On December 11, 2019, Parliament passed amendments to the Citizenship Act that sparked an unprecedented nationwide protest movement against the legislation and other government policies that discriminate against Muslims and violate Constitutional norms. One year later, after riots in Delhi and the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to public sit-ins, Scroll.in considers the impact of this remarkable moment in Indian history.
For me, winter mornings before dystopia meant the ritual performance of magpie robins staged on the branches of the backyard moringa. But winter mornings changed on December 10, 2019. The fears we had carried since the general elections of 2014 had materialised.
India tipped over into authoritarianism as the Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which made non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Together with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens, the Act seemed to be a step towards stripping thousands of Indian Muslims of citizenship.
As a starry-eyed law student, I had been hopeful that the proposed citizenship laws were mere rhetoric and even if legitimised by Parliament, they would not stand in a court of law. I was destined to be disappointed.
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For some years, Indian Muslims had lived in a collective nostalgia which contrasted with the humiliations of the present. This was now blended with a sense of imminent doom. Months before the bill was passed, I was combing the streets of Old Delhi, looking for the poet, Zauq, in his neglected shrine, and for Ghalib in his achkan and cap and beard, paired with his trademark air of rebellion. I wondered whether they, too, could be pulled by their beards or made to pull their pants down in their Dilli in “New India”.
My longings for the past do not feature sultanates and caliphates but something far more scarce to my kin: dignity. Struggling for this scarce resource, and bearing a colonially dictated version of identity, India’s Muslims have always simmered in its margins. That was until last year, when the mundane streets of Okhla became boundless, celestial spaces of reclamation. Spaces like this soon sprung up across the country.
To the streets
As the nation erupted in protest and we all discovered courage, the police wreaked vengeance on students of Jamia Millia Islamia demonstrating peacefully in Delhi on the night of December 14, 2019. What was evident, and this was perhaps more frightening than the violence itself, was that this establishment did not seem to care about disguising its cruel excesses. It did not bother to build a plausible premise for injustice, and the country did not seek one. That is when an apathetic government graduates into an authoritarian one. Majoritarianism and the carefully calibrated indifference of the judiciary made one thing quite clear: the solution did not lie within the establishment, but without.
This realisation was where the personal met the political for me. I had been a civil services aspirant, the way most Indian middle-class students are enchanted into being. But this realisation proved to be the fork in the road for me: being a good cog in a hostile machinery was not an alternative. I wondered if this would be my slide into anarchism.
I was surrounded by upper-class ideas of revolution; people who truly believed that listening to Pink Floyd and cheering for Jane Fonda getting herself arrested was resistance. But the turmoil that replaced the collective sense of disbelief could only unravel in the streets, and many were soon to discover that revolution did not resemble its romanticised image.
The public fury in response to the police action at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University was driven by the spontaneous sentiment: “you will never touch our children again”. But on December 19, a more synchronised protest was held across the country.
It was a cloudy day and the apocalyptic Delhi haze hung over the slowly kindling streets. At Kashmere Gate, a horde of khaki burst out of the haze and descended downhill towards the protesters. The bulk detentions had begun. As metros stations shut down one after the other, young and old alike left on foot to join the crowds at various sites. The detained returned from where they were dropped off and others set out from their homes to join the ranks. The hopelessness that had nearly settled in the face of repression was thwarted by the assemblies of protestors who gathered over and over again, until the authorities were left with no choice but to let it happen. It felt almost miraculous.
Shaheen Bagh miracles
But Shaheen Bagh, the locality near Jamia Millia where women first set up a sit-in protest, was not a miracle. Shaheen Bagh was a survival instinct, the only possible alternative in the face of impending disenfranchisement. However, Shaheen Bagh was not devoid of its many miracles.
Gender roles were no longer being challenged in doctoral dissertations. As women from the locality stepped out to protest, men took care of the household. The movement mobilised women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, Lucknow’s Ghantaghar and Mumbai Baug but also spilled into the smallest towns. The loudest and the clearest were women in the most conservative pockets of Vidarbha, some of whom told me they had never spent so much time outside their homes before.
As women claimed political spaces, personal spaces were also reshaped. By the end of the protests, I knew women who were putting off the idea of marriage to chase newfound pursuits, a woman who finally found in her comrades the support system that she needed to quit an unhappy marriage; all of them claiming azadi in its most wholesome form.
Shaheen Bagh itself, a gathering of eclectic creatures, changed. A friend told me how, on the first day, young women lighting cigarettes near a tea stall raised eyebrows. When I went to Shaheen Bagh 40 days later, a group of men in beards, flaming red and majestic white, carelessly passed a lighter to a huddle of young women. Cultural and generational divides had gone up in smoke.
Other prejudices evaporated in other Shaheen Baghs across India. In Ahmedabad, a young boy, tutored by some of the older boys, chanted a slogan using a transphobic slur. His sister, no older than 12, knew instantly that that was no insult. She had met and befriended plenty of trans people at the protests that month. She came running to me to protest and I could not have been prouder of this 12-year-old “madrassa” girl from a poor locality on the fringes of the city, far from the politically correct halls of academia.
Revolution, traditionally imagined in masculine metaphors and pronouns, was reimagined in “mother tongues”. The gendered structures of language were dismantled to radically rewrite cultural scripts. As poet Nabiya Khan wrote – “Aayega Inquilab, pehen ke bindi, choodiyan, burqa, hijab.” Revolution will arrive, wearing bindi, bangles, burqa and hijab.
The poetry of protest
Shaheen Bagh and its sister sit-ins in other cities also became known for the incredible elderly women who came out to protest in the biting cold night after night. As proud as I am of them, I wish they did not have to.
I remember a woman over 80 in Ahmedabad watching the sun sink into the boom of the Maghreb azaan, the call for evening prayers. With glistening eyes and a dry smile, she told me how she had always thought that 1947, when she left her hometown in Uttar Pradesh and moved to Gujarat, would be the worst moment of her life. But the riots of 1969 lit up Gujarat like never before. And in 1992, the country erupted. After Godhra 2002, she truly believed that she had seen her share of despair for a lifetime. Then she turned to the mic to sing in a cracking voice, “Meri aankhon ne yeh manzar na dekha hota toh kitna achchha hota – How good it would have been if my eyes had not witnessed this scene”. I could sense how disappointed they were in the country they call home.
But I shall draw strength from them. It has been a year since the protests but they are not dead. To those losing hope and to myself, I shall repeat: Revolution is not a two-hour movie. It takes decades of pushes, pulls, bruises, amputations, bandages and healing. I no longer know if the poetry of resistance has any value beyond soothing and strengthening ourselves. Yet, we write a collective message of defiance, to document for the world and for the last of the world: We were here.
Iqra Khan is a recent law graduate and bilingual poet.
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