Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Camaraderie in the Time of Saffron: We are Shaheen Bagh


Arpita Biswas
For the past one month, India has been witnessing relentless protest demonstrations against the anti-secular Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Historic spaces in cities – from Jantar Mantar of Delhi to Indira Park of Hyderabad, from Azad Maidan of Bombay to Shahid Minar of Calcutta – have been reclaimed by protesters coming from various walks of life, but most notably, students. Amidst these, there is this neighbourhood in South-East Delhi that has risen to prominence by (re)defining resistance as everyone’s right and duty in its truest sense. It is, as we all know by now, our Shaheen Bagh. Started in the immediate aftermath of State-led police violence against students of Jamia Milia Islamia University, the site has now experienced 28 days of valiant sit-in protests by its Muslim women, a majority of whom had only engaged with chores in the confines of their homes until date. They say it is their doubtless understanding of the “kala kanoon” of CAA as a savage attack on the Constitution of this country that has led them take to the streets today. Accompanying them on a daily basis are their children, the menfolk from the locality and students of Jamia, and from time to time, students from other universities, some social workers and activists. And, with their movement shooting to national consciousness, others from all parts of Delhi as well as many from elsewhere have started coming to Shaheen Bagh, slowly turning it into a microcosm of the diversity that your and my India is. 


There exists a combination of reasons why Shaheen Bagh has etched its name in the history of our times. To me, however, it is most specially a story of camaraderie – one that has brought many, many people from different religions, genders, classes together. At a time when the foundational principle of secularism is under attack in this nation, this protest avenue demonstrates what the spirit of such togetherness looks and feels like. And, in turn, clarifies what precisely is at stake at the present juncture. The spectacle of collective action there assures one against hopelessness. By tirelessly reminding everyone that if speaking the truth [and demanding justice] implies being rebellious, then we must keep rebelling, the locals at Shaheen Bagh urge us to rise in solidarity against the vulturous Hindutva forces that are hell-bent on meddling with the secular fabric of India. 

Here is why I bet the fragrance of such companionship cannot be missed, and why I appeal to you to go sense it for yourself. 

“I, like most other women you see here, am a housewife. I live in this neighbourhood. I come here in shifts – once in the daytime for 4 to 5 hours, and then in the evening after my husband comes back from work at 6 PM,” says Rehana, 43. She tells me how she has the freedom to come to and go from the site, with her husband and in-laws cooperating with her. While asserting that she would have participated in the sit-ins regardless, Rehana says “my husband looks after the kids in the evening, feeding them meals I leave prepared and sending them to bed. He, then, comes here and spends 3-3.5 hours, and then we go home usually around 1 AM.” Clapping along the revolutionary slogans raised on the stage, she describes how her kids [also] know [and understand] why their mother is not around for them at home. “They tell people who make phone calls that our mother is at the protest.” Her narration indicates how Rehana’s whole family is contributing to the daily reproduction of the protest.

Talking to a group of 4 men standing at the site, I received more clarity on how they are standing right beside the brave women in this movement, concretely and otherwise. Acknowledging that Shaheen Bagh’s women are the torchbearers of the protest, they tell me how they are available to provide them protection from police or other external attacks, in case there is any. “We have seen what form police brutality has taken in the past few weeks. We, thus, are here to ensure the safety of women and children at the site,” says Shafiq, 48, while also mentioning that he himself cannot join other men at the site until late at night on most working days of the week. Adding to that, Ashfaq, 57, describes how some men in his house need to go out to earn so as to be able to run the household too. “We are 5 men at out home. 2 have not been going to work to participate in the protest uninterruptedly. [But] The rest of us go out to fetch for our family. The stomach cannot wait for the arrival of resolution, you see.” Though such demarcation of roles performed by the women and men of Shaheen Bagh are not to be idealized, the persistent support and cooperation they have been offering each other for the past 4 weeks is admirable. 

Along with such soothing collaboration witnessed between these gender groups, my interactions with some of the shop owners and labourers in the market area around the sit-in spot elucidated how they too have come together in this fight to save the Constitution.  Ali, an 18-year old worker at a restaurant, tells me how the work hours have been changed since December 17th. “We used to generally open at 10 in the morning and take a break after lunch, and then again open in the evening and call it a day at 10:30-11:00 PM. But now, since we workers – 12 of us – want to go and spend time at the protest site, we requested our owner to change the schedule and open at a stretch from 1 PM to 11 PM. And he agreed at once! Not only that, he (our owner) spent several hours at the spot with us on the 16th.” The owner of the restaurant pays close to Rs. 1.5 lakh a month as rent for the building and is losing out on business due to the highway blockade, but certainly does not think it is without a cause, Ali narrates. “He is with us; we are together in this.” He also tells me, excitedly and proudly, that their restaurant is open to protesters for sitting down and having their home-packed food if they like. I hear similar narrations at two ready-made garment stores and a pharmacy in the market-place. “This is an investment for the long run that we are making,” Rehana, 27, who runs the pharmacy along with two male relatives says, emphatically. Her determination added a distinct force to the term investment, making me feel the gravitas of the phenomenon like no Economics text has been able to in the last 15 years of my formal training. And why not? This movement is a prime investment for reclaiming the India we have lived in, nurtured, and want to pass on to our next generations. 

Rehana also tells me that Shaheen Bagh has not put up the fight just for the Muslim community. “My family can produce the documents and prove citizenship, but what about the poor folks? Our country has hundreds of millions under poverty, with a significant proportion being Hindus by default. Simple arithmetic suggests that majority of those who would be devastated in the course of this would be Hindus. The inhuman NCR exercise in Assam proved it. This is common sense!” Ashfaq, one of the men I talked about before, exhibited similar sentiments while telling me how they are protesting to keep the sanctity of the Constitution alive. “This government has been trying to execute its communal propaganda with full force ever since it got re-elected. The Babri Masjid verdict was announced in November. They thought we would react and their agenda would derive a push from there. But we did not. It’s been a long-drawn issue; we respected the apex court’s decision. But now they have attacked our existence, our Constitution. We cannot let that happen.” This struggle, they deeply believe, is every Indian’s. 

My friends and I, and I am sure all visitors, felt the strength of their conviction on our visits to Shaheen Bagh. After all, how can you miss the warmth with which the locals direct you how to get to the protest spot from the Jasola Vihar metro station? How can you not be touched by the affection with which children, didis and bhaiyas greet you, ask you what you would like to eat, if you are cold and need blankets? How can you not feel enthused by the powerful slogans, poems, songs, placards that are being used as keys means of resistance at the site? We are living in times that are increasingly being infused with the fumes of fascism. If you want to get a glimpse of how the beginning of its demise tastes, come to Shaheen Bagh. 

Names have been changed to protect people from identification. All names used are pseudonyms.

Arpita (arpitabiswas@umass.edu) is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

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