The half-kilometre stretch leading to the Shaheen Bagh footover bridge on the Chalees Futa, or 40 Feet Road which connects Delhi’s Jasola and Kalindi Kunj areas made headlines in 2019 as hundreds of Muslim women held a sit-in protest for three months after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in Parliament. The protestors said that the law discriminated against Muslims and demanded that it should be repealed.

On Monday, the Centre notified rules of the Act over four years after it had been passed. A day later, nothing seemed out of the ordinary at Shaheen Bagh, except for scores of security personnel on and around the bridge.

Nearby Jamia Nagar was quiet too. Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar had been major sites of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and 2020. The subdued response was partly because a police crackdown but also partly due to a sense of despair, given that many leaders from the 2019 protest were jailed by the Modi government.

The fear of crackdown

Kaniz Fatima, in her fifties, remembers the night of December 13, 2019, like it was yesterday.

That day, the Delhi Police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia University, where students had been holding protests against the Act that allows undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh a fast track to Indian citizenship. Many fear that the Act will render Indian Muslims stateless if used in conjunction with a National Register of Citizens, promised by the Bharatiya Janata Party,

On the night of December 13, the police had fired tear gas inside a reading hall after shattering the window panes of the library in Jamia Millia Islamia. They also assaulted students in the campus, leaving more than 100 seriously injured. More than 50 persons, most of them students, were detained.

Fatima, a resident of Shaheen Bagh, said the police violence was the trigger for her to mobilise women in the locality to hold protests. “How can mothers sit inside their homes when their children are being beaten up?” Fatima told Scroll. On Tuesday, however, she found that mobilising protests could prove to be more difficult this time.

“Some 15-20 of us had gone to Jantar Mantar to hold protests against the Act today morning, but there was a huge deployment of police and they did not allow us to go inside,” she said. “Since yesterday, I have received four calls from various police officers asking not to create any trouble. There is police everywhere in Shaheen Bagh.”

Buses filled with security forces personnel parked outside Shaheen Bagh on Tuesday evening.

Fatima appeared unsure when asked if a repeat of the Shaheen Bagh protest was possible.

“It has just been a day since the rules [of the Act] have been notified and it came on the first day of [holy month in Islam] Ramzan, so most of us are still coming to terms with it,” she said. “We are fighting the legal battle and will continue to do so.”

Fatima is a petitioner in one of the more than 100 pleas that have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the Act.

Kaniz Fatima says police violence in Jamia Millia Islamia University was the trigger for her to mobilise women in the locality to hold protests

About 4 km from Shaheen Bagh, at Jamia Millia Islamia University too, anger with the Act was subdued by a crackdown by the authorities. Eleven student bodies held a joint press conference at the main gate of the university on Tuesday afternoon. However, a deployment of policemen in full riot gear prevented both journalists from entering the campus as well students from leaving.

In a joint statement, the student bodies demanded that the Act be repealed, the campus be “demilitarised” and charges against university students who participated in protests against the Act four years ago be dropped.

Police officials and Rapid Action Force personnel stand outside the Jamia Millia Islamia main gate on Tuesday afternoon.

Even hours after the press conference, student activists of the All India Students’ Association asked Scroll to meet them away from the university’s main gate, fearing that they might be questioned by security forces for speaking to journalists.

“The campus has been militarised since the anti-CAA protests took place in Jamia,” said Anjali, a first-year masters student of social exclusion and inclusive policy. “The security forces are in bulletproof jackets when they are the ones who fire bullets.”

Sonakshi, a first-year masters student of media governance concurred that the college administration has crushed all forms of dissent in campus. “Our seniors are facing legal cases, PhDs of many students who participated in the 2019 protests have been cancelled, all this creates a chilling effect.”

(From L-R) student activists Neha, Anjali and Sonakshi in Jamia Millia Islamia University.

‘Protests for what?’

Besides the fear of punitive action against dissent, a sense of despondence also prevailed among residents of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar. Fatima lamented that many of her young neighbours are still in jail or fighting police cases lodged after the protests in 2019.

“[Activist] Sharjeel [Imam] used to call me khala [aunt] and would often visit me and now he is in jail for four years,” she said. “There are so many of them…what do we hold protests for when the government will anyway do whatever it wants?”

Junaid Haris, a senior faculty member in the Department of Islamic Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia University, echoed the sentiment. “Even among our circles, there is no discussion any more about those who were jailed…there comes a time when disappointment takes over,” Haris said. “This law is discriminatory and everyone should realise that, Muslims are not obligated to protest.”

As evening fell and the streets of Shaheen Bagh warmed up for iftaar, several residents voiced similar concerns. “It is the month of Ramzaan, we have our own daily routines to take care of,” said Samir Qureshi, who works at a meat shop in the area. “Last time, the protests flared up after violence in Jamia. Why should we care about CAA? Let them give citizenship to whoever they want. We have our businesses to mind.”

Sameer Qureshi, a meat shop worker, feels the Citizenship Amendment Act will not affect his daily life.

Mohammed Farhan, who owns a garment shop near the Shaheen Bagh footover bridge, feels that there is no build up of anger that could result in protests again. “The law is wrong, I know that, all of us know that, but I do not see any agitation among the people,” Farhan said. “Perhaps people do not care anymore.”

Mohammad Farhan runs a garment shop right next to the site of the Shaheen Bagh protests.

All photos by Abhik Deb.