By Amitabh Ranjan
To borrow from Jawaharlal Nehru and paraphrase what he said more than seven decades back, a moment comes but comes rarely in the history of a republic when the unseen, the deprived and the old become visible and rise against an authoritarian regime to script a magnificent chapter in mass movement. Shaheen Bagh was one such moment. It may not have the same taste of freedom as the dawn of independence in the rains of 1947, but it is refreshingly savoury.
In the closing days of the last year and the beginning of the current, men in uniform and goons wearing saffron on their sleeves vandalised campuses and brutalised students and teachers in Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU and AMU who were protesting against a law they thought is in violation of the Constitution and detrimental to India’s composite social fabric. By the government’s own standards, these three are among the top four of the 40 central universities in the country. (Last month, the department of higher education ranked Jamia at No. 1 among the 40 central universities. It was followed by Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh; Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Aligarh Muslim University.)
On December 15, 2019, the police entered the library of Jamia and beat up students studying there. The books that they were holding in their hands appeared stones to the police. The crackdown followed the anti-CAA protest on the campus two days back. Women whose children bore the brunt came out on that dark winter night to register their protest. That is how Shaheen Bagh became, from a non-descript dusty neighbourhood on the fringe of Delhi, the centrestage of what is a glorious new dawn in the fight to reclaim our cherished ideals—freedom, fraternity and plurality.
So, Nusrat Ara (54) was there at ground zero of the protest. “A seemingly ordinary burqa-clad woman, unapologetic about her identity and her faith and not afraid to lay claim to her country and her democratic rights. What could be more natural, and yet, what could be more revolutionary?”
She represents the women of Shaheen Bagh, most of them homemakers and many of them in their 70s and 80s, the famed dadis, mothers and sisters of Shaheen Bagh. There was Sarvari, Asma Khatoon, Prakash Devi (from Karol Bagh), Harinder Bindu and so many like them. They came onto the streets, leaving their homes to save their homes; to provide leadership to a movement which was amazing in its spontaneity, tone and texture. There was no political name-calling, no rancour, only a focused opposition to a law they thought will divide their country, destroy their homes, make them homeless.
But at every point of time, Shaheen Bagh knew what to say, how to say it and whom to say it to. They tried to reach out to those in power through songs, slogans, placards, graffiti and, on one occasion, through postcards, to the Prime Minister. Their gestures were met by a kind of brazenness by the ruling class that has become all too familiar. But somewhere it also betrayed a feeling of nervousness.
The protest was acquiring national identity. It was difficult to understand where does the protest begin and where does it end. Does it begin at a corner in Delhi and end in Mumbra in Maharashtra, or in Patna, in Lucknow, or Hyderabad? “How many worlds does it create in its mimesis and alterity?” At the time the Opposition stood disunited and rudderless, Shaheen Bagh came as a silver lining, setting the agenda, embodying the Opposition. The voices had to be silenced. So, the riots followed before the pandemic gave the authorities the much-needed excuse to clamp down on the protest’s nerve centre.
The book is a well curated collection of reports from the protest site, from the ugly aftermath when Delhi burnt, and opinion pieces. Split into three parts and edited with the old-school journalistic rigour, Seema Mustafa ensures you get individual stories segueing into the collective, the idea of the protest and the glimpses of a brazen response from the governments. Nayantara Sahgal, Apoorvanand, Harsh Mander, Subhashini Ali and Nandita Haksar are only some of the well-known contributors who provide you credible insight into the phenomenon called Shaheen Bagh. Nizam Pasha, a Supreme Court lawyer, cuts through the legal clutter and camouflage to show how arbitrary the CAA is and how divisive it is in its intention.
The stories of Shaheen Bagh had to be told. Some happened during it. A few that got interwoven in the aftermath. Some have had their denouement. With a witch-hunt on and cases pending before courts, a few await theirs. Amidst all these, the taste of freedom lingers.
The book is recommended. The reader must stay informed, for, the falcon isn’t going anywhere. When the time demands, it will rise again.
A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College