From Event To Symbol

Significance of Shaheen Bagh

Chaman Lal

On 12th December Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) was notified and immediately after notification, student protests began in Jamia, AMU and JNU. Students were subjected to brutal treatment by Delhi and UP police, resulting in women support coming in their favour from 15th December as a mass dharna at Shaheen Bagh, a completely unknown area for non-Delhi residents till then. Rather than Delhi police or Central Government under whose control Delhi police works, showing some restraint or sensitivity towards students and minority concerns, the brutality level further increased resulting in an attack on Jamia library without the permission of Jamia Vice-Chancellor, a necessary precondition to enter a University for the police. As the visuals of police brutality upon students in all three Universities became viral on electronic and social media, the simple protest dharna in Shaheen Bagh became a regular form of peaceful protest, spreading it to the other cities of India. Issue at stake was not just CAA, which Govt. tried to say that it is to give citizenship and not take citizenship of any community, but from their experience and from the statements of home minister that National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be implemented throughout India, as part of the National Population Register (NPR). Earlier the experience of Assam NRC has caused a massive fear.

Today, Shaheen Baghs are continuing in multiple cities of India, though more focus remained centred on Delhi Shaheen Bagh. During Delhi Assembly elections, it became an easy target for BJP's polarisation politics, as it was unsure of its electoral victory; it was described as anti-national, free Biryani centre supplied by Kejriwal. Voters were asked by none else than Home Minister of India to vote in such manner that 'current goes straight to Shaheen Bagh'! The home minister of India and till few days before President of BJP took upon himself the task of winning Delhi election by hook or crook. Encouraged by the second most powerful person of India, the lower level leaders including Central Ministers, Chief Ministers like Yogi Adityanath, MP's and Delhi Assembly candidates like Kapil Mishra and Tajinder Bagga took the path of hate speech against Shaheen Bagh and minority communities to the level, where encouraged by a Minister calling for 'Goli Maro' actualised in real shots! While BJP lost Delhi elections badly, so it became revengeful, especially their losing candidates resorted to hate speeches again, which put the Delhi on the boil and it continues in the same condition. There was a palpable tension building around, which finally culminated in a post elections communal riots, which took lives of more than forty persons till now, number increasing each passing day.

Supreme Court of India realised the sensitivity of the situation, where Nanis and Dadis of 70 to 90 years were leading the Dharna in biting cold and which was attended from toddlers in laps of mothers to young students wearing Burqas or without Burqas, speaking English and Urdu/Hindi with equal ease. Supreme Court by understanding their predicament and rather than ordering any coercive action, formed a team of well-meaning lawyers to talk to the women, who are ready to sacrifice even their lives. Meanwhile peaceful Dharna of Shaheen Bagh continues, which may not result in any tangible resolve of their concerns, as the present rulers of India don't believe in dialogue with people, even when people want it. Shaheen Bagh women tried to meet home minister but were stopped by police to meet him, as the minister never wanted to talk to them.

Media from world over has been looking at Shaheen Bagh with amazement. There are few movements in the world, which have remained so peaceful despite the worst kind of physical and mental suffering. What makes these women, some of them even illiterate, so firm in their resolve to continue their peaceful protest? What makes them so confident also that they can get this law even withdrawn?

Perhaps the Dharna got triggered of spontaneously with the concern of Jamia students, who were brutalised by Delhi police, but with highly educated young girl students and old women joining together and getting inspired by the history of national freedom struggle, the spontaneous movement became an upsurge of new nationalism. The photographs of national movement leaders are not just showpieces for attracting media or the people, it has gone deep down into their consciousness. The largest photograph in centre focus is of Mahatma Gandhi, along with all streams of the national movement are put together in the effort to make it truly national. There are portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Patel from Congress mass movement, Dr Ambedkar, Jyotiba and Savitri Bai Phule from Dalit movement and Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqualla Khan etc from revolutionary movement.

Yet the movement is missing one most important portrait, directly related to the spirit of Shaheen Bagh, that is of Bibi Amtus Salam, who sat on hunger strike with Mahatma Gandhi in 1946 Noakhali riots and who broke her hunger strike only after Mahatma Gandhi broke. Gandhi himself offered her glass of juice to help break her fast. Bibi Amtus Salam refused to migrate to Pakistan, even when his brothers migrated. She was Pathan from Patiala region. She stayed on in India and lived up to 1985 in Rajpura town of Punjab serving Kasturba Gandhi Seva Mandir. She along with Lajjawati Hooja brought many Hindu women from Pakistan and helped them settle down. In fact, Shaheen Bagh women are true inheritors of the spirit of Bibi Amtus Salam as she was the true disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. V Ramamurthi, in his book Mahatma Gandhi: The Last 200 Days, serialised and published by The Hindu, at Golden Jubilee of independence, has given marvellous account from Gandhi's life and there Bibi or Miss Amtus-Salam figures prominently. Gandhi wrote to Miss Salam on 26 August 1947: "You are needlessly finding fault with your brothers. When all others lost courage there, they too decided not to risk their life. It is enough if we ourselves stand firm. Let us not sit in judgement on others though they may be our own relatives".

The slogans raised at Shaheen Bagh also gives the feel of a national movement. Awaz Do-Hum Eik hai and Inqilab Zindabad raised by Bhagat Singh is the most popular slogans raised at the meeting. There is Fatima Sheikh-Savitri Bai Phule library on one side, where people are donating books in many languages, there are readings from books at this library site and speeches from scholars, are a regular feature, as were in Azadi Square of JNU in the year 2016. Azadi songs and patriotic songs, especially from Faiz and Habib Jalib, are sung, ghazals are recited. Slogans popularised by Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU and all over India in his meetings are raised, but It is a total lie to say that at Shaheen Bagh-there are slogans like Jinnah wali Azadi. Actual slogans raised are-Bhukhmari se Azadi (Freedom from Hunger), jativad se Azadi (Freedom from Casteism), firkaprasati se Azadi(Freedom from communalism), Bhagat Singh wali Azadi, Ambedkar wali Azadi, Bismil-Ashfaq wali Azadi etc. To keep even children involved during the day, competition for sketching and paintings are held for children. The place gives the feel of the museum also, as there is a display of photographs from all over the country of resistance to CAA/NRC/NPR. There are models of Detention centre built and portraits of national leaders and revolutionaries are displayed in the whole area of Dharna. Anyone is allowed to speak when the public meeting is held in the afternoon, which continues till night. People from all communities and all regions of India, especially from Punjab have come in large numbers to express support and solidarity. They bring langar-food, yes Biryani is served as people come from far and off, but it is not supplied by Kejriwal or any party or individual. Participants of Dharna themselves collect funds and food items to serve people coming from other places. Punjab people have a special attachment to Shaheen Bagh movement, as it had suffered 1947 partition riots, which caused the loss of nearly one million lives and uprooting of ten million people. Anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 Delhi, are still fresh in the Sikh community. Shaheen Bagh in Malerkotla, only Muslim majority town of Punjab has more emphasis on not allowing 1947 to happen again, which reflected in nearly one lakh people rally on 16th February, where slogans like-Bhra bhra nun ladna nahin dena-san Santali banan ni dena(We won't allow Fratricide/and 1947 won't be allowed to be repeated)

There are few observations which underline the significance of this peaceful dharna.

1.   First time in the history of India that Muslim women have come out to protest in such large numbers defying the dictates of their religious preachers or gurus, who advise them to remain inside homes.
2.   For the first time again, Muslim males, who are considered conservative, have supported and stood with the womenfolk of their community.
3.   Had this mass movement of Muslim masses come under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi prior to 1947, the plans to divide the country would have miserably failed.
4.   Ironically this Gandhian movement has again brought to fore the unresolved national issue of inclusive nationhood or majoritarian nationhood.
5.   Two important national movements may remind people of this anti CAA/NRC/NPR mass movement of Muslim women. First and most significantly anti-Rowlett Act movement of 1919, which led to Jallianwala Bagh massacres of Indian people. And 1921 civil disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi, which led to 5th February 1922 Chauri Chaura tragedy, in which 19 policemen were burnt alive, when due to massive oppression by police, people burnt the police post itself, resulting in the withdrawal of that massive mass movement by Mahatma Gandhi.
6.   There is the danger of both of the tragedies being repeated. One from protestors and the other from the Government. Peaceful protestors, provoked by relentless oppression by Central Govt. can lose patience and some violent incident can happen in such situation, which needs to be avoided at every cost from protestors side, as it will make this glorious mass resistance to massive repression by the state, which is no different from the colonial state.
7.   Central Government with its divisive, hateful and oppressive attitude towards peaceful protest by the minority community, in its power intoxication, can go to the extent of causing a Jallianwala Bagh like mayhem on protestors. Jignesh Mewani, a legislator from Gujarat has already termed Home Minister Amit Shah as 'General Dyer' of post-independence India, if Home Minister gets tempted to any coercive action against Shaheen Bagh, it can turn into Jallianwala Bagh in post-colonial India.
8.   India as a nation itself is at a crossroads. Which kind of nationalism it has to choose? It has chosen Mahatma Gandhi-Nehru inspired inclusive nationalism, which now under the influence of RSS inspired BJP Government is being transformed into majoritarian nationalism of Hindutva as imagined by Golwalkar/Hedgewar led RSS. Whether Indian people want to see India as a model of religious nationalism as Pakistan was made out by Jinnah's religious model? Whether Indian people will like to see India turned into another kind of Pakistan, which a part of Pakistan refused to become i.e Bangladesh, which rejected Pakistan model of nationhood and opted for linguistic nationalism based on Bangla language spoken by all Bengalis, having its national anthem written by Rabindranath Tagore?
9.   If Indian people still prefer Mahatma Gandhi-Nehru model of Indian nationhood, they have to stand by and support wholeheartedly the peaceful women of Shaheen Bagh and lead them to victory.
10. Shaheen Bagh will have long term consequences, even if women of Shaheen Bagh lose to the oppressive regime of Modi Shah led BJP. The women have tasted the spirit of freedom and the spirit will not leave them with defeat or victory. Shaheen Bagh women will not confine themselves to the walls of homes, even if their male patrons or religious gurus tell them. The new generation of Indian Muslim women whether they wear Burqa or Hijab or keep the face open, they will be the refreshing hope of new India, which will shine in the form of scientists, doctors, scholars, engineers, army personnel and in every form in which males of India of any religion or community serve. It will also have a long term impact on Muslim women of South Asia, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh, where women do come out to protest, but not in such large numbers as they have come out in India. The chains of conservatism will break in other South Asian Muslim countries as well. That will be no small achievement of this movement!

[Chaman Lal is retired Professor from JNU and is Honorary Advisor of Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. He is editor of recently published The Bhagat Singh Reader]

Back to Home Page

Vol. 52, No. 39, Mar 29 - April 4, 2020