Through Delhi’s coldest winter in over a century, women in a nondescript working-class Muslim ghetto squatted resolutely in protest on a stretch of a highway for over 100 days. They captured the imagination of people around India and the world, their protest becoming the symbol, epicentre and inspiration for the largest non-violent movement that India has seen since its epic struggle for freedom. Recently, one of these protestors, 82-year old Bilkis was listed among the 100 most powerful people in the world by Time magazine.

“I will sit here”, she had declared during the protests to journalist Rana Ayyub, “till blood stops flowing in my veins, so the children of this country and the world breathe the air of justice and equality.”

But another recent report, a 17,000-page charge-sheet filed by the Delhi Police, paints an emphatically different picture of the protests. It claims that the women were mercenaries, paid Rs 500 a day to sit in protest from money illegally siphoned from the Gulf, to give a constitutional and democratic facade something that was actually planned as a dangerous terrorist insurrection. The women protestors were a shield, a mask, for this sinister conspiracy against the nation and its lawfully elected government. Twenty people are in jail charged with this conspiracy. Many others, including this writer, are named in the police charge-sheet as actors in this conspiracy and fomenting hatred.

Echoing the party line

The police story closely echoes the version broadcast during the protests by senior leaders of the Union government, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Two days after a gunman fired at the Shaheen Bagh protestors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the protests as a “conspiracy”. Union Home Minister Amit Shah appealed to voters in Delhi’s state assembly elections to press the button of the electronic voting machine so hard that its current would be felt in Shaheen Bagh.

Another minister Anurag Thakur encouraged crowds to shout slogans to shoot the “traitors”. BJP MP Praveen Verma compared the gatherings in Shaheen Bagh to a fire that can enter the homes of people in Delhi. “These people will enter your homes, abduct your sisters and daughters, rape them and kill them,” he warned. Another BJP leader Kapil Mishra described Shaheen Bagh as a “mini-Pakistan”, and Union minister Giriraj Singh spoke of the infant who died in the severe cold at the protests as a “suicide bomb”.

The tainted alternate history that is being powerfully promoted by the ruling establishment and its ideological supporters threaten to erase these memories. After wading through thousands of pages of the Delhi Police charge-sheet that claimed that Shaheen Bagh was the cover for a violent insurrection, I felt the need to rebuild memory of events just months old that are already obscured, hazy, strangely distant, bitterly contested. I returned therefore to read again and savour a collection of luminous writings about the protests edited by senior journalist Seema Mustafa, titled Shaheen Bagh And the Idea of India (full disclosure, I had also contributed to this anthology).

A protestor at Shaheen Bagh. Credit: Money Sharma/AFP

The name Shaheen Bagh, as Apoorvanand writes, derives from two Persian words absorbed into Urdu, meaning Garden of the Eagle. It became a fitting name for this unlikely site of brave, determined protest. The ghetto, like thousands of others, is one of sunless narrow lanes, open drains and the untidy tangle of overhanging electrical cables, in which the stench of piles of rotting garbage competes with the smell of kababs.

But the women of Shaheen Bagh, Mustafa says, “gave Delhi a living heart, a gift of togetherness, hope and self-confidence”. It was a “genuine people’s movement”, a protest “without identifiable leadership...that challenged the stereotyping Of Muslims and Muslim women” as “Muslims came out on the streets to assert their citizenship, their pride in India, their respect for the Constitution and the Tricolour, and above all, their faith that they would be heard”.

The spark for the protest was lit by what Seemi Pasha calls “the night of broken glass”, the terrifying hours when the police entered the library of Jamia Millia University and brutally thrashed students on December 15. Many of the residents of this ghetto which adjoins the university had children studying in the university. As “the air filled with clouds of tear gas”, Pasha recalls, “something snapped inside them that night.” There was panic, disbelief, the dread that their children may have been shot, brutalized or detained. Many ran towards the campus to save their children.

“That night they realised they had no one to turn to but one another.”

An anguished, spontaneous protest

There was no grand plan, no design to start a movement from Shaheen Bagh. The first night a handful of women huddled in the cold on the highway in anguish and spontaneous protest. The next day, someone brought some blankets and a carpet, others a tent, and gradually more women, including older women, began to join. University students decorated a makeshift stage, and pictures of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad festooned the site. Word about the protest filtered around Delhi, to both its elite and working-class enclaves, and people began to converge on the neighbourhood from all parts of the city. Something had stirred in the soul of this hardened city. History began to unfold.

The protesting women who the Delhi Police claim were sitting these 100 days because they were paid Rs 500 a day speak about what motivated them. Ninety-year old Asma Khatoon recalled to Pasha, “I was still quite young when the Partition of India happened...but I will not let this country be divided again.” Nazia, 24, whose infant of four months tragically died at the protest site declared, “This is a battle I am fighting for my children. What kind of future will I be able to give them if my husband and I are thrown into a detention camp?”

Seventy-year old Aasma told a BBC journalist, “It’s not just me. My ancestors, my children and grandchildren – we are all Indian. But we don’t want to prove this to anyone.” There is also Prakash Devi, a Hindu homemaker from Karol Bagh whose daughter studies in Jamia Milla. “I was heartbroken when I found out about the police brutality on students of Jamia...Then I started coming here.” She often slept the night at the site or in the homes of one the Muslim residents, who she says are now like family.

A child at Shaheen Bagh. Credit: AFP

Shaheen Bagh became many things. In the words of Sarovar Zaidi and Samprati Pani, Shaheen Bagh was a sit-in, a candlelight march, a library, a hangout zone, a night market, an outpost, an erasure, a coming out, a mela, a movement, a zenana, a qasba, a place of gentleness, a home. Like many writers, they speak of it as a source of hope. Photographer Mustafa Qureshi recalls the India he was raised in, in which “I owned India, and India owned me.”

He speaks of heartbreaks, of sinking into despair as hate and lynching mounted in the India of his love. He did not imagine that 73 years after freedom the citizenship of Indian Muslims would be discussed. “I never thought about being Indian, I always just was – it’s like breathing,” he said. “To have your citizenship questioned is to have your life-breath taken away.” Shaheen Bagh gave him back hope and faith. “Maybe,” he said wistfully, “Shaheen Bagh will give me my country back again.”

With women in vibrant and confident leadership, Shaheen Bagh also overturned gender relations. Men stood in the periphery, but always with respect. A woman friend told Zeyad Masroor Khan, “Each time I’ve come to Shaheen Bagh, I’ve come across men who have bent over backwards to make space for me to pass through...safely. Not one inappropriate glance, not one inappropriate touch.”

A powerful answer

What Shaheen Bagh accomplished above all was to develop its own vocabulary of a politics of love to answer the powerful politics of hate of the ruling establishment. Khan recalled the multi-faith prayers organised at Shaheen Bagh. A Hindu hawan “with bearded men in skull caps running around to find ghee, garlands and agarbattis”, many Muslim women repeating the mantras, followed by reverential readings from the Bible and the Granth Saheb, Hindu priest donning a skull-cap and a Christian priest dancing with the protestors, ending with messages of peace from the Quran.

The Shaheen Bagh protestors decided to answer Union minister Anurag Thakur’s public exhortation to violence, to shoot the nation’s traitors (he would call out “Desh ke gaddaron ko” and the crowd would respond feverishly “Goli maaro saalon ko”). Khan reports that the women organised a programme called “Goli nahi phool barsao” (Don’t rain bullets, rain flowers”). Their answer to the slogan raised by the junior minister was “Desh ke un pyaron ko, phool barsao saaron par” (All those lovely people of the country, shower flowers on all of them.)

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Their appeal to Prime Minister Modi was also remarkably without rancour. They sought out his best self. As 90-year old Asma Khatoon put it, she hoped that “Allah will put mercy in Modi’s heart”. They wrote hundreds of postcards to Modi. One woman wrote to “Modi ji”, “Please stop CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act], NRC [National Register of Citizens] and NPR [National Population Register]. Please don’t divide India. We really love India.”

A boy in Class 6 was more sharp. He wrote to “Dear Modi Uncle”: “When I study civics, I study the sentence that India is a diverse country. Now I will have to say that India used to be a diverse country, because I can see from your actions that India will not be a diverse country in the future.” On Valentine’s Day, protestors held heart-shaped cut-outs with “PM Modi please come to Shaheen Bagh” written on them. The voices of a band rang out with a song, the refrain of which with gentle teasing was:

Sardi aa ke chali gayi
Garmi zyada door nahi
Hum toh aas mein baithe hain
Modi tum kab aaoge

(Winter has come and gone
Summer is not far
We’re still waiting in hope
Modi, when will you come?)

Needless to say, Modi never went to Shaheen Bagh. Instead, under the cover of the lockdown imposed to control the spread of Covid-19, bulldozers drove into Shaheen Bagh the second day of the national curfew, destroying the canopy, erasing the 40-foot tall map of India, the pictures of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Azad, the poster, flags and slogans.

Nayantara Sahgal, novelist in her 90s who bore close witness to the freedom struggle, believes Shaheen Bagh inherited and carried forward the legacy of the 1930s, when women in large numbers joined Mahatma Gandhi’s salt satyagraha, picketing foreign cloth shops, beaten by the police, willingly going to prison. Political scientist Zoya Hasan goes further, saying the country has never seen this scale of women’s mobilisation around non-gender issues and in complete defiance of the state and police violence, not even during the freedom struggle.

Even more remarkably, Muslim women emerged as the strongest voices against the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra. Nizam Pasha recalls the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, that defined as a citizen of the Reich only those of “German or kindred blood”, excluding Jews, as the beginning of a journey which led ultimately to the Holocaust. The Citizenship Amendment Act, he fears, carries dangers of paving the same path. But Muslims have responded with the slogan, “Muslim hain hum watan hai Hindustan humaara” – We are Muslims, India is our country.

A policeman works to clear the Shaheen Bagh protest site on March 24. Credit: Sajjan Hussain/AFP

Is Shaheen Bagh dead? The site erased, has it been so demonised and crushed that it is irretrievably relegated to fading history? What is it about Shaheen Bagh, asks Apoorvanand, that to a certain kind of Indian it represents Muslims conspiring, behind the cover of women, against the Indian state, Indian nationhood, the Constitution, and the Hindus; an audacious treachery? What is it about Shaheen Bagh, and hundreds of similar protests, that troubles the BJP so much, asks Nandita Haksar. The answer, she says, lies in the concept of democracy and democratic citizenship that this peaceful movement articulated and defended.

But Apoorvanand says that although the streets of Delhi have been stained with blood, the idea of Shaheen Bagh has survived.

After all, it is not Covid-19 alone that is contagious. As Anirban Bhattacharya reminds us, dissent too is contagious.

Shaheen Bagh, in the words of Zeyad Masroor Khan, emerged as a “magical centre of solidarities; a place where people of different classes, faiths, ideologies, educational backgrounds, professions, gender identities, castes and regions stood together for the same cause: protecting the Constitution”. Is it a wonder, then, that the BJP-RSS found Shaheen Bagh so threatening? Shaheen Bagh had to be destroyed, because it was everything that they wanted to eliminate, to mould instead the permanently resentful, angry, uneqal India of their alternative imagination.

The Delhi Police charge-sheet also alleges that Shaheen Bagh was developed by conspirators as a model of protest for emulation across not just Delhi and the country. They are right that Shaheen Bagh became a model. But not of by mercenary women paid to be an armour for insurrectionary violence. Shaheen Bagh became a model for democratic struggle most for the vocabulary it developed, in homespun idiom, of love as resistance, and of confident equal citizenship. And in this way it lives on. Sikh farmers from Punjab had camped for many days in Shaheen Bagh, running a langar for their sisters sitting in protest. When the farmers of Punjab recently rose in protest, Muslim youth from Malerkotla served them food in solidarity.

As long as these ties of love bind us, India is safe.

Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.