From Shaheen Bagh, With Love

JMI student, Afrah Abubacker, protesting against CAA at Shaheen Bagh. Credits: Sreekanth Sivadasan.

In the very early days of the protest, WhatsApp statuses of women sitting on mattresses with thick blankets during the chilling winter nights were the first pictures and information I had of Shaheen Bagh. After a few days, I visited Shaheen bagh. The barricades of the Delhi police were then used by the protesters. They blockaded the Kalindi Kunj road, a highway that connects Uttar Pradesh and Haryana with Delhi. When I walked near the barricades, many volunteers strictly ensured that none, even pedestrians, cross the barricades. "Madam, please take the side road," said one of them.

A small make-shift shed of coloured tarpaulins, with a small stage, and background images of Indian flag, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and banners of all religions were visible. Men stood at the margins of the protesting shed, and women sat inside. At the side of the stage, a group of men prepared tea in a huge vessel. Somebody from  the crowd joked: "even Modi sold tea!" The man serving tea replied, "But this is secular chai!"

I looked around and tried to understand the place. Shaheen Bagh is the southernmost district of Jamia Nagar. On one side flows the river Yamuna and on the other side an open drainage. There are many narrow lanes adjacent to the wide lanes in Shaheen Bagh. To my both sides sunlight shone brightly on tall apartments and below them, I saw lines of parked vehicles. The residents of Shaheen Bagh are mainly Muslims and belong to   all classes. All of them are connected to the Jamia Millia Islamia University somehow: as retired professors, Jamia school teachers, alumni , and as those who have relatives or paying guests in Jamia Millia Islamia. Most children cherish it as a dream to get admitted to the University.

This perhaps explains their deep hurt and resentment over the Jamia attack on December 15, 2019. When the universities across India protested at the midnight of December 15, the women of Shaheen Bagh, made a 'Chakka Jam' (Road block), which marked the  beginning of the Shaheen Bagh Protest.

It is now more than a month and the protest still continues. I wonder how they persist. When asked about it, a protesting mother said, 

"I remember the face of Minhajudhin, the Jamia student who lost his eye. Jamia students were protesting against CAA, and they brutally attacked students inside the university. That tells me how cruel and immoral  this government is. And how intolerant they are towards the anti- CAA protest. That pushes me everyday to come and sit over here".

Another elderly woman said,

"We know that the act is against secularism and the constitution. We know what happened in Assam and UP, and we know what happened in Jamia and Aligarh. How can I stay in my house?"

There are many working women sitting in Shaheen Bagh. They are clerks, or maintenance workers in schools and hospitals, and some are even school principals and teachers. There is a huge participation of home makers too.

WhenI visit Shaheen Bagh every other day, I see new charts, cutouts, paintings, and sometimes a completely new initiative. The bus stands are now libraries and free tea stalls. The closed shop verandahs are now tuition class rooms. Kids of protesting women and of nearby refugee camp come here. They learn to read and when bored, they make drawings on the theme of India, which are later exhibited. Huge collective efforts like mass paintings on road, a replica of the India gate, with martyrs of anti - CAA, NRC protest, a welded large India with a huge eternal flame in front of it, is paid respect with large plate of reddish purple pile of onions. Creativity flourishes in every nook and corner of Shaheen Bagh. These creative efforts of artists and students are one among the many engines driving the enduring protest.

People provide free rides to journalists and to the contributors who transport food and blankets. Once when asked to take money, a rickshaw driver with teary eyes said, "Can't the uneducated contribute anything? These are the only small ways in which we can contribute. Why don't you let us do it?" "Volunteers work very sincerely and hard. They manage crowds, check the barricades, clean the roads. They barely sleep," said an alumnus of Jamia, who himself is a volunteer.

During the nights I stayed at Shaheen Bagh, I saw many university students sitting with the protesting men around fire and creating awareness about the act and what the nation is going through. Being a participant in such groups, I felt that most of them are already much aware. These students only added nuances to their understanding. "Revolutions cannot be lead by unaware people. These people were always aware. They had the ground knowledge of state's terrorism. But years of strategic negligence and ignorance from the government made them tired and complicit. Now they have been shaken up": my senior, who had stayed for seven years in Shaheen Bagh said. "There is no official body. There are many students from various universities, alumni of Jamia and other universities, localites who all sit together and share their ideas. It is a collective effort. The beauty of this movement is the absence of a single leader," another volunteer added.

With continuous visits, I understand this as the truth. There are many people working; and they all work in varied ways. Once I asked, "Is Jamia Nagar a different place from others in Delhi?” A university student and resident of Shaheen Bagh said, "No, this place is like any other place in Delhi. Just that there are more Muslims here. Why more Muslims? Because we feel more secure here. Here nobody would stare at us for our beards, skull cap or hijab." I intervened "but don't you feel there is a negligence from the government, especially in providing better amenities?" He said, " Yes that is there. It is a Muslim ghetto. But we, the residents are not that different from other people of Delhi."

As I was strolling back and forth in the teeth-shivering midnight, I saw a group of teenagers, sitting around a fire in a corner. I went and sat along with them. Their mothers were sleeping in the protesting shed. Their phones played Hindi rap songs from YouTube. And they were joking about the conversation that they had on Facebook with their female friends. I felt that what I heard in the previous conversations stands true. We all are different, but we are all largely the same.