17/02/2020 7:16 AM IST | Updated 17/02/2020 5:33 PM IST

Shaheen Bagh's Contagious Freedom Lets Us Imagine The Nation We Can Be

The protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens shows we can stare down police brutality, stand up to oppression, and free ourselves from the shackles that bind us.

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Women gathered in large numbers to celebrate the 71st Republic Day during the ongoing protests against CAA, NRC and NPR at Shaheen Bagh, on January 26, 2020, in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI — On Republic Day, Radhika Vemula, Saira Bano and the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh tugged at the halyard affixed to the bundled national flag atop the five-story high flagpole anchored in the middle of the national highway connecting south eastern Delhi to Uttar Pradesh. 

On December 13 2019, the Delhi Police had stormed the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus in a violent attempt to suppress a student demonstration. The students were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, a controversial new law that violates the secular tenets of the Indian constitution by making religion the basis for granting citizenship, and conspicuously discriminates against Muslims. Two days later on December 15, a group of elderly women from the neighbouring settlement had occupied the highway in protest. 

Now over a month later, on Republic Day, they were joined by Radhika Vemula,  whose son Rohith had killed himself 5 years ago after the administration of the University of Hyderabad harassed him for being Dalit. Saira Bano’s teenage son Junaid was lynched by a group of men who accused him and his friends of being “beef-eaters”. 

As the crew of mothers and grandmothers squinted the flag, now unfurled and slightly askew, there followed a moment of silence, as if the gathered crowd of several thousands had taken a collective sigh. A low hum began, growing louder as it rippled through row after orderly row of women, children and men. 

“Jana gana mana,” they sang, their voices rising above this barricaded stretch of the highway, carrying snatches of the national anthem up above the overbridge festooned with posters, the scaled model of the war memorial at India Gate, the large welded map of India, the bus-stop now converted into a library and reading room, the ersatz detention camp assembled out of aluminium and plywood.

Their voices floated down High Tension Road (the surprisingly apt name chosen for the high-tension electricity cables that run down its length), past the sweet shops and the meat shops, the bakeries and the restaurants, the fruit-sellers and tea vendors. 

Across the city, tanks thundered down Rajpath, fighter jets screeched overhead, ranks of soldiers marched in stiff formations before two ageing men: India’s embattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his chief guest Jair Bolsanaro, Brazil’s democratically elected President who happens to be a longtime supporter of military dictatorships.

After passing the CAA, Modi’s Home Minister had said, the government would conduct a national census of citizens, and detain and deport those who couldn’t gather the right papers in time. The protest in Shaheen Bagh was a rebuke to this blatant attempt to disenfranchise citizens.

These two very different processions — a joyous, spontaneous and inclusive gathering of citizens, and a grim, tightly rehearsed, heavily policed, military parade — on the day the constitution turned 70 were a reminder that India remains a young country bolted atop ancient land.

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The grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh protest against the CAA on Republic Day. 

If youth carries the promise that another world is possible, age consecrates that promise by reminding us that another world existed before this one. In the winter of 2019-2020, Shaheen Bagh often felt like a bridge between these two worlds; where grandmothers older than the Indian Republic and the country’s youngest citizens had pushed back the oppressive presence of the Indian state back to the police barricades on either side of the Kalindi Kunj crossing, leaving behind a tiny air pocket of possibility.

Of late, air pockets such as these have become so rare that their presence transmits a febrile electricity through our body politic; no one quite knows what to make of it. So unnerving is this heady whiff of freedom that many commentators have responded by demanding immediate strategic withdrawal; no one can resist the might of the Indian state forever, the reasoning goes, so better to withdraw on one’s own terms.

The grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh have been content to draw out this encounter. For all its projections of power and permanence, the modern Indian state — the constitution, states, union territories, elections every five years, Chief Ministerships, Prime Ministerships, the works —  is younger than they are. They remember that even before this constitution, and before universal adult franchise and elections, there were ways for the people of this land to engage with one and another. They have been joined in their vigil by thousands of young comrades confident in knowledge that they will outlive this current moment and the fossilised politicians who have precipitated this crisis.

On Monday February 17 2020, the Supreme Court shall continue hearings on a petition to end this occupation and open up the highway to traffic. The petition has been filed by Nand Kishore Garg, a member of the national executive of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since no-one in the government has found a good enough argument to move the protestors thus far, the BJP hopes the Supreme Court will.

The petition has been drafted in the preferred language of power: a plea to be reasonable, the argument that people are free to protest but not by inconveniencing others. Yet, the banality of these arguments about convenience and traffic jams cloak the very real horror of the possibility that millions of Indians of all religions could find themselves stripped of all their rights.

No one knows what the court shall say; for now Shaheen Bagh Maintains.

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Time And Space

A sit-in begins as an occupation of space then deepens into a liberation of time. On Monday February 17, the Shaheen Bagh occupation will have been in place for close to 1500 hours. 

That is a lot of time to liberate: What would you do if you were suddenly granted 1500 hours in the midst of a thus far orderly lifetime? When would you choose to eat, drink, sleep, sing, read, dance, study, love, fight, and work? 

By day Shaheen Bagh appears much like any other protest; but by night it has an uncanny effect on those who visit. So habituated is the city to hunker down in exhaustion by sundown, that to stay awake deep into the night is a radical act.

In Shaheen Bagh, visitors arrive at all hours of the day and night. They line up at the tented shamiana at the centre of the road and await their time to address the gathered crowds over the static hiss of the public address system: They sing, they recite poetry, they give impassioned speeches, they shout slogans, they mark the passage of time.

A professor of political science was asked to give a lecture on nationalism that began at 3 am the night before Republic Day, in the hope that the crowds she would draw would hold off a rumoured police raid. She delivered the lecture; the raid didn’t happen.

One weeknight in the dead cold of early January, a gaggle of women took their young daughters for a walk at 1 AM. There was no police on the streets, the shops were shuttered, the alleyways were dark. But their neighbourhood had never felt this safe, they marvelled. 

An hour later, a busload of Sikh farmers from Punjab arrived at the shamiana to poke fun at Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. A volunteer walked amongst the crowd, handing out biscuits to children too tired to run around, but too wired with excitement to fall asleep. A neighbourhood momentarily safe enough for a child to sit amongst a crowd unattended, has been described as a threat to national security by the Indian government.

By day Shaheen Bagh appears much like any other protest; but by night it has an uncanny effect on those who visit.

At 2 AM, a young woman took to the stage and read out a ghazal she had typed out on her phone. “Mein ne Shaheen Bagh mein Hindustan ko dekha,” she said. “Ma ke haat mein samvidhan ko dekha.” (I saw India in Shaheen bagh/ I saw my mother with the constitution in her hand.)

It is no surprise that much of the opposition to the Shaheen Bagh, including in the Supreme Court, has been couched in the language of traffic jams and the hardship caused to office-goers, and school buses; those imprisoned by the clock have approached the Supreme Court to take action against those who have freed themselves from its demands.

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A footover bridge that overlooks the Shaheen Bagh protest.

Questions Versus Answers

Political actors of all stripes and persuasions often speak of the need to preserve political momentum: Energies unlocked in the heat of protest cannot be allowed to merely dissipate, they argue, they must be channeled into movements. 

As a consequence, leaderless movements like Shaheen Bagh often produce an anxiety amongst a section of the occupation’s supporters. What will happen to the energies released in Shaheen Bagh? Who will channel them into a movement?

This question has animated many conversations at Shaheen Bagh, on support groups on Whatsapp, in good natured arguments en route to or upon return from, the protest.

Radhika Vemula’s presence at Shaheen Bagh offers some answers: the nation-wide protests that followed her son Rohith’s death sparked national movements that are still working out the contours of their politics. This kinetic conversation of resistance is most visible in the personhood of Chandrashekhar Azad Raavan, the charismatic face of the Bhim Army.

Some would dismiss the posters of Chandrashekhar and Rohith Vemula at Shaheen Bagh as a sign that the demonstrators exist in an echo-chamber of their making. Another interpretation is to see these as mutually reinforcing: An event ripples outwards from its epicentre, only to find resonance in another synchronous reverberance. The ripples amplify, the event horizon expands.

“I thought, am I crying because I thought I was alone, but I know there are so many who stand with me?"

In Shaheen Bagh it is hard to escape the energy radiating outwards from the shamiana where the women sit, but it is equally hard to translate this energy into a simple narrative: Why are so many people coming to Shaheen Bagh? What do they carry within themselves when they leave?

Over the past two months, the middle-aged lady with the red woollen scarf, worn as a hijab, visited Shaheen Bagh every weekend in a show of solidarity. Each time she came in the afternoon, sat by the stairs adjacent to the now-shuttered shop-fronts and listened to the speeches from the stage.

Then one afternoon, as she walked the neighbourhood’s narrow alleyways, she was confronted by the largest crowd she had ever seen. A rumour that the United Nations was sending a team to Shaheen Bagh had prompted an outpouring of public support. 

“I saw the crowd,” she later recollected, “And I was suddenly overwhelmed. Suddenly, I was crying but I couldn’t understand why — what was it? What was it?”

She sat back in her plastic chair to relive the moment. At the shamiana, someone was singing “Hum Dekhenge”.

“I thought, is this what it must have felt like to protest against the British?” she said, now annoyed by the fact that she had cried. 

“I thought, am I crying because I now see there are so many who are suffering through this present time?” she said.

“I thought, am I crying because I thought I was alone, but now I know there are so many who stand with me?”

Were these tears of joy, or rage, or sorrow, she didn’t know. She knew these weren’t tears of helplessness. 

Shaheen Bagh does not have all the answers to what is happening in India today; but listen carefully and Shaheen Bagh can push you to ask the right questions.