Silence at Saheen Bagh

ByChahak Gupta

Jul 22, 2020

Is the storied movement against the citizenship law on pause or has the Coronavirus crisis ended it? 

Last December, a group of Muslim women began occupying a patch of street at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, registering their protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. The sit-in protest made national headlines and became a focal point of the citizenship law protests unfolding across the country.

The protest site – once charged with pictures of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and the chants of revolution by women and children – is now draped in silence. It withstood months of vilification, petrol bombs being hurled and being dragged into political spats by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The protest, led by dadis and nanis camped out at the site through the capital’s biting winter, was the singular in that women were at the forefront.

However, after prime minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown in late March to contain the coronavirus outbreak, the Delhi police and paramilitary forces cleared the protest site. Nine people were detained. And after over 100 days, the protesters were forced to disperse.

Now, their shoes remain on the empty benches, symbolising that their fight is not over.

The Delhi police reportedly used “coercive force” to dismantle the Shaheen Bagh protest site on March 24. On the same day, the graffiti and artwork that adorned the walls of the protest site, and the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia University nearby, were allegedly whitewashed by the police. This artwork was made over time by students and protesters to express their dissent.

The Twitter handle of the Shaheen Bagh protest released a statement hours later, saying the police had “brought cranes”, “destroyed the main stage and tent area”, and “ruthlessly destroyed and dismantled” the art exhibits. One of the protesters told the Economic Times: “Many of us felt that if we give up the spot now, they won’t let us reclaim it later.”

The last tweet from this account was on March 27, a “collective statement from all Shaheen Baghs of the country”.

“As we continue our struggle to be heard by our government, we wish to reiterate that we have merely suspended public gatherings, our movement is on. We will use other means to continue to resist CAA-NPR-NRC,” the statement said.

Since then, Shaheen Bagh has faded from the media, except for a handful of mentions by Republic and Zee News. Others such as India TV and OpIndia have claimed that Shaheen Bagh’s organisers were planning a “massive protest” at the site on June 3, but were thwarted by the “timely action” of the police.

‘Not just a sit-in protest’

Newslaundry spoke with Shoaib Jamai, the national convener of the Shaheen Bagh protest, to ask what happened to the protesters once the site was dismantled. He said many of the working women returned to their villages outside Delhi after the lockdown was announced.

But have the protests ended?

“Our protest was against the CAA, NRC and NPR. Till the citizenship law remains, our protest will continue,” Shoaib said. “The government didn’t act on its plans of conducting the NPR exercise in the lockdown. The Shaheen Bagh movement didn’t end. It was not limited to a sit-in protest. You will see the Shaheen Bagh national movement committee operating in different ways. In the Bihar election, we are working alongside workers and labourers and supporters of the Shaheen Bagh movement to raise our issues.”

According to Shoaib, four or five women continued protesting at the site during the lockdown, but did not receive widespread support.

“The protest is not dependent on just the decision of our committee. It was an organic protest and it needs public support. At this time when Delhi is grappling with increasing cases of coronavirus infection, we do not plan to hold a sit-in,” he said. “But I want to assure people that we are persistent in our position and that the Shaheen Bagh movement committee is alive. Our members and workers are doing their work in different places. The day the government starts talking about NRC and NPR again, we will resume our activity.”

He added, “Many of our committee members were arrested and FIRs were filed against them. They had to give in writing that they wouldn’t participate in the protests. They had to leave Shaheen Bagh because the police were troubling them.”

Atmosphere of fear

Since the lockdown was announced, the government has attempted to use the chaos to its advantage.

Between March 25 and May 31, at least 55 journalists were arrested, intimidated or assaulted across India, according to a report by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group. Some of the activists who were at the forefront of the citizenship law protests were arrested, including Sharjeel Usmani, Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita.

In its chargesheets related to February’s communal carnage in Northeast Delhi, the police claimed that the violence was incited by the citizenship law protests. They ignored the role of BJP leaders such as Kapil Mishra. One chargesheet, filed in connection with the death of a police constable, named DS Bindra, who had made the news for selling his apartment to fund the distribution of langar at Chandbagh and Shaheen Bagh.

As an upset Bindra told the Quint: “All I did was to put up a Langar. I only did what my faith taught me, what our gurus taught us. I don’t understand why I am being targeted because of that.”

Given these circumstances, Newslaundry hit a wall while trying to reach out to organisers and participants of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Many of those who had openly addressed the media in December refused to speak on record.

One of the organisers told Newslaundry, after multiple reminders, that he would be unable to connect this reporter with some of the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh. Another organiser denied any association with the protest while a third switched off his phone.

While Shoaib Jamai himself spoke to Newslaundry, he said he would have to check with the protesters and other committee members when asked whether he could put this correspondent in touch with any of them. Three days later, Shoaib said, “I am sorry but no one is ready to talk after the arrest of the activists.”

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