On December 11, 2019, the Indian Parliament passed amendments to the Citizenship Act that sparked off an unprecedented nationwide protest movement against the legislation, the controversial promise to institute a National Register of Citizens and other government policies that discriminate against Muslims and violate Constitutional norms.

One year later, after riots in Delhi, a deeply flawed investigation into the communal violence and the Covid-19 pandemic putting a halt to public sit-ins, Scroll.in returns to speak to some of those who participated in this truly remarkable moment in Indian history.

Read all the pieces in this series here.

“Where is Sultana? Her husband is here to see her.”

It was early February. Sultana (name changed to protect her identity), a housewife in her 30s, was sitting with over 200 other women at Mumbai Bagh when she heard her name being repeatedly called out in the crowd. Women were directing a man towards her. As he got closer, she heard their words more clearly: “He is Sultana’s husband. Sultana’s husband is here.”

By the time he reached her, she was overcome by silent tears of joy. All her adult life, she had been identified in public as his wife, with her own name erased. But at the Mumbai Bagh protest, for the first time, the tables had turned.

“I felt like I had found my identity,” she said.

Sultana could have been speaking for every woman at Mumbai Bagh and every Muslim who participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act across India from December 2019 to March 2020.

The amendments to the citizenship law make the process of acquiring citizenship faster for all migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, except if they are Muslim. In public their speeches, Home Minister Amit Shah and other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders expressed plans to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act alongside a proposed National Register of Citizens, which aims to list Indian citizens and delegitimise alleged infiltrators.

This was widely understood as an attempt to target Indian Muslims, threatening their very existence as Indian citizens. Lakhs of people across India turned out on the streets to protest, but in early December 2019, few could have foreseen that Muslim women would be at the forefront of the resistance.

As it turned out, Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh emerged as the most enduring symbol of the movement against the CAA and NRC. From December 14, 2019, to March 24, this 101-day sit-in protest by ordinary Muslim women attracted thousands of supporters every day, inspiring dozens of other similar women’s protests in cities and towns across India.

“We sat to protest for our rights, and also because we felt a sense of responsibility towards the women of Shaheen Bagh,” said Jamila (name changed), a housewife who participated regularly at the Mumbai Bagh protest in South Mumbai’s Nagpada area.

On the anniversary of the protests, Scroll.in spoke to several women and men involved in Shaheen Bagh-inspired protests in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to give up on street protests, all the women claimed that the experience has made them more confident, more politically aware and more assertive in their personal lives.

Women shout slogans at Mumbai Bagh in January. Photos: Ayush Prasad

How it began

The Mumbai Bagh protest began at 10 pm on the night of January 26, with a hundred local residents of Nagpada gathering to read the Preamble of the Constitution and mark Republic Day. In the days leading up to it, a group of young men and women had worked silently to inform local residents about a plan to organise a protest on Morland Road, a quiet street off the main road that was already closed to traffic because of renovation work.

“When the final call to protest was sent out that night, more than 100 people gathered in an hour,” said Feroze Mithiborwala, one of the activists involved in organising the Mumbai Bagh protests at the start.

As the night progressed, the crowd swelled to over 500 people, with men sitting at the northern end of the street and a much larger group of women at the southern end.

“It got very tense that first night, because the police was threatening lathi charge, local politicians were trying to ask us to leave, and the women refused to leave,” said Amina (name changed), a 27-year-old student and a regular Mumbai Bagh protester. “Four women were detained that night, and we later found out that they faced a lot of verbal harassment from the police.”

Over the next 55 days, Mumbai Bagh established itself as the first successful women’s sit-in protest in the city, attracting students, cultural and political activists, artistes and thousands of ordinary women across different socio-economic classes, most of whom were participating in a protest for the first time in their lives.

The Mumbai Bagh protest took place in a narrow street that was under repairs in January.

Sleepless nights

For women from patriarchal families and a marginalised community, the impact of being at the centre of a mass political movement cannot be overstated.

Amina, Jamila and others recounted dozens of stories of women who had committed themselves wholly to the protest, and had found strength and confidence to do things they had never attempted before.

“There was one woman, a make-up artiste, whose child had an accident the day after Mumbai Bagh began,” said Amina. After her child was back from the hospital, the woman would divide her daytime between work and caregiving, and devote her nights to Mumbai Bagh. “Since she had nothing else to offer the protest, she said she would sacrifice her sleep for it. And many others kept coming at night, even though they were not getting enough sleep.”

Women who had barely spoken in public before began to voluntarily give speeches at the protest. One 65-year-old woman, who had not had the opportunity to sing in front of other people since she was 15 years old, chose to step up and sing a patriotic song.

“There was another woman in her 30s who had been married at a young age and had not had a chance to finish her education,” said Hasina Khan, an activist from Bebaak Collective, an organisation working for Constitutional rights. “After participating in Mumbai Bagh, she developed the confidence to enrol in Class 12 again.”

Participating in the protests has also made women take an active interest in the news and in politics. “Earlier, it was mainly men who would watch the news, but now we are all keeping track of the bills and laws being passed by the government and thinking of what we can do in response,” said 30-year-old Sabiha Sheikh from the town of Mumbra, north of Mumbai. Sheikh and her mother were regular participants at the Mumbra Shaheen Bagh protest, which began on January 21 and went on for 63 days up till the Covid-19 lockdown.

Raising the tricolour at Mumbai Bagh.

Alive despite lockdown

While the pandemic took over people’s lives for the first two months of the lockdown, Mumbai Bagh is still alive for many of its participants.

For one, the Nagpada police is pursuing cases against three of the protest organisers, including Feroze Mithiborwala, for allegedly abetting a criminal act.

The police action, as well as the communal violence in Delhi in February, have made many of the women protesters cautious about sharing their views openly in public. But online, groups like Bebaak Collective have created spaces for women across India to stay connected during the pandemic and to keep the movement alive.

“Our online sessions have been attended by women from Shaheen Baghs across India, and some of them have been steering discussions on various topics,” said Hasina Khan. In the past six months, Bebaak Collective’s online sessions have engaged women in educational conversations about current affairs. When a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district, for instance, they organised a session on the Valmiki community and Dalit rights. “We have discussed secularism and Constitutional rights, Kashmir, the Babri verdict, the impact of Covid, and the meaning of slogans like Azaadi in women’s personal lives.”

“I did not really know much about the way the Dalit community has been treated and why it is wrong,” said Jamila. “But at the protest we heard speeches by Dalit activists and we all shouted slogans like ‘Jai Bhim’ together.”

Offline, the street in which the Mumbai Bagh protest was held is now back to normal, except for a few posters and murals and the constant presence of police vans in the area. Protesters like Jamila, who live in the area, are not sure if they would try to occupy to street again or renew a sit-in protest once Covid-19 is under control. “I think the police would make it very difficult if we try to do it again, and we don’t know how they might target us,” she said. “But we will have to find other ways to keep this protest against NRC active.”

Khan’s organisation has taken one step in that direction by renting out a small office space on the street where Mumbai Bagh was held. “We want this office to be an informal space for the women of Mumbai Bagh to meet, interact, and work on ensuring Constitutional rights for everyone,” said Khan.

Read the entire series here.