When the police attacked Jamia Millia Islamia students mid-December, ransacking the university’s library and dispensing instant justice with lathis on innocent unarmed students who had nothing to do with the burning of a bus, the people of Delhi’s Jamia Nagar wanted to go on a protest. Some local leaders said it wasn’t a wise idea in such a volatile situation.
The people were angry. They decided to sit and protest at a ground in the neighbourhood, except there was no one to witness their protest. They were sitting and screaming their lungs out in the interiors of a Muslim ‘ghetto’. They might as well be sitting at home. It would get over in a few hours, some thought.
It’s been 35 days and the occupation of Shaheen Bagh has become the prime metaphor of a national movement against the Narendra Modi government’s tinkering with India’s citizenship laws that threaten to make many Indian Muslims stateless.
The women of Shaheen Bagh screamed so loudly that the entire country heard their voice. It is electrifying to be at Shaheen Bagh. It is inspiring. It is soul-stirring. It is life re-affirming. If you haven’t yet been to Shaheen Bagh, you are missing out on being witness to history.
The falconer cannot hear the falcon
“Hindustan ek bagh hai aur hum usse Shaheen hai,” says a hand-made poster on the background of the stage. India is a garden and we are its Shaheen. Bird watchers will tell you that Shaheen is a falcon; connoisseurs of Urdu poetry will tell you the bird has been eulogised aplenty in shayaris.
Shaheen the falcon is native to South Asia and is a non-migratory bird. It belongs to this land and it stays here — exactly what Indian Muslims are saying in response to the threat of being thrown into detention camps or the Bay of Bengal after being labelled ‘infiltrators’.
“Shaheen Bagh is no longer Shaheen Bagh,” came a voice from the stage last evening. “It is Hindustan.”
If you strike up conversations with strangers at Shaheen Bagh, you will find that many have come from different parts of the country just to be a part of this moment and this movement. Like Umar from Darbhanga in Bihar, who quit his job in Punjab just to come and be at Shaheen Bagh. It means the world to this young man to just be among this sea of humanity, waves of them coming in and going out. That sick feeling of being alone and helpless in the face of a legal assault that threatens this young man’s future… Shaheen Bagh is his medicine. It’s saving him from giving in to the unrelenting January cold.
Shaheen Bagh is important to the people visiting it, and to countless others across the world who may not be able to mark their presence there but take hope from it nonetheless. And no, they are not all Muslim. People of all religions, castes, classes are visiting. It’s not just about saving Indian Muslims. It’s about saving India.
It is easy to be cynical about Shaheen Bagh. What will it achieve? Hasn’t it become a cool fad? Isn’t it pointless? For them the first answer is catharsis. Shaheen Bagh is for those who feel choked and disenfranchised in the world’s largest democracy and want to go for a breath of fresh, polluted Delhi air. Do not belittle their need for catharsis.
The Shaheen Bagh Satyagraha
There are many more reasons why Shaheen Bagh matters. When the protests began as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed on 11 December, many wondered how long they might last. Speaker after speaker announces from the Shaheen Bagh stage: “We are not moving until the law is withdrawn.”
For those who think the powerful Modi government will never withdraw the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, those who have no hope from an increasingly executive-minded Supreme Court, they should think of the Champaran Satyagraha. Mahatma Gandhi said he’ll go there for just two days. People thought it was ridiculous to imagine the British indigo planters could be made to leave Champaran. Gandhi stayed on for six months and left Champaran only after the indigo planters did.
The citizenship protests were initially in the form of marches and gatherings, and those can be hard to do day after day. Shaheen Bagh is an occupation, just like Mahatma Gandhi’s refusal to leave Champaran, plodding guilty before a magistrate and expressing willingness to be jailed. Shaheen Bagh is a satyagraha, and those who don’t see it as one do themselves a disservice.
Those who think a mighty regime cannot be made to hear the people’s voice should note that Shaheen Bagh is inspiring many more Shaheen Baghs to come up: in Patna, in Gaya, in Pune, in Kolkata, in Jaipur, in Raipur, in Bhopal, in Prayagraj/Allahabad, and within Delhi in Seelampur and Turkman Gate.
As the slogan goes: Jamia ki ladkiyon ne raasta dikhaya hai. The Jamia women have shown the way.
The women-led occupation of public spaces makes it difficult for a regime even as unfeeling as this one to portray the protesters as violent jihadis sensually marauding through the cities and menacing peace-loving Hindus. Shaheen Bagh is making it difficult even for the most bloodthirsty fascist to not see humanity before religion: two eyes, two ears, one nose.
“Sanghiyon se jhanda cheen liya,” says an old friend I bump into at Shaheen Bagh. We’ve reclaimed the Tricolour from the ‘Sanghis’. The national flag is everywhere in Shaheen Bagh. Everyone’s draped in the tiranga. The women in hijab and burqa are all too aware that they are demonised and dehumanised in the name of feminism. But they add tiranga colours to their clothes and faces, hold it in their hands and scream out nationalist slogans like everyone else.
Now if Narendra Modi says again the protesters can be identified by their clothes, the people of Shaheen Bagh will show him the tiranga they have draped themselves in. If clothes are a marker of identity, meet your fellow Indians at Shaheen Bagh.
They want you to know that, as a poster said, their clothes don’t come in the way of them having an opinion about whether they should be put in detention camps.
The non-stop active stage and the women sitting in front of it is just the tip of the iceberg. The sea of people stretches far ahead, beyond the line of sight. Once you leave the tent, you see a mela. Groups of people and stalls in various directions, doing their own thing, shouting their own slogans. There’s a reading tent where you are urged to “study and struggle”, there’s a makeshift detention camp where you can prepare for what’s coming ahead, and there are posters and slogans all over the foot-over bridge that now looks like installation art.
Brave soldiers of the Constitution
Visit Shaheen Bagh for the protest art maybe: my favourite is a sketch of B.R. Ambedkar pulling Amit Shah’s ears to teach him Equality Before Law. Or visit it for the music and books, maybe to get hold of an Ambedkar mask. Or just to soak it in and reflect on the times we live in. Some posters will help you do that. “Will you really be happy in Hindu Rashtra?” asks one.
The people of Shaheen Bagh are up against a lot. Their courage is humbling. They know the police could come and use force against them. They know they might have to soon brave lathis and tear gas, if not pellets and bullets. All it will take is to send a few ABVP goons, turn this peaceful protest violent, and then use violence as an excuse for police action.
The brave women of Shaheen Bagh have so far been winning easily against the might of the state and the insensitivity of a devious regime. They have also been winning a much tougher battle: that of truth against the world’s largest fake news factory.
This BJP fake news factory is a hydra-headed monster, from Channel ‘R’ to anonymous WhatsApp warriors. On a daily basis, the BJP fake news factory spreads poisonous lies against Shaheen Bagh. One day they are accused of invoking Jinnah and next day of abusing Kashmiri Pandits. And on a daily basis, Shaheen Bagh wins this battle, countering every lie with gusto. When called Islamists, they hold a multi-faith prayer. When blamed for what Pakistan-backed militants did in the Kashmir Valley in 1989, they devote a day expressing solidarity with Kashmiri Pandits.
The electoral opposition could learn from the women of Shaheen Bagh on how to counter the Modi-Shah assault on democracy. But they shouldn’t visit Shaheen Bagh just yet: the people are very clear, no politicians please. The pathetic lawyers and intellectuals of the Congress party who are busy legitimising the CAA for the BJP shouldn’t even dream of visiting Shaheen Bagh. They should stay put with their single malts. They don’t deserve to be among the masses anymore. They don’t know what people power is.
Views are personal.