“We are upset,” said the young resident of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. He did not want to be identified. A friend standing next to him shot him a glance, indicating he should stop airing his views.
He was agitated about the Supreme Court judgment delivered on October 7, relating to road blockades put up in Shaheen Bagh by people opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act during the three-month-long agitation. The court had ruled that public spaces could not be occupied indefinitely. It agreed that protests are part of democracy but said they should be restricted to designated areas. The blockade at Shaheen Bagh had been inconvenient for commuters, the court added.
In December, Shaheen Bagh had been transformed. It became the site of vibrant protests against the new citizenship law, which made undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. This was India’s first faith-based law. Critics also feared that, clubbed with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship Amendment act would be used as a tool to discriminate against Indian Muslims.
But on the afternoon of October 7, all traces of protest had disappeared from Shaheen Bagh. Traffic now roars through the stretch where a marquee once stood. Shops lining the road that had been shuttered during the protests were now doing business again. Police and paramilitary personnel had set up a tent in a corner and two officials routinely patrolled the lanes armed with their rifles.
Few residents want to speak about protest anymore.
Several residents of Shaheen Bagh refused to comment on the protest. They darted nervous glances at each other when asked about the resistance to the citizenship initiatives. Some denied that they had been in the area during the three months that the site was filled with a sea of protestors. Others said they did not even live in Shaheen Bagh.
Shaheen Bagh rises
The protests in December 2019 were initiated by the women of the Muslim-majority area in South East Delhi. Anguished by the police brutality against students protesting against the Citizenship Act at the nearby Jamia Millia Islamia university, the women bundled up their children and braved the winter cold to gather at a highway that runs past the locality. People from other parts of Delhi soon joined them.
A marquee was set up, food was distributed, speeches were made and songs were sung. The stretch of highway was soon filled with paintings and graffiti protesting against the citizenship initiatives. A model of the India Gate was erected on the highway, was was a 40-foot high, 399-kg iron mesh map of India. It had a caption that started with words from the Preamble of the Constitution – “We, the people of India” – and ended with “reject CAA NPR NRC” (Citizenship Amendment Act, National Population Register, National Register of Citizens). Someone even started a makeshift library at the Shaheen Bagh bus stand.
In September, Bilkis Bano, the 82-year-old woman who became a regular at the protests, was featured in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.
As the protests continued, Shaheen Bagh became the focus of a polarising campaign run by the Bharatiya Janata Party before the Delhi Assembly elections. Appealing to citizens to vote for the BJP, Home Minister Amit Shah had said in January: “Press the button with such anger that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh.”
A common argument against the protest site was that it caused inconvenience to commuters travelling to and from Noida, in Uttar Pradesh, and Faridabad, in Haryana, into Delhi. However, Scroll.in mapped the routes in the area and found that police officials in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh had barricaded two alternate roads leading into the capital.
After 101 days, the police broke up the protest at Shaheen Bagh, ostensibly because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown.
A mural is still painted across the wall of a building – one of the few reminders of the protest. “The girls worked very hard to put that up,” said a nostalgic Mohammad Rafiq, who has run a tea shop in Shaheen Bagh for 10 years. However, he was quick to dismiss the protests and said he had never attended them.
The model India Gate and the map went in March, residents said. “The police took away everything,” said Rafiq.
‘Everything is normal’
In the months since Shaheen Bagh wound up, the Delhi Police have launched a massive crackdown on people who participated in the protests, claiming that they conspired to orchestrate the communal violence that shook the capital in February. Several students and activists have been arrested by the police.
Many of those who lived in areas near Shaheen Bagh and attended the protests were picked up by the police. Sharjeel Imam, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who made a controversial speech at the protests, remains in custody, charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Most residents of Shaheen Bagh now say they accept Wednesday’s Supreme Court judgment. “We wanted our protest to continue but within the limits of the law, and that is our responsibility as citizens,” said Shaheen Kausar, a social activist and one of the women who protested at the site. “But there was a lot of confusion because there was no leader and no one lady was leading it.”
When they came out into the streets, Kausar explained, they were angry with the government.
“This became such a big movement,” she said. “Did the public not have a right to use its voice to reach the government? If they are feeling pain then why does the government not want to involve itself in this pain?”
She admitted the constraints of the pandemic when it came to protests. “There is such a big virus – it is better if we focus on the situation now and follow social distancing,” she said.
The old anger and pain have not gone in Shaheen Bagh, she said. “How can that change?” demanded Kausar. “But there was no reaction from the government.”
Other residents were more hesitant to speak about these sentiments. Some implied that people had been swept up in the moment. “It was a crowd where people got involved,” said the young resident who declined to reveal his name. “So many people did not know what it was about but they got involved.”
The amendments to the citizenship act were no longer a matter of concern, he said. “The anger was about CAA-NRC, which the government stopped because of corona,” he said. “If they try again, we will see how to manage it.”
For now, “everything is normal, there is no problem”, he said.
Even the name of Bilkis Bano and her appearance in Time magazine did not evoke much interest. “Four days back, a man came and showed me a picture of a dadi named Bilkis and he asked me if I knew her,” Rafiq said. “I had never gone to the protest so how would I know her? He said, uncle, no need to worry. But what reason do I have to worry?”
No one wanted to protest anymore, he said: “Everyone wants to move on.”