“…lab azaad hain tere…”, a daily wage worker has painted over the first two words sprayed on one of the beams of the footbridge that straddles a Delhi road that will forever be known as the place where women started a revolution.
“Bol, ki lab āzād haiñ tere,” meaning ‘Speak, for your lips have freedom,’ is the first line of a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The graffiti was visible from the site of the over 100-day anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) protest led by the women of Shaheen Bagh. The movement had been recognised the world over for the unique way it managed to peacefully protest a law that they say threatens their identity and rights as Indians.
Early on March 24, a humid Tuesday morning, a large police posse, dressed in riot gear, with an addition of masks and gloves for many, accompanied heavy earthmoving machinery and swept through the road. They dismantled the stage from where poetry was recited, songs sung and speeches made, the wooden cots the women had been sitting on once the protest went symbolic in view of the Covid-19.
According to eyewitness accounts, the stage was dismantled and the iron framework taken away by gloved workers, perhaps daily wagers hired by the police that looked on. The artwork and posters were damaged and removed including the installation that was the map of India. “There were so many policemen and women crowding the area. What happened to large groups being a Coronavirus hotspot,” mumbled an eyewitness, “there are more cops here than protestors.”
Around 10 protesters including six women were detained at Shaheen Bagh. The detention was later reported as being confirmed by the area, Deputy Commissioner of Police (southeast) R P Meena, by Indian Express. The report also quoted a volunteer, who said, “There were only 8-10 women at the site Tuesday morning. At 7 AM, the police removed them. There is a very heavy police deployment in Shaheen Bagh.”
According to local residents the deployment continued well after the area was cleared.
The Shaheen Bagh sit-in was led by the feisty daadi ammas, or grandmothers of the neighbourhood, who had seen the area they live at grow from a small residential area nearly on the outskirts of what was then the city of Delhi, to a buzzing neighbourhood with shopping complexes, the ultra modern metro line and a road that was wider than all the lanes of the colony put together. They sat on one side of the road and were joined by others from their neighbourhood and outside. They sat through bitter Delhi winter nights, braved allegations that they were ‘paid protestors’. Bemused, they watched as the media lenses zoomed in and news reports shared their message with the world. And the authorities watched them with greater intensity and built pressure to make them move out of the protest and retreat into their kitchens. They were being called ‘anti national’ and were asked to go back.
Not once did they entertain that thought. Instead they invited the politicians to ‘come sit with us’, and see for themselves the truth of the protest.
The grandmothers inspired other protests that sprung up across the countries as if daughters from the area had taken the revolution as they moved out and set up home elsewhere. Mini-Shaheen Bhaghs came up in other parts of Delhi, and across the country. Each protest came to be known as the “Shaheen Bagh of…” the place it was situated at.
As the winter of 2019 melted into the spring of 2020, the attempts made by the government authorities to heckle, scare, persuade, even force the thousands of women who gathered, to retreat from the protest, intensified steadily as days passed. Smaller protests were forced shut as the tents were dismantled and the protestors evicted. In the days that followed, North east Delhi was singed by the worst anti-Muslim pogrom in February 2020 ever seen in the National Capital.
Across town, the Shaheen Bagh women bravely held their ground and found solidarity in volunteers, artists, peace and civil justice activists from across the country.
It was only when the Covid-19 pandemic began spreading in India that the situation began to change. As large public gatherings were now dangerous and vulnerable to the virus the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests across the city suspended their movement in the larger interest of public health. “Ladai jaari hai, lekin ehtihaad baratni hai! Inquilab Zindabad!” was the voice of most protestors who had suspended their movements to help flatten the Coronavirus contamination curve.
The Shaheen Bagh protest too went symbolic by Sunday and only five women remained at the site. Strict hygiene protocols were also in place. “But we will not go home. Our protest has to continue,” they said.
Delhi is under strict lockdown; public movement is restricted and section 144 has been invoked. The police are reported as enforcing this. However, there was no directive against removing any art, or grafitti. Still more labourers were sent to paint over and erase the vibrant artwork outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university even though the students have already suspended their protest against police violence they faced, and the CAA. The revolutionary artwork they had left behind on the walls was a reminder of their story.
By late afternoon the skies darkened as storm clouds gathered, thunder roared and rain lashed Delhi. “Symbolic,” said many. The sun does shine after it rains. It is the darkest before dawn breaks. It is now important to see what comes next for those who survived and lived to tell the tale.