POLITICS
18/02/2020 10:46 AM IST | Updated 18/02/2020 11:37 AM IST

The Idea of India: A Tribute To Shaheen Bagh

We look at Shaheen Bagh now, wondering how this leaderless protest, fronted by grandmothers and mothers from Muslim families, blossomed into a battleground for secular values.

The India Today Group via Getty Images
Anti-CAA protesters celebrating the 71st Republic Day at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi.

Welcome to the latest instalment of The Idea of India, HuffPost India’s monthly conversation about how we see ourselves as a people and as a nation. 

In this instalment, we look at the south Delhi locality of Shaheen Bagh, home to a two-month long protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and a refuge for all those who opposed a law that makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship. 

We look at Shaheen Bagh now, wondering how this leaderless protest, fronted by grandmothers and mothers from Muslim families, blossomed into a battleground for secular values, an epicentre of resistance, and why it tugs at our heartstrings. We look at it, wondering how the daadis of Shaheen Bagh have quietly withstood some of the the coldest nights ever recorded in Delhi, the endless flow of taunts and fibs from the highest echelons of power, and the ever-present threat of violence. We look at it, wondering how the Supreme Court of India will respond to calls to shut it down. 

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

In this account of his wanderings around Shaheen Bagh, HuffPost India’s Aman Sethi writes about how in the winter of 2019-2020, grandmothers older than the Indian Republic and its youngest citizens pushed back against the Narendra Modi government over the CAA. “A sit-in begins as an occupation of space then deepens into a liberation of time,” he writes. “In Shaheen Bagh, it is hard to escape the energy radiating outwards from the shamiana where the women sit... Why are so many people coming to Shaheen Bagh? What do they carry within themselves when they leave?”  

And what of the petitions asking the Supreme Court to shut it down because the protesters are blocking traffic, and the argument that people are free to protest but not by inconveniencing others? Sethi writes, “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.” 

A sit-in begins as an occupation of space then deepens into a liberation of time.

Shaheen Bagh’s Women Have Transformed Who Speaks For India’s Muslims, Says NYU Anthropologist 

That the protest at Shaheen Bagh will end one day feels like an inevitable pinprick. But what of its legacy? The daadis of Shaheen Bagh, who drew a line in the sand, will pass into Delhi’s folklore. But what change has their resilience wrought for India’s Muslims. 

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Dina M. Siddiqi, an anthropologist at New York University, said these women have broken the monopoly that religious men and “cherry picked” politicians had when it came to speaking for India’s Muslims. “That is an enormous step forward for women who are Muslim in India. That is terrific. Nobody is going to go back to those men who were not necessarily representative at all,” she said.

Siddiqi, who has family roots in Bangladesh, and who visited Shaheen Bagh in January, said that she was struck by the “Islamised” way in which people were speaking at the protest. “I think a lot of Muslims in India have realised that it is now or never to create a space where you can be a citizen and not be apologetic about being a Muslim citizen,” she said. 

I think a lot of Muslims in India have realised that it is now or never...

How ‘Azadi’ Went From A Kashmiri Slogan To A Pan-Indian Anthem

With anti-CAA protests mushrooming across the country, Hindu nationalists sought ways and means to make them out to be anti-Hindu and anti-national. The slogan “azadi” (freedom) came under fire. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who goes by name Yogi Adityanath, said that anyone chanting “azadi” would be charged with sedition. 

Riyaz Wani, a journalist based in Srinagar, traced the “azadi” slogan to the beginning of the separatist movement in Kashmir, and then analysed how it went from being a Kashmiri slogan to a pan-Indian anthem. ”It has been adapted to mean freedom from authoritarianism, freedom to protest and in a larger sense a reclamation of the idea of India,” he writes

Ironically, Wani writes this at a time when Kashmiris are being denied any freedom to protest against the sudden abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status, last year, and its bifurcation into two union territories.  

A reclamation of the idea of India

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David Stein, a regional planner living in Oakland, writes that he does not feel any less despondent than he did when he first responded to our newsletter in September, last year, and yet he takes hope from his grandchildren and young activists like climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg. 

“The continued advancement of the Trump/Modi mode of politics bodes poorly for the rest of us, though there is, here and there, a small beacon of light in the form of such marvels as Greta Thunberg.  But for the most part, the press and the public lack the depth and wisdom to see the broader patterns, or to care much about the consequences of their short-sighted views and actions,” he writes. 

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