Civil Disobidience

Shaheen Bagh–Continuing Resistance

Kaleem Kawaja

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government expected that opposition to CAA will come from their rival opposition political parties. But they were surprised when intense spontaneous opposition exploded from groups of students at many universities across the country, where the number of minority students is about 4%.

The biggest surprise is that a bunch of women from the lower-middledass locality of Shaheen Bagh in the New Delhi suburb of Okhla, have organised a pacifist sit-in campaign against CAA and NRC, emulating Mahatma Gandhi's iconic Satyagrahas of India's freedom movement. Indeed, they kept the organisation of the campaign entirely in the hands of local women, not letting men get involved. Not only these ladies, majority of whom happen to be Muslim, braved 2 months of the coldest-in-a-hundred years Delhi winter, with awful cold and rain, sitting under a flimsy tarpaulin tent and sleeping on the road, they have successfully thwarted the pernicious attempts of several politicians to give a sectarian colour to their agitation.

The ladies of Shaheen Bagh who had earlier spent their lives at home mostly looking after their families, that even included a few grandmothers, had never taken part in rallies or political campaigning. Yet, they have demonstrated remarkable political skill and strategy in managing this critical movement for the composite soul and unity of the nation.

Spurning all controversy, they invited a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits to their rally and expressed full solidarity and sympathy with their suffering. They invited a horde of Sikh farmers from Punjab to sympathise with their long-standing sufferings vis-a-vis their farm loans. Being Urdu speaking themselves, they invited Tamil, Telegu and Malayan Hindus to discuss their issues at their rally. In Shaheen Bagh, the ladies established temporary book stalls and painting displays, organised poetry and folk music sessions and lectures by a horde of grassroots activists.

Recently, RaminJahanbegloo, the eminent political philosopher, has written a seminal book with the title The Disobedient Indian: Towards a Gandhian Philosophy of Dissent (Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018). He argued: "In today's world, the rise of populist politicians across the globe signals a worrying trend of obedience, complacency and conformism among citizens of the world... As such, one of today's most important challenges lies in the act of questioning the reality of our world without necessarily taking it for granted". He further argued: "...any allegiance to democracy should not turn imperatively into an allegiance to the politicians and the principles of the State."

The recent act of disobedience at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, has raised fundamental questions of democracy. It should be mentioned in this connection that Shaheen Bagh congregation had begun a few hours after the police went on the rampage in Jamia Millia Islamia University. CCTV footage showed police attacking unarmed students and breaking CCTV cameras. What happened inside and outside the Jamia Millia Islamia campus on December 15.2019, were acts of brutal State violence against the minority community. To put it in the words of the PUDR Report:

The destruction of CCTV cameras by the police force at the gale, inside the campus, and at the library and reading rooms is clear evidence of the intention of the police force to indulge in actions that are prohibited and amount to criminal offences.

The attacks on guards, students, the imam, and other employees inside the campus were indiscriminate. Everyone that the police could lay their hands on was subject to severe heating with the police lathi, amid a barrage of communal abuses against Muslims and Kashmiris.

The uniqueness of the Shaheen Bagh movement lies in the fact that it is an act of civil disobedience initiated by Muslim women without having a central leadership. Reportedly, in their dialogue with the interlocutors sent by the Supreme Court, most protestors at Shaheen Bagh told that the Supreme Court should first decide on their demand for repealing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The overarching feeling appeared to be mistrust of the government that has not made any sincere attempt at reaching out to the protestors.

Protests against the newly passed CAA, and brutal police atrocities in Jamia Millia Islamia campus acted as catalysts in giving birth to the non-violent disobedience movement at Sha-heen Bagh. This movement substantiates Jahanbegloo's imagination of disobedience: "...the idea of humanity is always present in this act of disobedience".

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Vol. 52, No. 42, April 19 - 25, 2020