In the aftermath of the communal violence in Delhi that has left 47 people dead, it has become clear that the women’s protests against the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens were not only the pretext for the mobs that attacked Muslims in North East Delhi – they were also one of the main targets.

The mobs vandalised and dismantled protest sites inside the neighbourhoods of Khajuri Khas, Chandbagh, Mustafabad and Kardampuri. In many instances, such as Kardampuri, the communal violence began with an attack on the women’s protest site.

But in Seelampur, where the first protest took root in the area, after women sat down on the side of a road in December, the demonstration defiantly continues.

Now, however, the protesters claim that the officer who heads the Seelampur police station, under the guise of an Aman Committee meeting, has attempted to coerce the protesters to do what the mobs failed to achieve: call off the protests.

“The [Station House Officer] told our men that he is asking us politely and lovingly to vacate the protest site,” said Asghari, one of the women protestors. “If we don’t, he will not be responsible for anything that follows.”

“The SHO sahib also said that because they have lost one of their own, the men in his force are seething with anger and he doesn’t know how long he will be able to control them,” Asghari added. A police constable, Ratan Lal, was killed in the violence last week.

One of the men who attended the meeting with the police officer on March 1 said a beat officer named Pradeep had done a round of the colony a few days ago. He had collected names and addresses of all the men whose homes were in the front row of the two lanes of the colony lie adjacent to the protest site. The residents believe the police narrowed down on these homes because they suspect them to be providing logistical support for the protests.

The men were then asked to assemble at the Seelampur police station. At first they thought they were attending an Aman Committee meeting, one of many such gatherings often called by the police as a confidence building measure between residents of different communities.

The agenda turned out to be quite different. According to the resident who attended the meeting, whose family requested that his name be withheld, the police officer instructed the men to ensure the women wind up the protest in the next 24 hours. “The SHO sahib said that I am speaking to you sweetly when I could have done so angrily,” the resident recalled.

He repeated what Asghari had alleged – that the police officer pointed to the death of a constable as a reason for the anger among his force, and that he would not be able to control this anger for much longer. “Bade pyar se hum dhamkaya. He lovingly threatened us,” the resident said.

Other men who attended the meeting said that the police officer told them the protest was an eye-sore – “ankhon mein chubta hai”.

The women-led protest at Seelampur was the first to take root. Credit: Radhika Bordia

Evasive police

Outside the Seelampur police station, an enormous poster had been put up on the boundary wall by Kashish Arora, the president of the fruit market at Karol Bagh, and Kamal Gupta, a resident of Karawal Nagar. The poster declared: “If Police are Not Safe, We Are Not Safe”. And in even bigger font: “Support Delhi Police”.

Inside, the Station House Officer, Manoj Sharma, was not available. None of the other policemen on duty on Tuesday morning were willing to speak about the matter.

Sharma answered his phone at night. When asked what had transpired at the Aman Committee meeting, he said: “How can I disclose that?” On the residents’ allegation that he had asked them to wind up the protest, Sharma said: “If you have spoken to them and they have said that, why are you now talking to me?”

When this reporter pressed him for information, he said: “Don’t put words in my mouth.” Did this mean the protests could continue? “I did not stay that either,” Sharma said.

He finally hung up saying he was not authorised to speak: “No comment, speak to my seniors.”

A poster outside the Seelampur police station. Credit: Radhika Bordia

Faultlines deepen

The Seelampur protest movement started to coalesce after the attack on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University on December 15, 2019. From the beginning, the police attempted to dismantle this protest site, which came up on the side of a road, out of the way of vehicular traffic.

On December 17, the police booked some of the protestors, claiming they had been involved in stone pelting. From December to the middle of January, the women did door to door campaigning and took out candlelight marches against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, which Muslims fear could be used in conjunction to single them out and disenfranchise them.

From January 15, the protest turned into a round-the-clock sit-in.

The protest in Seelampur attracted far less attention than the one at Shaheen Bagh till the women of Seelampur blocked the road outside the Jaffarabad metro station in response to Bhim Army leader Chandrashekar Azad’s call for a nationwide shutdown or Bharat Bandh. By the midnight of February 22, hundreds of women from neighbouring areas had gathered onto the road.

The next day, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Kapil Mishra, decided to hold a rally where he gave an ultimatum to the police, in the presence of a senior police officer, that all protest sites be cleared in three days. His hate speech is seen as the key trigger for the violence which raged over three days. On February 25, the women protestors vacated the road outside Jaffrabad metro station and moved back to the original protest site, about 100 metres away.

After the violence, the lines are now communally drawn through the area. Hindu shopkeepers in the lanes and markets of Seelampur see the protest as the reason for the violence. One of them said: “If these anti-national activities continue, there will be more bloodshed. It is important that the women are cleared out.”

Another piped in to say: “These women have been instigated by men who have done their training in madrasas and trained in arms to attack.” When I asked them to share evidence for these claims, they demanded to know whether I was an activist from the women’s camp disguised as a journalist.

Banner at the Seelampur protest site. Credit: Radhika Bordia

‘We will not stop’

At the protest site in the evening, as more women gathered to sit in through the night, a few young men kept vigil. “We can’t be sure of anyone at this time, we feel we are in constant danger and so are the women,” said a young man who did not want to be identified.

Salma, a young woman in her early twenties, got up to fix a poster from slipping.

The slogan on the poster read: “Ab nikli hai toh dur tak jayengi.” Now that they have come out, they will go a long distance.

It captured the journey the women had made. “Now that we have come out, we will go far, we will not stop till our voice is listened to,” Salma said, with a grit and determination echoed by many other women.

A group of elderly men sitting near the tent said discussions continue on how to respond to the police ultimatum, but the consensus seemed to be on keeping the protests alive.

The women had dug their heels in. “We have gone through too much,” said Asghari. “When we were told to move away from Jaffrabad metro station, we were given the assurance that we could continue protesting on this site. This tiny piece of land that doesn’t block anyone is the last thing we have to assert our right as a citizen.”

“We will face all we have to but we will not move,” she said. “The women have decided this.”