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Long live Shaheen Bagh

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law in Shaheen Bagh, area of New Delhi, India January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law in Shaheen Bagh,
area of New Delhi, India January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

One southern district of Dehli has been at the epicentre of India’s recent popular uprisings, which erupted with the passing of the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Its name – Shaheen Bagh – has become synonymous with a 100-day long, round-the-clock road blockade, made up mostly of Muslim women. They ranged from new mothers with their infants to 90-year-olds, united in their outrage at the CAA, a law which confers citizenship only to non-Muslims who have arrived in India before December, 2014 after fleeing Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh on the grounds of religious persecution.

In the Muslim-majority, working-class neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, this discriminatory law reverberated through households. People quickly came out on to the streets. A tent was put up, mattresses and blankets laid down. According to Caravan magazine, numbers would swell as high as 22,000 some evenings. Other parts of Dehli, and other cities, took up similar sit-ins against the CAA.

‘Everyone comes,’ local resident Hazra Musrat told Caravan. ‘My husband is a mechanical engineer. He doesn’t ask me not to [go]. I go home for an hour at night, eat dinner with my family, then come back and sit here till 2 am. We take shifts.’

Anti CAA NRC Shaheen Bagh New Delhi 4 Jan 2020
Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi. Pictured January, 4 2020. Source: WikiCommons

Children as young as six took to the makeshift stage to chant Azadi, or Freedom songs. And, despite being triggered by outrage at the CAA, and the police brutality against students at the nearby Jamia Millia Islamia university, many protestors were jubilant: making speeches, offering prayers, breaking fasts with communal meals and reading the preamble of the Indian constitution – reaffirming their sense of belonging and citizenship.

As the national secretary of the governing Hindu nationalist BJP party condemned Shaheen Bagh as ‘Islamic State-like’ and mooted the idea of ‘shooting traitors’, protestors were erecting their own library, decorated with the faces of the Dalit feminist Babytai Kamble, and American civil-rights icon Rosa Parks.

The library was set up by a group to commemorate the fourth death anniversary of Rohith Vemula – a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad whose suicide led to nationwide protests against caste discrimination – with the aim of sharing India’s history, the evils of the caste system and other forms of discrimination – be that against transgender persons, women or Dalits.

The risk to militant women organizers wasn’t lost on them. In early March, the stakes of the Shaheen Bagh demonstration were raised higher after mobs, armed with stones, guns and daggers erupted in North Dehli, killing 53.

‘I leave my children at home every day to come here. But in the last few days… I don’t know if I will come back,’ Mona Ahmed told The Siasat Daily. An editorial in The Print spelled out the significance of the mob violence bluntly: ‘The motive of the violence has been clear – to ensure no other Shaheen Bagh emerges.’

Though authorities cleared Shaheen Bagh to enforce a Covid-19 lockdown in late March, organizers promise they’ll return once more to what Farah Farooqi describes as ‘the chief site of the anti-CAA battle’.


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