Most Delhiites probably hadn’t heard the name of Shaheen Bagh until when, on December 14 last year, scores of women, majorly Muslim, sat in to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) introduced by the Narendra Modi-led Indian government.
The Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in parliament on December 11, 2019. The act states that religious minorities practising Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Sikhism who have fled from the neighbouring states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh before December 2014 will be given Indian citizenship. However, it exempts Muslims from the act. Coupled with the NRC, this has sparked protests for discriminating against Muslims and the poor who do not have access to valid proofs of citizenship. And the women have been at the heart of this movement.
In exactly a month and a half since, Shaheen Bagh (“Shaheen” means falcon; “bagh”, garden) has become synonymous with resistance against this draconian law. It is an idea and a lived reality that has inspired women from different parts of India to organise sit-in protests. The women come in every morning after completing their household work and either come with their children or with friends and sit. At the protest site, different activities are organised throughout the day. Even when Delhi’s temperature dropped down to 2 degrees Celsius, the spirit of the women didn’t dampen, and the number of protestors have just been increasing each day. On New Year’s and Republic Day, lakhs of protesters turned up at Shaheen Bagh to be part of the celebrations and part of history. But what really makes Shaheen Bagh unique?
Muslim society has always been perceived to be conservative and their women were thought to be repressed, yet one finds more and more ordinary women at the forefront of these demonstrations and protests everywhere. Post-1947, for the first time, Muslim women have come out in such large numbers to protect the constitution of India, all while breaking the everyday shackles of patriarchy. Before this, we did see women come out to protest for the Triple Talaq Bill and Shah Bano case. Yet this is history in the making, wherein women are shouting the slogans of Ambedkar, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, and demanding “Azaadi” while asserting their rights.
Inspired by Shaheen Bagh, women from Hussainabad, Lucknow Park Circus Kolkata, Khureji, Nizamuddin, Seelampur, and Hauz Rani Delhi have also organised sit-in protests. The above mentioned places are all Muslim ghettos that are marginalised pockets in large, segregated Indian cities, and many lack proper access to basic amenities. The counter-narratives suggest that the movement should call off the protests as it has created inconveniences for commuters. However, the shops around Shaheen Bagh are all run by middle class people who have come out to support the women, knowing very well that their households are dependent on their source of income.
Curiosity about the phenomenon of Shaheen Bagh led us to visit the place. As we got off an electric rickshaw and started looking for ten rupees inside our bags, the rickshaw puller told us, “chalega, koi baat nahin” (it’s fine, you don’t have to give the money). As we walked across the protest site, we found a reading space—a bus stand turned library—titled Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh Pustakalaya. We found Hindi, Urdu and English books of Karl Marx, Premchand, Shaheed Udham Singh, Ramachandra Guha, B. R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, James Baldwin and Ismat Chugtai, among others. The books have all been donated by different people. Anyone can sit and read in this library.
As we walked around the place, we could not miss the various posters hanging from the foot overbridge. As we strolled around Shaheen Bagh, we came across Lucknow Biryani, a small restaurant where we decided to have lunch. The shop owner told us that on Republic Day, 40 kilos of keema (kababs) had been sold and on other days, up to 15 kilos of kababs were cooked, which is much higher above the usual consumption. We also found garment shops, small eateries and tea stalls on both sides of the road. Tea stalls and chaat stalls have also been put up close to the sit-in protests. As we joined the women there, we saw young boys sweeping the area to keep it clean.
The map of India there with the text “We, The People of India, Reject CAA, NPR, NRC” is a beautiful reminder of all that India stands for—inclusion and tolerance. It is no surprise that it attracts many visitors, as it is suggestive of an all-inclusive India that shields everyone without excluding a particular community. The map has also become a backdrop of many photos clicked by visitors and a symbol of patriotism in opposition to the highly discriminatory hyper-nationalism that excludes everyone who interrogates the ruling party.
The most striking feature is perhaps the peaceful nature of the protests. Women there are well-informed about what they want and they stick to it. Their fight is with the ideology of fascism, not with individuals. There is no hate speech directed against anyone, which is remarkable given the alienation people have been facing under the current regime. Women at Shaheen Bagh have transformed their anger into one of the most peaceful protests, making the site a cultural space for resistance.
Women, many clad in burqas and scarves, are asserting their rights and fighting against the current regime in their own way. There is a huge crowd of people from other religious groups as well, who come in solidarity against the unconstitutional othering of Muslims. The stage is open to anyone who wants to express their views pertaining to the ongoing movement, provided no hatred or communal violence is instigated. The presence of a library, “Aazadi” chants (which the fascists always confuse with sedition), and freedom of speech sans any provocation—Shaheen Bagh represents a functioning and vibrant democracy. Contrary to the allegations that the protesters are paid Rs 500 to 700 to stay there, Shaheen Bagh is a space for the oppressed, by the oppressed, and of the oppressed, devoid of any monetary factors or religious fundamentalism.
In the history of modern India, Shaheen Bagh will be remembered for its strength, tolerance and the subversion of stereotypes associated with minorities. At the end of our trip, we bought a small Indian flag—a glowing tiranga that a little boy was selling. Shaheen Bagh, on a personal level, was an educational and eye-opening experience—a fierce reminder of the tenets of our constitution and the strength of our womenfolk.
Fathima M is a research scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Sharonee Dasgupta is a Research Associate at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.