Shaheen Bagh, Delhi: These women cross a key milestone

The women are an antithesis to Narendra Modi and his ministers, their hatred, their misogyny, their disrespect for the Indian Constitution and their Islamophobia

Shaheen Bagh, Delhi: These women cross a key milestone
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Nilanjana Bhowmick

Shaheen Bagh is a practical, congested working class neighbourhood in South Delhi, a popular haunt for bargain shoppers owing to rows of factory outlet shops on both sides of the main road. The local population is mostly middle-class, a bunch of people who go about their daily business of living and surviving from one day to another.

But on the night of December 15, something shifted, as a group of unassuming and quiet Muslim women in hijabs and burqas broke the shackles of patriarchy and came out of their homes for a peaceful candle light vigil on the main road, silently protesting police brutality on their children.

As they continued with their protest undaunted for the next thirty-five days, the hitherto nondescript Shaheen Bagh became the heartbeat of India. After the constant assault on its soul by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government over the last six years, the Idea of India has been revived in Shaheen Bagh, among the people that the Modi government has left no stones unturned to disenfranchise and disempower.

On December 12, the government had passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that aims to provide citizenship to all non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who came to India before 2015. This was preceded by the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, to identify illegal immigrants.

The exercise had stripped 19 lakhs people of their citizenship, including over 12 lakhs Hindus, 6 lakhs Muslims and about a lakh of tribals and Gorkhas.

On the night of December 15, the Delhi Police had stormed into the Jamia Millia campus, fired tear gas, bullets and brutally beat up students to curb protests over the CAA and the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). However, following wide outcry after the crackdown on students, the Modi government piped down on the NRIC only to announce the National Population Register (NPR), which the Citizenship Act of 2003 and multiple sources in the Government had claimed was the first step towards preparing the National register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).

The women of Shaheen Bagh have been indefatigably occupying a main road that connects the Indian capital to Noida, a satellite town of the Indian capital over a month now, demanding a recall of the CAA, NRC and NPR. “We didn’t sleep the entire night of the Jamia crackdown,” Shahjahan, one of the protesters, says with a catch in her voice.

“We came out on the streets for our children,” Shaheda, another protester says. “But we are standing here now for all of us, our Constitution, our country.”

Even as we talk, a rumour spreads that the police were on their way to disperse the protests. In the chaos that unfolds, Nargis, a protester, jumps on the stage, grabs the microphone and call for people to remain peaceful and gather near the stage for a reading of the Preamble to the Constitution. As people crowded around, her voice becomes resolute, her words firm.

“The Constitution gives us the right to speak,” Nargis says. “No one can take that way.”“They want us to prove our existence? The proof of our existence is in the Red Fort, in the saris of Banaras, in the Taj Mahal, in the locks and keys of Aligarh, our existence is in the achievements of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, our existence is not restricted to mere documents, our existence has been handed down to us by our ancestors,” Nargis finishes, amid deafening applause.

As Nargis spoke, in a corner of the tent sat a woman in her late sixties, rolling a prayer bead. Shahana Rahimunnisa runs a charitable school for young children in the neighbourhood. She has made it mandatory for all her teachers to attend the protest for a few hours every day.

“They are asking people to hate us,” she says. “But we are countering that with love and peace; because that is what we do in this country, our country.”

As Nargis spoke, in a corner of the tent sat a woman in her late sixties, rolling a prayer bead. Shahana Rahimunnisa runs a charitable school for young children in the neighbourhood. She has made it mandatory for all her teachers to attend the protest for a few hours every day.

“They are asking people to hate us,” she says. “But we are countering that with love and peace; because that is what we do in this country, our country.”

“They targeted our homes, our children. How can we not come out,” she asks.

Sixty-five year old Shabnam was sitting next to Rahimunnisa, with a light shawl around her shoulders. “Aren’t you feeling cold,” I ask her.

“No,” she smiles at me.

“Lost that along with all my fears,” she says, taking a moment to raise her voice to lend her voice to a freedom and liberty slogan raised by a speaker on stage.

It has not been easy for these women. They have not just braved propaganda, lies, criticism, police threats, severe cold but also the patriarchy inherent in middle-class homes. Some of the women are educated, some not, but most are homemakers from conservative families, who take turns to go home, cook and clean and feed their children and drop them to schools or day care centres, before making their way back to the protest tent every day.

“We never thought we would stand shoulder to shoulder with men in public,” Nusrat Ara, one of the Shaheen Bagh women, says. “We used to tremble at the thought of being on the streets after 9 pm. Now we just storm out,” she smiles. That, they could transcend all the limitations of their lives to become the undisputed leaders of the anti-CAA, NRC and NPR protests in India, is testimony to the resilience of women, when their habitat, livelihood or families are threatened.

“The government was trying to strip us of our citizenship, instead they have stripped us of our fears,” Ara says. “We are not scared anymore. We will fight for our existence. We will fight for the future of our children. We will stand here for as long as it is required,” she adds.

In their protest, in their fear, in their courage, the women of Shaheen Bagh has taught us all the importance of owning our own stories. Someone will always want to tell your story, someone will always think they can tell your story better. But you should not hand over the power of the narrative to them. You should be the one on the makeshift stage, pouring out your anxieties and anger, mouthing revolutionary poetry; reading the Indian Constitution; chanting the slogans of freedom. When the struggle is yours, the movement should grow around you, not just for you. This moment of crisis affects the Indian Muslims to the core of their beings. We can empathise, we can outrage but we do not know how it feels. They know. They feel it in their bones.

And while these women are not your usual heroes or leaders, they are an everlasting proof that our democracy is well and alive. They are the best gift to the Indian Republic on its 70th birthday.

The women of Shaheen Bagh are an antithesis to Modi and his ministers, their hatred, their misogyny, their disrespect for the Indian Constitution and their Islamophobia.

They have lit a candle in our hearts, gifted us with the songs of freedom we forgot to hum and showed us gently how to reclaim our democracy. We are now a storm because of them. This Republic Day belongs to them.

(The writer is a multiple-award winning journalist)

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