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.