Amid the bustle of talk and announcements on stage, there is a surprise at Shaheen Bagh. A young, slim girl student in ankle-length boots, dark pants and shirt is invited to take the podium. She begins her speech by saying that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has put her in a dilemma. She studies in Jharkhand where many of her close friends are members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their opinions matter to her personally. At the same time, when she comes to Shaheen Bagh she is gripped by the dangers of CAA.
Meanwhile, whether it is because of the doubts that she presents, or since no one can hear her clearly beyond 50 metres or so, the crowd at the back repeatedly breaks out into “Inquilab Zindabad”. At this point, the announcer comes to the microphone and tells the sloganeers — whose voices are predominantly male — to be patient. She tells them that the girl, who is by now tearful, has come to share her conflicts and dilemmas and they must listen to her like they heard everyone else.
This is the surprise: A protest meeting that allows a young girl to declare her friendship with the “enemy” and then express her dilemma between her personal relationships and her political understanding!
It is enough to make this meeting unique in the annals of protest in India. Beyond the exhortations of inquilab zindabad, there is also a public platform that allows one to air doubts. I had, till now, yet to come to a demonstration or protest which had the self-confidence to do so. This goes farther than any other protest movement.
But then Shaheen Bagh is a new kind of satyagraha.
Protestors participate in a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
There are organisers but no leaders in Shaheen Bagh. An NDTV report says this is a reason why police are finding it difficult to get a solution to the right-of-way issue for those transiting from Delhi to Noida. There are no leaders to talk to. There is just a mass of hijab or chador-clad women with children, at times buzzing with talk and often listening attentively to speakers as they come on — or at other times bursting into impatience with Inquilab Zindabad in the middle of a speech. Facing a podium that has Dr Ambedkar’ portrait very prominently displayed, the women sit one behind the other, separated by a passage that leads to the podium.
There is precision in the way the meeting is conducted with one speaker succeeding the the other. At the other end, volunteers distribute food brought by visitors and request people to give way and avoid congestion. Small children in front of the podium play together, waving little national flags. Menfolk stand outside the rope that acts as a boundary between the satyagrahis and themselves. They too listen attentively.
The leaderless, self-discipline of the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha is almost unique in our history of dissent and protest. Comparisons with the Gandhian movement immediately spring to the mind. But Shaheen Bagh has no charismatic leader, nor have its members been given the training in self-discipline that Gandhi enjoined on his satyagrahis. They sit with self-possession and patience, as they approach the two-month mark in the ravaging cold of this Delhi winter.
Above all, the women of Shaheen Bagh generate a culture of care in both men and women.
Women participate in a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi.
On the side of the road where shops have closed, the passageways that connect a line of shops have been converted into activity centres. These are lined up in front of the closed shops. There is a library that has books by writers like Amitav Ghosh, George Orwell and many others. A brightly dressed young girl in orange churidar-kurta sits on one side: She is its librarian. Next to it is the art activity centre for children. The kids sit in a row, concentrate on their sketch books, at times conferring with one another. Behind them, sketches and posters are strung up. These address the issues of the ongoing agitation. And maybe a foot or two — enough space for people to walk — across the activity line is the seating arrangement for those who wish to read and see.
There are many young people there, unsurprisingly girls and boys from the Jamia Milia Islamia university who are either studying or have graduated. A young man who is a student tells us that it’s important for them to understand that they cannot exhaust the movement in the protest. They have to think of the children, many of whom are traumatised. They carry out concentration-building activities for them. What’s more, they host empathy generating session for children that can range from the attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to bushfires in Australia.
At 6 pm, a candle-lit procession starts from the Jamia university to come to Shaheen Bagh. This is when the crowds become larger. Indeed, in the evenings, balloon sellers, chatwallas and many other street peddlers join in, giving to the entire place the lightness of festivity.
It’s not easy, however.
Protestors stand near a graffiti during a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC at Shaheen Bagh, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
From Shaheen Bagh to Jamia takes about 15 minutes by an e-rickshaw. As we wind through narrow streets indistinguishable from people and a variety of vehicles, moving past mounds of garbage and open drainage and lines of shop fronts, we talk to four women and their children travelling on the same rickshaw. They turn out to be satyagrahis who are taking their kids back home. They tell us that their children naturally become impatient and then the women have to bring them back. Once home, they also finish their housework before returning again to the satyagraha later in the evening or at night.
The focused violence of police attacks at Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and by masked goons in JNU, appear to have produced a correspondingly intense commitment to peace and a self-discipline of temperament. We see this not only at Shaheen Bagh but also in front of Jamia. A large assembly of students and some professors and visitors here listen to a speaker while other groups gather together to break out into “Inquilab Zindabad” or the equally popular, call-and-answer slogan of “Azadi”. Behind them, sitting against the iron paling of Jamia, are a line of students, all of them focused on reading. They are completely still and quiet with large colour banners behind them, simply proclaiming “Read for revolution” and in smaller letters, “A protest of its own kind”. The intention is clear: It is a protest against the violent ransacking of the Jamia library and beating up of its readers by the Delhi Police. But what is also significant is that normally a reading room in an Indian university is never completely silent. But here, despite the loud protests of the crowd and the passing traffic plying in the free lane, there is a conspicuous concentration on reading. Their very stillness is a scream of outrage.
Protestors make graffiti during a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC at Shaheen Bagh, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
The broad and rich colours of the murals that had been painted on the road and circulated on WhatsApp had faded away the night before. It had rained and protesters said that traffic had been allowed to pass through the road that was normally blocked by them. But the creativity lingered on in the sketches and posters that were hung over the silent readers.
The future remains uncertain in Okhla. No one can tell if and when the tear gas and lathis and masked faces will descend. This is of course a fate that hangs over the heads of protesters all across the country. But Okhla teaches us that, until then — if such a day is to come — protesters have the present to create new grammars of protest that only self-belief, solidarity and hope can give.
The author teaches at JNU