Standing Their Ground

Documenting the daily resistance at Shaheen Bagh

Women protesters listen to speeches at Shaheen Bagh. Around a hundred thousand people assembled at the site on 12 January.
Women protesters listen to speeches at Shaheen Bagh. Around a hundred thousand people assembled at the site on 12 January.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Mustafa Quraishi Text By Appu Ajith
01 February, 2020

A ROAD SIGN FOR FARIDABAD, attached to a foot overbridge in the Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, has been spraypainted over. The altered text reads “Zindabad,” and a white sheet, with “Inquilab” scrawled on it, hangs above it. A one-kilometre-long-stretch below this sign has been the site of a women-led sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for over a month.

The protest began on 15 December 2019, in the aftermath of police brutality against students protesting the CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. When I visited on the night of 18 January, it was the thirty-fourth day of the protest. Muslim women, particularly residents of the area, were at the forefront. The foot overbridge was lit up in neon-green and pink lights, and large banners bearing slogans were suspended from its deck. Prominent among these was an arresting portrait of a protesting woman clad in a red-and-green burqa; a flowchart depicting the grim potential outcomes, for minorities, of the CAA and the National Register of Citizens; and a massive red banner expanding CAA as “Communal Arbitrary Act.” There was a steel model of a detention camp installed under the bridge and, as I faced the marquee where around a hundred women were participating in the sit-in, I came across young people holding postcards and inviting the crowd to write to the prime minister, denouncing the CAA and NRC. Vibrant protest graffiti covered several portions of the road. In one piece, a visually impaired protester is depicted screaming “I’m blind” to a masked assailant who, while thrashing him, responds with “Main bhi”—So am I. This was a possible evocation of the 5 January attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University, during which a blind student was beaten by masked attackers.

AMONG THE STRIKING CONSTRUCTIONS that had sprung up at the protest site was a makeshift library, set up at a bus stop and named after the pioneering educationists and social reformers Fatima Sheikh and Savitri Phule. Nearly a hundred books were arranged on its floor. Protesters read or decorated the library’s walls. The library had been started a day before, by a group led by the 25-year-old student Mohammed Asif, on the fourth death anniversary of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad whose suicide led to nationwide protests against caste discrimination. The library walls also featured posters of the Dalit feminist Babytai Kamble, the Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder and the American civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, among others.

“People mustn’t just remember their names; faces must also be remembered,” Asif told me when I asked why his group had chosen to celebrate these personalities. “Their opinions, their scholarship, their writing—people should get to know that too.” The police attacks, he said, “are on a particular section that asks questions. Those who understand things ask questions. Books give that understanding. Because most of the protesters are new to protests, we are trying to attract them towards books. Get to know India’s history. Get to know the evils, the caste system and other forms of discrimination, whether it be against transgender persons or women or Dalits.” 

While the library’s presence pointed to how students have been instrumental in mobilising crowds for anti-CAA protests, Shaheen Bagh also receives swathes of regular visitors responding to the urgency of the movement. The photojournalist Mustafa Quraishi, who has been covering the protests since 31 December—a night on which he recalled seeing over ten thousand people—told me that, for him, “It’s a very direct, existential problem. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that in 2019–20, my citizenship could possibly be questioned.” He added that while Muslims in his social class may or may not have to face such a situation, he was particularly concerned for those who do not have papers. 

Quraishi usually arrives in the evenings, stays up all night covering the protests and leaves only in the mornings. Visiting at these times means he tends to meet people who are deeply immersed in the protest, he said, and often engage in discussions about politics. “Since the media is tainted, unfortunately, in our country, they don’t trust photographers,” he told me. “The rapport [with protesters] has finally come in after twenty days of shooting this.” Quraishi, who formerly worked with the Associated Press, also reflected on the absence of the media at Shaheen Bagh, compared to other protests in the city in years past. “During India Against Corruption, or Nirbhaya, or the doctors’ protests, or whichever protest in the last twenty years that has continued for a couple of days or nights, the media has been there,” he said, noting that those protests had been covered round the clock. 

It was already past 10 pm, but there were no signs of fatigue among the protesters around me. “The fight will go on till the government rolls back CAA and NRC,” Fathima Farheen, a resident of Shaheen Bagh, told me. She had been part of the protests since the first day and talked about how she had seen an exponential increase in turnout. “First day, fifty ladies; second day, five hundred ladies; third day, five thousand ladies,” she told me. “It keeps increasing. Day by day, step by step.” Hazra Musrat, another Shaheen Bagh resident, told me that her entire family was participating in the protests. “Everyone comes,” she said. “Everyone. My husband is a mechanical engineer. He doesn’t ask me not to. I go home for an hour at night, eat dinner with my family, then come back and sit here till two in the night. We take shifts.” 

Shaheen Bagh has become a cornerstone of resistance against the CAA and NRC. Similar round-the-clock protests led by women have commenced in several parts of Delhi—such as Gandhi Park in Hauz Rani, the twin exurbs of Jaffrabad and Seelampur, Turkman Gate in the old city and the eastern-Delhi neighbourhood of Khureji—as well as in other cities. “I just want to say it’s a good thing that they have seen us and are standing themselves,” Saira Banu, who has lived in Shaheen Bagh for over two decades, told me. “We have courage looking at them and they have courage looking at us.” 

People have been galvanised further by displays of solidarity, from political leaders and activists as well as by ordinary citizens. The speeches, poetry recitals and other performances at Shaheen Bagh have hinged on the idea of a plural India. At midnight on 31 December, thousands of protesters celebrated the arrival of the new year by singing the national anthem, with their mobile torches on, Quraishi told me. But he also noticed shifts in the energy at Shaheen Bagh. On 22 January, when the Supreme Court gave the centre a month to respond to anti-CAA petitions filed across the country, instead of commencing hearings or issuing a stay order on the law, “people’s faces were dejected.” However, the Bhim Army leader Chandra Shekhar Aazad, out on bail after being arrested during anti-CAA protests at Jama Masjid, visited Shaheen Bagh the following day. Quraishi said he was glad Aazad came as, since then, “people have been slightly more upbeat about it.” 

One of Quraishi’s images is a close-up of a boy scrawling names on a model of India Gate at the site: this structure now carries a list of the names of anti-CAA protesters who have been killed in various parts of the country, including Assam and Uttar Pradesh. On 10 January, Anil Baijal, the lieutenant governor of Delhi, issued an order empowering the police to detain individuals, without a trial, for up to 12 months under the National Security Act. But Farheen told me that the protesters at Shaheen Bagh were unfazed. “We are here, we are sitting here and listening,” she said. “This is our right to protest for the Constitution. Modiji cannot say no. I am not scared of Modiji. I am not scared of the police, nor am I scared of the BJP.”

Mustafa Quraishi is a Delhi-based photojournalist. He has previously worked with the Associated Press and the Indian Express. His work has been published in various national and international publications. He received the media fellowship from the National Foundation for India in 2007–08.

Appu Ajith is a Deputy Editorial Manager at The Caravan.