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The Story of Shaheen Bagh

Photo: Beyond Headlines

By Omer Fayaz

As the protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act entered its 100th day, the government dismantled the protest site at Shaheen Bagh on 24 March and detained 9 protestors from the site. This was called a preventive measure against the spread of coronavirus. The protestors however alleged that it was part of a systematic plan to uproot the protest which over the period of three months had turned into an obsession of the ruling regime. While the Citizenship Amendment Act guarantees citizenship to the immigrants, it largely excludes Muslims which forms the largest minority in the country.

A Women-Led Progressive Movement

Shaheen Bagh has been one of the most strategic and democratically peaceful sit-ins since the independence of India. A relentless support from women across the country helped it sustain covert threats from political leaders and misdemeanours from the right-wing organizations. Regardless of the difference in class and religion, women of varying ages stood up to uphold the constitutional values of the country. “Shaheen Bagh has been a stark reply to those who think that it is a religious fight to overthrow the government and hijack the democracy. For the first time women have come out in such large numbers to protect the constitution,” said Kiran Walia, a former member of Legislative Assembly in Delhi.

Despite facing slanderous language and multiple attacks, the women protestors did not respond to the provocations. On the International Women’s Day, the site was packed with protestors and bystanders who had come to be a part of the commemoration. “The government has tried their best to make it a communal issue and paint a bad image of it but women at Shaheen Bagh have proved that it is a podium for a progressive and disciplined movement. The beauty of Shaheen Bagh is that every person regardless of their religion can share their ideas,” said Dr. Aparna, the president of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

Ruchira Gupta, a journalist, social-justice activist, feminist campaigner, visiting professor at New York University, and founder of the Indian anti-sex-trafficking organization, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, launched her book on women’s rights alongside the event. She took the stage to speak about the relevance of Shaheen Bagh in a modern democracy.

Making of Shaheen Bagh

Following the crackdown on the student protestors at Jamia Millia University, a spate of venomous statements from politicians and right-wing supporters ensued. A narrative against Muslims that was already in the making was intensified. Social media users, especially on Twitter, celebrated the police brutality on the students. Delhi Police rubbished the claims made by the students that the police had used excessive force and manhandled female students. However, the CCTV footage of the intervening night showed the men in uniform plundering the property and beating the students with canes. Journalists and social activists started receiving panic calls from the female students who were holed up in the campus hostel, while their male colleagues were being caned and teargassed inside the library. A number of students were injured and the institution had to halt academic work and postpone the exams. The crackdown was widely condemned and the students from various universities in India and abroad came to express their solidarity with the students of Jamia Millia.

All this led to the strengthening of Shaheen Bagh as the epicentre of the protests. “Apart from the support from all religious groups, the proximity to Jamia Millia has been the main reason for Shaheen Bagh to sustain peaceful protests in a democratic way,” Kiran Walia said.

Call for Catastrophe

Political leaders did everything they could to mobilize people and turn them against each other in order to vilify dissent. The country’s Home Minister Amit Shah called Shaheen Bagh a joint venture of Congress and AAP days before the results of the Delhi Assembly Elections were declared. Shah, referring to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, said that the “Tukde Tukde Gang” would get a “shock” after the election results. Other leaders like Kapil Mishra made similar analogies and resorted to provocative speeches. He made the slogan, “Desh Ke Gaddaron Ko, Goli Maaro Saalon Ko” (Kill the traitors), popular. These slogans by pro-CAA groups were followed by various shooting incidents on the protestors challenging the implementation of the Act. The rampant use of derogatory vocabulary – ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’, ‘Jihadis’ and ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ – by various news channels induced the catastrophe that occurred in Northeast Delhi. In the deadliest targeted violence in Northeast Delhi, 53 people were killed and more than 300 were injured. The Muslim homes were pillaged and looted by the rioters. The inhabitants were forced to live in makeshift camps set up by volunteers at Mustafabad.

Sajid, a car mechanic, was at his home in Mustafabad on 25 February, 2020, when he got a call informing him that his workshop at Shiv Vihar was set ablaze by a mob. Fearing that he too might get killed, he did not go there that day. After two days when he visited Shiv Vihar to see what was left of his shop, he found that the vehicles his customers had left with him were burnt down. “I went to the police station. They are not filing my complaint as they are asking for the rent agreement. I asked my landlord for it, but he too refused,” Sajid said.

While the dead bodies of victims were being fished out of the gutter flowing next to Shiv Vihar, Hyder Ali, an advocate with a small cubicle-sized office, was helping the victims with the paperwork.

“People are reaching out to the police but they are not registering FIRs. The deprivation of legal rights has further added to the trauma of the victims,” Hyder Ali said.

The relatives of the deceased alleged that the police were not turning their complaints into FIRs. Instead they went on a spree to arrest the youth from the Muslim localities. As per the reports, more than 2000 people have been detained, which has further added to the woes of people.

An Undemocratic Betrayal

The clampdown on the protestors at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere in the country amid the coronavirus scare has come as a shock to the supporters. The protestors alleged that it was unfair on the government’s part to have used excessive force against few demonstrators present at the site. “We had already taken preventive measures. Only a handful of protestors were present there and the rest of us had left our slippers at the site as a mark of solidarity with the protests,” said a protestor from Shaheen Bagh. On 24 March, the country’s PM Narendra Modi called for a 21-day long lockdown as the number of coronavirus cases surged in the country. A joint statement issued by National Federation of Indian Women, Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan, Centre for Struggling Women, and Swastik Mahila Manch denounced the act by calling it an “attempt to muzzle democracy”. The statement further said that the regime resorted to an indefensible show of patriarchal state strength. The clampdown came days after unidentified persons threw a petrol bomb metres away from the protest site.

While the government urged people to stay indoors to prevent the pandemic from spreading, the visuals of policemen supervising the erasure of anti-CAA graffiti did the rounds on social media. “Amid the threat of coronavirus, the government prioritized the removal of Shaheen Bagh, which is anti-democratic,” the statement further noted.

Omer Fayaz is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He writes on South Asian politics and Kashmir conflict.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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