Muslims of India Are Done With Hate And Fear: What Shaheen Bagh Showed Me

'Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India', edited by Seema Mustafa, is a collection of ground reports, essays and interviews with women who were at the core of the protest.
Protesters raise slogans and wave the tricolor ahead of their march to Home Minister Amit Shah's residence, at Shaheen Bagh, on February 16, 2020.
Protesters raise slogans and wave the tricolor ahead of their march to Home Minister Amit Shah's residence, at Shaheen Bagh, on February 16, 2020.

Children in high school get awards like Mr or Miss Popular. In Delhi’s Modern School, Vasant Vihar, in the year 1997, I was given the Jai Hind Award. I was the only one in my batch of 150 who wanted to join the defence forces. I wasn’t being a ‘nationalist’ or a ‘good Muslim’. I didn’t think about these things back then, and I had nothing to prove to anyone. I wanted to fly helicopters for the army, and the idea of defending my country appealed to me.

There was another decision I’d made back then. While most of my batchmates—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isaai—wanted to leave India and make a life in the West, I wanted to stay on and live like a first-class citizen. This was home, I could live here as I liked. I owned India, and India owned me.

Cut to 2019, when a right-wing government was voted back to power with a huge mandate, despite its openly communal agenda. For the first time, I looked up the Internet for information to emigrate to some place in Southeast Asia.

Many friends have been leaving, not wanting their kids to grow up in an India that we had never imagined would become a reality. I still haven’t had the spine to fill up the forms, though. In a conversation with my sister-in-law, I told her I would shift out of India with a very, very heavy heart if at all I was compelled to do so to save my life. One of my closest friends still urges me to be pragmatic and leave before it is too late—‘Jaan hai toh jahaan hai,’ he tells me. ‘What use is anything when you’re dead?’ Both my sister-in-law and my friend are ‘Hindu’. I mention their religion because it is now the new normal. (Or maybe I mention their religion as a kind of insurance. Unlike a Patel or a Kapoor who emigrates and becomes a much-admired NRI, a Quraishi who even thinks of emigrating is a traitor. The fact that I have Hindu relatives and friends who care for me and want me to find a safe future outside India might keep the mob from my door.)

I may have the resources to emigrate. But millions of Indian Muslims don’t have this luxury. Would I be able to live with the guilt of my privilege?

And then I think—why should I leave? Isn’t that exactly what this regime wants?

So then, should I end up living as a second-class citizen in my own country? How is that better than being a second-class citizen somewhere else?

Questions are all I seem to have these days. And few answers.

As I write this, parts of northeast Delhi are burning in riots. Pro-CAA protestors accompanied by the police vs anti-CAA protestors. To put it simply, Hindus, aided by the police, vs Muslims. Houses, shops, schools, places of worship, anything belonging to Muslims is being burnt down. Muslims are being lynched. Hindus are being stabbed and shot, too, but it makes no sense to try and be ‘balanced’ here, because that would be dishonest. It would mean falling into the trap set up by the people who have engineered the riots. There is no doubt that a majority of those who have been killed and injured are Muslim, and almost every house and shop that has been looted and set on fire belonged to Muslims. Often, a shop owned by a Muslim has been burnt down while a shop right next to it that is owned by a Hindu has been left untouched.

A viral video sums up the plight of Indian Muslims today: a group of battered Muslim men lying helpless on a road, surrounded by seven or eight Delhi police personnel. The policemen are abusing the men for demanding ‘azadi’ and forcing them to sing the national anthem. While one policeman films the ‘punishment’ on his phone, his comrades in uniform kick the men and hit them with lathis. The taunts of ‘Ajaddi, hain, Ajaddi?’ are a reference to the anti-
CAA protests that began in Shaheen Bagh. Muslims have been opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens because the two together give the government the power to decide which Muslims, if any, can continue to be Indian citizens. Indians of every other faith are safe. To the Delhi police, which takes orders from the Union government, opposing this injustice is not only a criminal act but also treason.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that seventy-three years after Independence we would be discussing the citizenship of India’s Muslims instead of all that really matters. I never thought about being Indian, I always just was—it’s like breathing. To have your citizenship questioned is to have your life-breath taken away.

The Muslims of India, from all corners and of all backgrounds, are protesting in unison for the first time in the history of the Indian republic because this is an existential moment for all of us. And this time we aren’t backing down. We aren’t taking any more of the hate lying down, we aren’t taking the ‘Go to Pakistan’ jibes anymore. We are done with the hate and the fear and the constant questioning of our patriotism. This is what Shaheen Bagh showed me. I still have many questions, few answers, but in Shaheen Bagh I found my country again. I reclaimed my citizenship.

Excerpted from Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality, edited by Seema Mustafa. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.