The success of Shaheen Bagh women’s stir surprised everybody. The Muslim community was pleasantly surprised to get support from unexpected quarters. It was considered normal for men to step out to protest, for college-going youngsters to take part in a march or sit in a dharna. But to have women of the community who have probably never taken part in a stir of any sort was not just beyond comprehension but simply incredible. The moral fibre of the women gave a fillip to the anti- CAA-NPR movement beyond measure.

So much so that as women proved difficult to dislodge, and more patient than most men, it left the authorities in a dilemma about how to unseat the protestors from the Shaheen Bagh road that linked Delhi with noida. The protestors were all peaceful. They mouthed nationalistic slogans. They frequently sang patriotic songs, and some of them drew the tricolour on placards. They seemed beyond temptation, and in their simple ways, beyond any political ambition.

Initially, the detractors tried the time-tested tactics of alleging that the Congress was behind the prolonged protest.

Nehru though was nowhere to be seen. The protestors had been smart enough to use the photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam azad, Bhagat Singh, even Ashafaqullah, but there was no sign of Jawaharlal Nehru, the most preferred punching bag of the ruling party.

However, the absence of any Congress leader of substance at the protest site failed to give currency to the allegation. Yes, Shashi Tharoor did go there after being invited by Jamia Millia Islamia students to address them in their protest against CAA – Shaheen Bagh is just around two kilometres from where the Jamia students sat in protest – but he failed to find many takers among the audience. Also, the efforts of local Congress leaders to get into the protests were smartly stonewalled by the women. They came, they stood, they wanted to speak from the stage. Their request was declined.

It left the detractors of the Shaheen Bagh protest flummoxed. Then came the tactic which is the easiest to use against any opponent. The BJP’s IT Cell in-charge Amit Malviya tweeted that the women in Shaheen Bagh sat in dharna in return for Rs 500 and biryani. The spokesmen of the party lost no time in catching on to the allegation.

Soon, a section of the media, often indistinguishable from the spokesperson of the government, started running tickers on Shaheen Bagh women charging Rs 500 a day for sitting in protest. Then came prime time talks and debates. Suddenly, this mudslinging and character assassination seemed to be working. The common man was inclined to believe this constant bombardment about the pecuniary benefits the women allegedly derived by sitting in the dharna at Shaheen Bagh.

It is then that the women who had by then been sitting on a completely non-violent protest, using the symbols of India to draw attention to the cause, decided to hit back.

First came the banners in and around the protest site that the women in dharna had no bank accounts, no PayTM, nothing where a person could transfer money. The banners, in Hindi and English, hung strategically around the place, also declared that no cash would be welcomed.

The women were not done though. They spoke out to the media personnel who came to visit the place after the allegations cropped up. Then in a typical manner of smart women, they threw a challenge to those making unfounded allegations against them: “Send your wife or sister here. We will pay her Rs 5,000. But will she be able to take the bone-chilling cold of Delhi in January?”

Many were at pains to explain they were from well-off families. In conversation with the authors, one claimed she was a teacher in a local school and came to the protest site because she believed in the cause. another told us that her sons earned many times more in a day than the sum quoted. “We have air-conditioner, television, washing machine and everything at home. Why would we sit here unless we were upset with something? Certainly not for Rs 500 - 700. Come to my house, my daughter- in-law makes the best biryani. We will serve you,” she said, adding, “even in making an allegation, there has to be some decency, some standard. This is the pits.”

Not content with asking the men to send any woman incognito to find out for herself, two women decided to put it on record for posterity. Their integrity was being questioned, and they were not going to hold back. They sent a defamation notice to Malviya for the unproven allegation. “Shaheen Bagh women send defamation notice to BJP IT cell chief amit Malviya over paid protest charge”, reported India Today.

“Miffed by the allegation of being paid to sit on protest, the women at Shaheen Bagh have sent a defamation notice to BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya. The legal notice has demanded an apology and Rs 1 crore in damages from the BJP leader...The protestors are angry over a viral video shared by Malviya, which claimed that the women, who were protesting against the CAA, were paid Rs 500 per day.”

Two protestors, Nafisa Bano and Shahzad Fatma, sent the notice through advocate Mahmood Pracha. Not holding their punches, the women retorted to Malviya:

“By making and propagating false allegations against the protestors and casting aspersions on their motivations, you the addressee, and other entities, have not only played a fraud on the general public but have also attempted to bring disrepute to the protestors who are bringing attention of a large number of people on the issues being pressed by this extraordinary exercise of Constitutional freedom.

“A video has been posted by you on social media site Twitter, which has been played across several media platforms, had alleged that the protestors are taking Rs 500-700 in order to be a part of the protests. Such statements are not only false but also have an effect of defaming the protestors in the national and international community,” the legal notice said.

They claimed that Malviya’s action was an offence under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (punishment for defamation). Bano and Fatma reminded Malviya:

“You are a member of the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, and therefore have a vested interest in defaming this mass of protestors. You are engaging in a campaign of attacking the integrity of protestors by spreading lies against them so as to divert the attention of the public and the wider media from the truth which the protestors are speaking about the BJP and its anti-Constitution agenda.

“That because all forms of coercion, inducement and other pressure tactics have failed to placate the protestors for several weeks, and as the protestors have themselves taken all measures to keep the demonstration peaceful and without incident, the state authorities and other interested entities have failed in their designs to have the area vacated. Therefore, you, an affiliate of the BJP, have started to defame the protestors instead to fulfil the objective of the state authorities in an underhanded manner.”

The notice failed to draw any response from Malviya or the party spokesmen. The women continued with their protest, happy that they had called the opponents’ lie. “We are happy, but not complacent. next, they will say we have been propped up by Imran Khan” (Pakistan’s Prime Minister). Right on cue, some foot soldiers of the opponents started an online campaign to allege how Pakistan was funding the Shaheen Bagh protest.

In came photographs of Khan handing over a plate of food somewhere. It was juxtaposed with a picture of Shaheen Bagh women sitting down for their lunch. The photographs too were proved to be misleading. Ah! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Excerpted with permission from Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement, Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf, Bloomsbury.