Most New Year celebrations feature revelry, a countdown and fireworks. At Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, where protesters against the new Citizenship Amendment Act have occupied a main road for more than two weeks, 2020 began with the national anthem.
Despite the freezing temperatures – this is coldest winter Delhi has ever recorded – and threat of police action at any time, hundreds gathered to wave the national flag and speak up against a set of government moves that they believe will undo the Indian Constitution’s commitment to secularism. The protesters believe that the Citizenship Act amendments, and the National Register of Citizens promised by Home Minister Amit Shah, will be used as tools to harass Indian Muslims, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has insisted that these policies will not harm anyone.
“Modi is sleeping. I want to wake him up,” said Dawood, a student from Jamia Milia Islamia, the university where police brutality against protesting students inspired first campuses and then people from around the country to come out in solidarity. “He needs to know that people will not stand for this. So I’m collecting messages for him.”
Nearby a pair of young boys was writing one such message that Dawood says will be delivered to the Prime Minister’s Office: Modi, the spirit of revolution will fall out of the sky upon your head.
Shaheen Bagh in many ways typifies the protest movement that has erupted around the country in opposition to the Citizenship Act. It is leaderless. No political party or organisation can claim to be leading of the protest. Instead, it is fueled primarily by the residents of the Muslim-dominated neighbourhood who fear that the government’s moves will threaten their status as citizens.
It is also features women at the forefront.
On Tuesday evening, as crowds began swelling up for the New Year’s eve protest, neighbourhood residents helped organise the site, creating corridors for women to go directly into the tent in the middle, while others brought tea and biryani for the demonstrators.
“No one has asked me to be here,” said Faizaan, a student preparing for his Chartered Accountant exams who was forming a human chain with other Shaheen Bagh residents to create a path for women to navigate through the crowd. “We’re here because we are from Shaheen Bagh. Not on anyone’s orders.”
On New Year’s eve, the protest was actually a combination of many demonstrations. Up front, in the tented area, a parade of speakers – Dr Kafeel Khan, Harsh Mander, Yogendra Yadav – praised the tenacity of the Shaheen Bagh’s residents and their determination to sit through the cold, pressure from the police and fear for their lives.
One poet, after a long satirical poem about journalists (“TV channel or newspaper, we are all here to peddle lies, I am a journalist, only money is my God”) led the crowd in chants of “Hindu-Muslim unity”, a pointed response to those who have sought to portray the protests as the work of radical Islamic elements.
But beyond the tent, people filled up the road, toting placards or huddled around little bonfires, all calling for the Citizenship Act to be repealed.
“I might have been with my friends if this was a normal New Year’s,” said one young woman from Shaheen Bagh who didn’t want to be identified. “But this is not a normal New Year’s.”