We let Shaheen Bagh down; hope they will be back soon

In these 100 days, women protesters at Shaheen Bagh were vilified, bullets were fired, the violence in Delhi was orchestrated and in the end molotov cocktails were hurled. They sat through them all

Shaheen being cleared out by Delhi Police (Photo Courtesy: ANI/Twitter)
Shaheen being cleared out by Delhi Police (Photo Courtesy: ANI/Twitter)

Ashlin Mathew

In the times of Corona it seems like a cliched way to begin an article, but how else do you start other than with the truth? It was the garb used by the Delhi Police under the Central government to forcefully clear the women protesting at Shaheen Bagh. I woke up to this news and it broke my heart in ways I can’t describe.

More than 60 personnel of the Delhi Police and the Rapid Action Force arrived to remove fewer than 10 protesters from the site. They brought in their men around 7.30 am to tear down the awning and vandalise the protest site.

Ever since the pandemic has been spreading and after the orchestrated violence which broke out at several parts of North-East Delhi, many so-called well-meaning mostly older men and some women have been putting out pleas to the protesters asking them to withdraw strategically. They kept hammering the point that the women were right in protesting, but the spread of coronavirus was scarier. So, they wanted the women to compromise. They harped that the women had made their point, so they should withdraw at a high point.

Before the coronavirus, these very same people listed the arrival of Donald Trump and the pogrom in north-east Delhi as reasons why these women should stop demanding for their rights.

When several people began to pontificate, it made me question about my stand. I understood that I would stand with the women and men of Shaheen Bagh every day and any day.

I come from a Christian middle-class family in Kerala and that has given me a false sense of security, but a sense of security, nevertheless. Even though my parents may not have their birth certificates or land documents, I have never felt that I would lose my citizenship despite knowing that it is a probability. Despite the probability, I believe it may never be a reality.

So, I can never fully understand what it means to lose one’s citizenship and be put in a detention centre or be called doubtful voter. For these women, it was a real consequence of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. They would become second-class citizens and that is what drove them to the site day in and day out. They feared this more than the virus itself.

While it is true that the virus is likely to affect at least 50% of us, for these women the thought of several of their friends and family spending their lives in detention centres was more fearful. Because once they go in, there is no way out even if they were to spend their lives’ earnings. The reality is such as we have seen it unfolding in Assam.

What upsets me is that none of these well-meaning people ever truly gave credit to these women for what they have done. Most underestimated the political awareness and knowledge of these women and these spokespersons living in enclosed home truly believed they know best. They have never known what it is to put your life on the line for the future generation. These well-meaning people have only known how to backtrack strategically when the going became tough so as to claim a moral high ground.

But these women were not sitting there to claim a moral high ground or to appease a few others. They began their protest without much fanfare, they continued to sit despite people who helped set it up wanted to shut it down. The women decided to change their fate even as they were called anti-nationals and terrorists. It was liberating for them to have their own voice; to be able to follow their heart. They sat there for equal citizenship and self-respect.

In these 100 days, they were vilified, bullets were fired, the pogrom was orchestrated and in the end molotov cocktails were hurled. They sat through them all. The protest was not for the weak-hearted. These women braved patriarchal attitudes, took along their men and decided to sit there resiliently without making too much noise. Their resilience drew attention and scared most people including those in the government.

When on Sunday, the PM had called for a janata curfew, these women left their slippers at the protest. Did anyone expect this? Definitely not. And again everyone had underestimated them. It’s not as if the women had underestimated the virus. They had already decided that only a maximum of five women would be seated. They would be on four-hour shifts and they would sanitise themselves regularly. They had thought through the crisis and were preparing to fight the Coronavirus. As we know, stronger your immunity, the higher your chances are of survival.

Those who think that they are safer in their homes than outside have not really seen the homes that they live in. They are concrete clusters with hardly any windows and with more than 10 people at least in each home. We who live in homes that are truly bigger than what we really need believe that for these women their homes must be safer. In effect, for them the risk is same. Standards of hygiene in predominantly Muslim pockets and the neighbouring Hindu pockets itself will provide the answer. The column-writing intellectuals forgot the reality.

All we had to do was simply stick by the women and their decision to protest. We couldn’t even do that. The so-called intellectuals just needed to keep quiet and let the women do the talking. That was the least that was expected. But, that was not to be. Instead, the government shame-facedly sneaked in at 7.30 am to drive the women out. We should be mortified.

I live in hope that they will be back when they can.

The views expressed are the author’s own

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