender co-existing and educating themselves in the most peaceful manner. You get to read among the chants going in the background, acting as music to your literature. You get to feel democracy at its best. The idea of an inclusive India that probably our forefathers dreamed of.
The sit-in began on December 15, 2019 – I would say the beginning of a revolution. All this while, my mind wonders as to why was Shaheen Bagh unlike any other protest? It became a symbol of solidarity. Not just against the regime, but everything. I witness it as a makeshift problem.
There are members of the Dalit community holding up posters of Ambedkar and Savitri Bai Phule. I see people reading the Preamble out loud. I see a group of kids, small young kids, being part of a political movement that questions their rights in this country. I see a group of Kashmiri Pandits wanting to go back to their home. I see people standing up for Azad Kashmir. I see these different versions of azadi (freedom) co-existing under this one umbrella that came to be known as Shaheen Bagh.
The CAA, an exclusionary bill that threatens the very nature of India as a secular nation was passed in the parliament to offer citizenship to everyone, barring Muslims from neighbouring three countries on grounds of religious persecution. The bill is also vague in nature without the government logically justifying why communities from other neighbouring countries, i.e. Myanmar and Sri Lanka were left out.
The CAA, alongside the nationwide NCR, announced by the Home Minister which has now been taken back (but happened in Assam), left almost two million paper-stateless. The NPR implies that Muslims may be tested through documentation to prove their citizenship, the question as to how still remains unanswered.
The government creates a despotic qualifier but also serves as a reminder for millions that Muslims’ lives do not matter much or at all under the new saffron nationalism being the witness in the country headed by Narendra Modi.
What followed was the crackdown at Jamia which gave life to the revolution we witness now. The government couldn’t have apprehended how people would stand up against them, against this bill and show solidarity with their Muslims counterparts.
A rather spontaneous protest against the police brutality by students of JNU and DU marked the beginning only to be followed by universities all over India, even the IITs and IIMs, which were never known for the student politics. The rage and sorrow at being treated worse than criminals in their own country made them stand up providing mainstream attention to the protests.
The Home Minister however still seemed pretty bent on pushing through this legislation in a haste to the point of implementing it giving attention to the protests worldwide, rendering 40,000 as ‘illegal’ in Uttar Pradesh -the most populous state of India. This further creates anxiety and panic not only among Muslims but to the document-poor part of the population too.
The rebuttal not only stems from Muslims but from people like me, Adivasis, the Dalit community, migrant women, the LGBTQ community who feel humiliated at the thought of providing a set of paper to claim their citizenship in their own country.
To add to the further aggravation of the crowd, the repeated internet shutdowns, the imposition of Section 144 which restricts large gathering, violence in Muslim dominated localities does the government no favour. Detaining the likes of Ramchandra Guha and Yogendra Yadav further creates a feeling of dislike for the police and the paramilitary. The measures meant to silence the voices only helped in amplifying them even further.
Through all this, the country is witnessing what remains a constant reminder: the women of Shaheen Bagh and their fight against this dictatorship. Their battle gave birth to multiple Shaheen Baghs in Delhi and around India. Thousands flew from rural Punjab and the chief of Bhim Army too, pledged his support, making Shaheen Bagh a secular pilgrimage in motion.
Every day since the crackdown at Jamia, people at Shaheen Bagh have sung melodious tunes, chanted slogans, held down the fort while Muslims offered namaz, knit mufflers, shared food, and listened to the outright disgusting claims of politicians of how women have been bought to Shaheen Bagh at the promise of ₹500; this remains a residue of resistance and revolution.
Shaheen Bagh is a representation of women refusing to be ‘saved’ by those in power. A coalition of women from all ages became a face for this movement. Coercion from all sources – government, media, and police – doesn’t seem to work with them.
The representation of Shaheen Bagh and what it has come to symbolise reminds millions of other mass mobilisations led by issue. The construct of citizenship and handicapping one community has opened the floor to dialogue, debate and discussion about a spectrum of issues that flood the country. People discuss this idea of azadi and what it means to them, it includes everything from independence for Kashmir to justice for Rohith Vemula.
Shaheen Bagh, much like Gilberts’ novel, is a city of women who come together to fight one common villainy. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your fight is against, as long as you come with open arms and warmth in your heart. The message of the women is clear – that the revolution is here and it doesn’t need violence.
Inquilab (revolution) doesn’t need to be blood-stained to fight for what’s right. The future for Shaheen Bagh remains rather uncertain – as it does for protests worldwide. However, in such times of despair, Shaheen Bagh stands for self-belief, hope and most of all solidarity.
With Shaheen Bagh, I left a piece of myself, a piece that made me realise that the revolution is much bigger than me and others like me.