Umar Khalid is arrested as I near the end of Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India. A collection of essays, interviews, and ground reports, Shaheen Bagh is that chapter of history our future generations must study. Edited by the journalist Seema Mustafa, Shaheen Bagh brings together the voices of Harsh Mander, Nayantara Sehgal, Seemi Pasha, Anirban Bhattacharya, Mustafa Quraishi, Apoorvananda, and many more.
Shaheen Bagh, a protest which started off with a few women demanding that their basic citizenship rights not be infringed upon, went on to become a symbol of resistance, liberty and democracy. When the Delhi Police entered the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia on the fateful night of December 15, Shaheen Bagh was still unheard of. However, this little locality in the nation’s capital rose to its name in the following months.
“The protest site has become an extension of their homes”
I remember asking a vendor what Shaheen meant when I went to visit the site in January. “Shaheen uss panchi ka naam hai jo aasman mein sabse ooncha udta hai,” he replied, swelling with pride. I handed him a ten rupee note in exchange for a tricolour flag. His street-side shop was filled with the three colours smeared over the numerous merchandise – badges, stickers, scarves, and shirts. My friend bought an I love India badge. “What did he say in Hindi?” she asked me on our way back. “He said that Shaheen is the bird that soars highest in the sky,” I replied, still trying to google the etymology.
In her report “Voices from Shaheen Bagh”, journalist Seemi Pasha interviews 60-year old Shariq Anasarullah, who had bought the colony in 1980. “I had named the place ‘Shaheen’ after the falcon, which is a proud and self-respecting bird. It does not attack animals on the ground, but hunts mid-air. Allam Iqbal had once said that he wants Muslims to live like the Shaheen. I am glad that the people of this locality are finally living up to the name”, he says.
Pasha covers the protests of Shaheen Bagh with utmost detail. Her ground reports give us a microscopic glimpse of the protestor’s everyday lives. She records the individual voices of the group that are to become the face of a worldwide movement. The 90-year old Asma Khatoons, the 50-year old Nusrats, and the 38-year old Malkas are brought to life through Pasha’s interviews.
Women who lived through partition, and existed before the Republic of India itself were questioned about their citizenship. Their response echoed through the streets of Shaheen Bagh in the form of songs, poetry, speeches, and art. In her piece, “The Message”, novelist Nayantara Sahgal writes, “The Message is clear: Indians will not submit to another partition.” She compares the women-led protest of Shaheen Bagh to another form of resistance from 90 years ago, when in 1930 women came out in large numbers to support the salt march and participated in the civil disobedience movement.
Sahgal is not the only person to comment on the similarities of the anti CAA-NRC-NPR protests to that of the freedom movement of India. Harsh Mander, in his essay “Mahatma Gandhi Would Have Approved”, writes, “The fact that the revolt began with students reassures us that our young have the moral fibre to fight for the kind and equal country that the leaders of our freedom movement had imagined and made great sacrifices for”.
“Both sides look at each other, like neighbours who want to get to know each other”
Mustafa Quraishi, through his piece “I Found My Country in Shaheen Bagh”, turns the spotlight on an aspect of protests which is seldom spoken about. He draws our attention to the police and the military, the very institutions that represent the leaders they might or might not have chosen. Their allegiance lies with the government of India, whoever the ruling party be. Do they believe the protestors to be their enemies? In an alternate universe, would they be on the other side of the barricades too?
Quraishi’s piece reminds me of a conversation I had overheard during a student protest when in university. “Hum jinse dande khaate hai, unhi ke saath chai bhi peete hai (We drink tea together with the very people whose batons hit us)”, a student was telling his fellow classmates while explaining to them how the police and military institutions are bound by duty, and the violence they perpetuate is a part of this “duty”.
The ground reports from the Delhi violence that form a major part of this book show the grim reality of India in 2020. People of one religion turning on their neighbours from another rings in the memories of partition for many. Desecrated mosques, unidentified bodies in the drain, and the setting up of relief camps for displaced victims riots remind us that even after 73 years of independence, India is not free of religious enmity.
Various writers in the book compare the sense of “Hinduness” being superior to Nazi Germany’s “Aryanness”. In “Muslim hai Hum, Watan hai Hindustan Hamara”, Nizam Pasha writes, “Historians mark the passing of the Nuremberg Laws – the Law for the protection of German Blood and German Honour – and the Reich Citizenship Law by the Nazi Government in 1935 as the beginning of the series of events that we know as the Holocaust.” The eerie similarities are evident.
Traumatic and tragic events from history are recounted every time things move towards replication somewhere in the world, but Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India – notwithstanding the Supreme Court judgment that says long-standing protests in public spaces cannot go on – gives us hope that perhaps this time this chapter will go down in history in a positive light. That the camaraderie of people from different faiths, the celebrations of a united India, and the women of Shaheen Bagh will save the country from yet another 1947.
Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality, edited by Seema Mustafa, Speaking Tiger.