Shaheen Bagh: You can’t evict an idea

The protest became a symbol of hope and strength for many

Shaheen Bagh

On Tuesday Mar 24, the Delhi Police snuck into the Shaheen Bagh protest zone and evicted the few protesters on site at that time. They thus, heroically brought to conclusion a situation they had created in the first place by blocking a section of the Delhi-Noida highway, right after the incidents at Jamia in December.

From beginnings in the shadow and support of the protests at Jamia, Shaheen Bagh grew into a full-fledged protest on its own. In the process, it became a symbol of hope and strength for many other such protests, in Delhi and across India, from places such as Turkman Gate and Hauz Rani in Delhi to Park Circus in Kolkata to Ghantaghar in Lucknow.

One can of course superficially compare it to the epicenter of the 2011 Occupy protests at Zuccotti Park in New York, which also set off a movement, first nationwide in the US and then worldwide, involving several local Occupy camps. 

But what set Shaheen Bagh apart right from the beginning was that it was composed and led by women. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, wrestled with issues of gender representation from its inception. 

Of course, as we all know, Shaheen Bagh was a sit-in comprising women, but, as importantly, the participants were Muslim women. Some like to call that conjunction of identities – being women and Muslim – as one of “double oppression.” To anyone who saw the women – and maybe spoke with them – they appeared to be anything but oppressed, doubly or singly. Instead they were determined to double down each new day with double the resolve. Winter had come when the Shaheen Bagh ladies hunkered down and they were ready to slay as many demons and spectres of divisiveness, bigotry and discrimination as possible. 

The important thing to note about Shaheen Bagh – and all the Shaheen Baghs around the country – was that it was community-based and apolitical; it was not doctrinal or rigidly ideological in its tone; and it was very clear and transparent about the reasons for the protest. It was the epitome of a spontaneous people’s protest that activists and progressives deeply yearn to see unfold before their eyes, and consider their life well-lived, if they are witness to one.

It was their clarity of purpose to oppose an existential threat that made them clear-eyed, focused and also determined in their quest. They were protesting the questioning of their Indian identity based on religion, an identity they considered settled, unquestionable and inalienable – and a given, which it always was. An Indian Express report quoted a protester in Wasseypur, Jharkhand as saying, “Maa, mulk nahi badla jata – Mother, motherland cannot be replaced.” Or as a dadi at Shaheen Bagh told an AFP reporter, “I was born in India and I want to die here.” 

Other than that, the idea of Shaheen Bagh as a protest, as resistance, was one of putting oneself on the line, as it were. It was the sheer physicality, the undeniable corporeality and the irrefutable solidity of the presence – all with the quiet, resolute, in-your-face frankness – that made each protest a visible redoubt, unshakable and immovable in its foundations. 

It was a live and throbbing symbol, fluid and discrete yet substantial. It was a visible aggregation made up of a mass of seemingly incongruous niqabs, abayas, burqas and hijabs. When you saw them the first time, you almost caught your breath at this well-known, yet unfamiliar sight, and you went, “Of, so it is true!”

It was this everydayness of the people who made up the protests that seemed to baffle and unsettle everyone. It represented the power of the ordinary raised to the levels of the extra-ordinary. Thus, Shaheen Bagh was also us out there – the weak, hesitating, diffident, dithering us, witness to injustice upon injustice but unable to act. It was the actualization of our superhero and superheroine dreams when confronted with injustice, swooping onto the streets to fight the real battle, dressed in our cape and suit, because we had to take matters in our hands to ensure triumph of good over, ahem, evil.

But, this superheroine story did not play out using any stunts, pyrotechnics or physical jousting with the villains. No, therein lay the beauty of this natural outpouring of resistance. This resistance believed in a silent, non-violent and non-flashy doggedness. It was a Chipko of the ground beneath their feet while also holding up more than half the tent and sky above. It was unabashed in its womanness and its Muslimness. By embodying those twin identities with ease and elan, by overturning the “doubly-oppressed” narrative in one fell go, the Shaheen Baghs presented a hitherto “unknown quantity,” not to be pitied for subservience but treated respectfully for some kind of “double strength,” precisely that of their womanness and Muslimness. 

Shaheen Bagh probably meant different things to different people. By itself it always represented opposition to the kala kanoons: the CAA, NRC and NPR. It revealed the hidden, or should one say, the unexpressed strengths inherent the “public,” but more specifically the Muslim woman public. It demonstrated that steadfast, physical protest in the age of outrage-via-social-media was still an immensely effective way of speaking truth to power. Moreover, by maintaining a resolutely non-violent, peaceable and unflappable demeanor, it subverted all attempts at provocations. 

When the various political leaders of the BJP, Amit Shah and Kapil Mishra included, began taking pot-shots at Shaheen Bagh, at this motley group of Muslim women, a contemptible minority otherwise, one could state that the terms of the conversation had been altered. The power equations had been disturbed and the visible frustrations of the BJP leaders was evident. It was as if the mighty Roman empire had trained all its resources on the targeting of the one holdout Gaul village, as depicted in the popular Asterix comic-books, over whom they had not been able to achieve victory despite all their resources. 

Shaheen Bagh proved to us the power in all of us. It was the shattering of stereotypes and the transcending of our limitations and fears. It was working with uncertainty, and without some detailed plan. It was working with just what one had, while discharging all our responsibilities as wife, mother, sister, lawyer, entrepreneur. 

It was putting oneself out there in the open, among the stares, glares and ridicules of the world. It was all of the above simply to express the deepest, purest conscientious objection to what was felt to be wrong. It proceeded from the idea that it is oneself that one has to put on the frontlines, whatever station of life one is in, however vulnerable, incapable and unlikely other people think one to be, despite one’s own doubts. 

In 2016, torch-wielding white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia (UVA) in the US, protesting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements and its actions of taking down monuments to racist civil war figures. Among the slogans they chanted were “White Lives Matter” and “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” the latter employed extensively during the BLM movement. It seems they had to assume the vocabulary of the movement they were opposing to express their own position – such was the hold of BLM and other progressive movements on their imagination.

In similar manner, on Mar 24, after the Shaheen Bagh encampment had been taken down by the Delhi Police, BJP MLA Kapil Mishra tweeted: “Sab Takht Uchal ke Phek Diye/ Sab Tent ukhad ke Phek Diye/Humne Dekh Liya/Sabne Dekh Liya.” Mishra’s impoverished imagination too had to employ Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s  nazm, much reviled by the Indian right, to gloat over the dismantling of Shaheen Bagh. But, with that, unwittingly, he had let Shaheen Bagh have the last word. 

The tent and material trappings of such acts of resistance may eventually come down, as they did for Shaheen Bagh. But Shaheen Bagh as an idea and symbol had found a place in people’s hearts and minds a long time ago. That edifice of protest will continue to remain enshrined in people’s memories. —

Aviral Anand is a socially-concerned citizen, based in Delhi. He believes in solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.



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