“Shoot the bloody traitors” was the response of some members of the ruling regime to thousands of people singing the verses of a long-dead revolutionary South Asian poet across towns and cities of India. The savagery of this statement took some time coming, but finally, come it did. And with it, the regime revealed itself.

So before the coronavirus pandemic obliterates our recent memory, I need to tell a tale: an incredible story of how a group of Muslim women, with their children and grandchildren, in the middle of a cold December, occupied a short stretch of road in a neighbourhood called Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to peacefully resist what they believed to be unconstitutional citizenship laws targeting the minorities. It was to be an indefinite sit-in.

This single act of defiance soon inspired a spontaneous nationwide peoples’ movement – of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Jains and Christians; of music, laughter, of sharing and solidarity. Ultimately, the ultra-nationalist regime unable to comprehend this state of affairs responded in the only way it could: with an outpouring of hate, bile and violence.

Could this movement have successfully blunted the raw visceral appeal of the ruling regime, which had used divisiveness, anger and jingoism as incredibly emotive weapons to sweep the elections and come to power? No. And it would be foolish to think so.

But what this movement did reveal was that even the stark brutishness of majoritarian democracy could be resisted. Poetry was the answer to ugliness. And that is why this memory is vital. So let me begin this short tale.

First, they laughed

As the sit-in began, the regime sneered. And so did its pliant mass media. How could a bunch of “illiterate” and “ignorant” women understand the complexities of such laws? Who was funding them? Who were they fronting? Didn’t they believe the exhortations of the prime minister and home minister that no legitimate citizen would be disenfranchised?

But the question that bothered the power-brokers the most was: How could these women emerge from their “ingrained backwardness”, in their burqas and hijabs, and hit the streets? How could they be at the forefront of a protest? It had never happened before.

The tragedy of these sneerers was that they were judging people by the clothes they wore, by the neighbourhood they lived in. What they didn’t realise was that the protest was not just about these citizenship laws – there was much more to it, and the “much more” had to do with the lessons these women had learned from history and memory.

No, they were not ignorant.

They were rising up to tell to the ruling regime that they were as Indian as anybody else and they were tired of trying to prove this fact for the last 73 years. They were tired of all those stories they had heard from their husbands, sons, uncles and cousins, of their ordeal of trying to prove their loyalty at every India-Pakistan sporting match, at every conflagration between the two countries, of every act of terror that was perceived to have emanated from across the border.

They were tired of the relentless and regular communal riots that occurred across India where hundreds of lives were lost, community livelihoods destroyed, memories scarred for a lifetime, and where no one was held responsible for these horrifying brutalities. They were also tired of seeing their young men sent to jail on trumped-up charges and then being released by the courts, years later, for lack of evidence. Who was going to give back to these once-young people their lost years spent under unspeakable torture and violence?

There was another lesson that these women had learnt. It was the casual, everyday bigotry and discrimination that they themselves had encountered on the streets, in schools, at the work place, in police stations, at ration shops. And now they were just plain tired of the rot that had set in. It was time to stand up.

Demonstrators at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

A ruthless regime

But their list of grievances did not end there.

In recent years, they were shocked at the brazen outpouring of official bigotry by this triumphalist regime; of a saffron-robed parliamentarian who made a mockery of her dress code by dividing the country into “ramzades” and “haraamzades”, which roughly translates into good citizens and bastards.

Another was a bigot who described Muslims as “termites”; a third was a man who strutted into Parliament and whose only claim to fame was that he was a main accused in a recently-concluded communal slaughter fest that has still left thousands of refugees.

The fourth parliamentarian was really special. She was also saffron-robed and an accused in several horrific terrorist acts. She was deliberately selected to stand for the general elections so that she would be seen as a symbol – of a supremacist philosophy that had finally arrived on the scene and taken centre stage in India’s political history.

These four worthies were esteemed members of the hallowed club of our democracy, our Parliament.

The Shaheen Bagh women wondered: where had we reached after almost 75 years of uneven and questionable independence? What had happened to our institutions – and our Constitution?

But there were still more lessons. It started with lynchings: dozens of Muslim men were slaughtered, sometimes in broad daylight, just because they dealt in the cattle trade. As “cow-protection” vigilantes ran amock, the administration looked the other way, sometimes even treating the perpetrators as heroes. Where was the law of the land, the women of Shaheen Bagh wondered?

To make things worse, they were also witness to one of the most incredible pieces of judgements delivered by the Supreme Court of India – on the Babri Masjid/Ram Mandir dispute. The verdict, using a lethal amount of legal jugglery and gymnastics, arrived at a judgement that, while acknowledging that the act of demolition was illegal, delivered the now-vacant land into the hands of the demolition squad.

And if this was passed off as justice, another act of demolition followed. It was the bulldozing of a law through Parliament, by brute majoritarianism, which effectively disenfranchised a Muslim majority state without asking its people whether they agreed with the law or not. This was followed by the arbitrary arrest of the state’s political leaders, hundreds of political workers, and the closing down of all forms of communications. In other words, an Indian state was locked out from the rest of the country because the Central leadership had no faith in the loyalty of its citizens. The unstated reason for all of this was simple: most of the citizens of this state were Muslims and the regime did not trust them.

Last year, India scrapped provisions of Article 370 which granted special provisions to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Land of poetry

And that is why the women of Shaheen Bagh sat down, on a cold December day in 2019, for an indefinite satyagraha. And satyagraha it was, because it was a battle for the truth. They waved the national flag in front a large of the Preamble of the Constitution of India, and the portraits of freedom fighters of the past, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandrasekhar Azad and Ashfaqullah – all heroes of a secular dream for the country. Armed with these icons, the women prepared for the struggle ahead.

Then, all hell broke loose. Students from two nearby campuses in the city protested in solidarity with women. The police cracked down, beating randomly, using tear gas, entering libraries for further brutality. As the students retaliated, other campuses in the country responded to the crackdown. There was more violence, mayhem and vandalism.

More campuses erupted. But the backlash to the protests was savage in states where the ruling regime was in power. Students, protesters were shot in Karnataka and in Uttar Pradesh, a state led by another Safron-clad “monk”; they were mowed down, their businesses raided, homes burned down.

In a bizarre twist to all of this, strange scenes emerged, recorded on camera, where police personnel in the city of Delhi forced students, who were clubbed and pummelled into submission, to sing the national anthem. As the young men, writhing in pain attempted to do so, they were beaten some more. It was surreal and also a sign of things to come.

Amidst all of this, Shaheen Bagh remained peaceful and calm.

Then a strange thing happened: Shaheen Bagh became a beacon, a shining light, a call for a people to come come together before it was too late. It almost seemed that the floodgates of a peaceful revolt had been opened and hundreds of thousands of people started pouring in to participate in this newfound freedom to speak out and be heard.

They were writers, poets, lawyers, activists, teachers, doctors, singers, painters, musicians, actors, and filmmakers from all parts of India came together to stand in solidarity with the women. They were there to fight and resist intolerance and hate, to protect the freedom of speech, and the right to dissent. They talked about the inequalities of the caste system, about gender equality; of ways to resist assaults on the Constitution, the judicial system and investigative agencies; the need for justice for the disenfranchised and marginalised.

With all of this, there was music and singing and poetry. Songs of resistance, songs of hope, and sometimes just songs to sing along with. Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims recited their prayers together.

Protesters hold placards as they take part in a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law at Jantar Mantar. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

One particular discovery were the verses of a young student poet who promised the world that the memory of these scoundrel times would not be erased. The mood was celebratory, defiant, euphoric. Sometimes poignant. Everybody participated including our women of Shaheen Bagh. And the poem that became the anthem for protestors in the “mini Shaheen Baghs” sprouting across the country and at marches in towns and cities was written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the internationalist Marxist poet. It was a poem that reminded people of the inevitable arrival of Judgement Day.

Making history

After two months of trying to sabotage this movement, to denigrate it, to reduce it to a “Muslim” issue, or an inconvenience for citizens because it obstructed the free flow of traffic, the regime and its cultivated mass media changed their narrative.

“It is an attack on Hindus,” screamed one cultivated news anchor masquerading as an independent journalist. Other pliant media outlets echoed the same sentiment. And yet, the protest movement grew. This kind of celebration, with this kind of sweep had never been seen before in our country.

The regime, confronted by poetry, music and eloquence, realised that the only way it could respond so was to get down to the basics of its supremacist and ultra nationalist philosophy.

Shoot the traitors,” said a junior minister of finance. Later, he would claim that all he said was “what do you do with traitors?” and it was the crowd that shouted back and said “Shoot them.” You could almost sense the smirk on his face.

Another low-level functionary talked about the dark future that lay ahead if the protest at Shaheen Bagh succeeded. He alluded to the possibility rape and kidnapping of women and other dire consequences and how the prime minister and home minister would not be around to protect them.

A third functionary of the regime gave an ultimatum: if the protest movement in his neighbourhood was not cleared by the police by the time United States President Donald Trump, on his visit to India, left, he would take things in his own hands. The functionary kept his promise as savage riots broke in the North East Delhi, and as police looked the other way, shops, homes and neighbourhoods were destroyed and about 50 lives were lost.

Rioters set ablaze a shop during the violence in Gokulpuri in Northeast Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: Press Trust of India

The protest at Shaheen Bagh went on, but it was dwindling. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing began to take its toll. It was on the March 23 that these women and their remaining supporters headed to their homes. Their movement had lasted about 100 days.

The police when clearing up the area made sure that nothing remained that could remind people how once, in this historic space, people came together to celebrate democracy and reclaim their Republic. It was a land of poetry.

Meanwhile, the women of Shaheen Bagh learnt yet another lesson. When they emerged onto the streets to fight their battle, they realised that they were not alone. Thousands upon thousands of people, perhaps millions, young and old, from different walks of life, and from other faiths and philosophies had joined them in their hour of need: Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, atheists, Communists, Dalits, Jains, Tribals and Buddhists. This was an India that the women of Shaheen Bagh would be proud of.

Saeed Akhtar Mirza is a filmmaker and author.