Ita Mehrotra’s book portrays the Shaheen Bagh protest for the multitude of things it was

A spread from Ita Mehrotra’s book Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection, which traces the history and symbolism of the protest at Shaheen Bagh. ILLUSTRATIONS BY ITA MEHROTA/COURTESY YODA PRESS
13 September, 2021

At the time of publishing this piece, it had been one year since Umar Khalid’s incarceration under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on 13 September 2020. Khalid was accused in connection to an alleged conspiracy behind the communal violence in Delhi, in February 2020. The trial for his case has not yet begun.

When towards the end of March 2020, contingents of the Delhi Police swooped down on the highway around Shaheen Bagh, which had been, for the preceding months, the site of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, they did not stop at simply clearing the roads of people. Afterwards, they directed their energies at art installations, graffiti and banners, tearing them down or whitewashing them one by one. It seemed as if the police were under special instructions to wipe clean every sign that stood testimony to the brave defiance that Shaheen Bagh had come to symbolise. For a regime that tolerates no dissent, Shaheen Bagh had set a very bad precedent, and sooner rather than later, this had to be corrected.

In the subsequent months, as roads fell silent because of the first coronavirus-induced lockdown, spin masters from the Bharatiya Janata Party set about creating a new narrative about Shaheen Bagh. The anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh had already been branded “anti national” and they were now portrayed as a part of a “conspiracy” to provoke riots and overthrow the government. The Delhi Police arrested many of us—who were labelled as “conspirators” and “masterminds” of the North East Delhi “riots”—and this narrative received institutional sanction. The “conspiracy,” after all, was representative of what these days is called a post-truth scenario. And with the imposition of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, this fantastic fairy tale was taken a notch higher: the beautiful, colourful, peaceful, vibrant and inclusive protests of Shaheen Bagh were now portrayed as a dreadful “terror conspiracy.”


In this context, Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection, authored by the graphic artist Ita Mehrotra and published by the Yoda Press, is an extremely significant work. It not only documents and archives a very important moment in the history of our republic, but also challenges the current official representations of Shaheen Bagh as a sinister plot against the nation by its minorities. Through her vivid illustrations, Mehrotra shares the story of the transformation of Shaheen Bagh from being a small, nondescript Muslim “ghetto” in South Delhi, into a name that reverberated across India, and in fact, many parts of the world, as its name became synonymous with the popular pushback against the proposed discriminatory and draconian citizenship law.

In her astute telling of the Shaheen Bagh story, Mehrotra ensures that the voice within her visuals remains that of the residents and protagonists of Shaheen Bagh. The graphic account presents Shaheen Bagh not only from Mehrotra’s perspective, but as its own residents experienced and rediscovered it during the winter of 2019 and early 2020. By foregrounding their voices and lived experiences, Mehrotra is able to capture a critical moment in the Muslim experience in India, when something seemed to fundamentally change (for the worse).

One of Mehrotra’s respondents, Shahana, talks about growing up in the 1990s, when she would often get annoyed with living in Shaheen Bagh and try to convince her parents to shift elsewhere. This is a very common middle-class experience for our generation. Many of us wondered why we live in these “ghettos.” Could we not shift to another place that was cleaner and less congested, where we could get sunlight in our homes during the day, and a regular electricity and water connection; where we would have parks to play in and clean air to breathe? Could we not shift to one of the neighbourhoods where our school friends lived? Our parents, replying to our innocent questions, would simply say—as Shahana’s mother told her—that we lived here because we were safe here.


The constant recurrence of communal violence since the 1990s has largely forced Muslims into ghettos such as Shaheen Bagh. And presently, it is no longer a question of access to civic amenities that remains our topmost concern while deciding where to live. Our congested, unclean ghettos provide us something that no upmarket South Delhi locality can assure us—safety.

But in the days following the passing of the CAA, the visuals of police brutality against students of Jamia Milia Islamia university demonstrated that we could no longer take the safety of “our” areas for granted. Was the state cracking down with such intensity, and with weapons such as stun grenades and tear gas, inside the university library, because it was dealing with largely Muslim protesters of a minority institution located in an area largely inhabited by Muslims? Or was this just a glimpse of “New India,” of which it is said, “ghar mein ghuske maarta hai!”—enter your home to kill you.

These events led Muslims to realise that merely sticking together in our ghettos was not enough. Through extremely beautiful visuals, Mehrotra captures a new awakening amongst the Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh. The initial shock and fear led to conversations that took place first inside and then across homes. Conversations fostered courage, which in turn led to a collective sense of urgency to act. A few women took the lead and simply sat down on the highway to discuss the implications of these new laws. In those initial days, there was no limelight or media attention, even most people within Shaheen Bagh did not know of them. But through one of the harshest winters, these few pioneers of the protest of Shaheen Bagh kept at it. Slowly, their efforts bore fruit. On 31 December 2019, several thousands of people gathered at Shaheen Bagh to bring in the new year, with high hopes of change. The protest of a few had turned into a huge movement. And though the nights were foggy, the woman of Shaheen Bagh had lifted the fog of fear that had enveloped them a fortnight prior.


Mehrotra’s graphic account was published over a year after the protest at Shaheen Bagh was compelled to shut down due to COVID-19. Looking back, one might ask what is the legacy that the iconic Shaheen Bagh protest left us with? There are several legacies: for example, the remarkable emancipatory potential that the movement held for the woman who led it, about which a lot has already been written. Another legacy is related to how, by resisting the CAA, NRC and NPR, the women of Shaheen Bagh were resisting a project of hierarchical citizenship, where some select communities are reduced to a secondary status. But this project is not limited to these laws alone, nor is it limited to inflicting violence on these communities and systematically denying them justice as well as equality of opportunity. States turn select people and communities into second-class citizens mainly, and most effectively, by stripping them of a language in which they can voice their anguish and quest for justice and equality.

In India, several communities regularly invoke their identity and specific histories to make demands of the state. For example, in the recent past we have seen Patels agitating as Patels and Jats as Jats. Dalits and Adivasis fight for their rights as Dalits and Adivasis. But all hell breaks loose if Muslims even try to give voice to the discrimination they face in India for being Muslims. We are immediately condemned, on such occasions, as Jinnah’s progeny trying once more to divide the nation. The privileged and the powerful start gaslighting us, claiming that our experiences of injustice are only a figment of our imagination. And finally, we are told that the only way we can be part of the national community is by denouncing our own histories and cultures (which are in any case often portrayed as “foreign” to India).In forging a language to express themselves politically and lay bare their experiences, the Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh challenged this core aspect of the project of second-class citizenship. It is important that we pay attention to the contours of this new language that they crafted, for us to appreciate and carry forward this important legacy that Shaheen Bagh has left us with.


The women of Shaheen Bagh were proud of their identity as Muslims of India and the language they deployed addressed the specificities of the Muslim experience in India. Yet this language did not simply emphasise difference or eschew universal ideals. The protestors invoked national symbols and histories of the freedom struggle to emphasise the shared heritage of all Indians, irrespective of their religious faith, as well as the constitution to emphasise universal ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Embedded within the language and symbolism of Shaheen Bagh was a sense of yearning among Indian Muslims to resist their exclusion from what is termed as the “national mainstream.” It also showed that, at a deeper subterranean level, the Muslims of India, even as they have been forced into ghettos, have not internalised the logic of difference that forms the basis of our segregated ways of living. Through this language, Shaheen Bagh also became a bridge across divides. You could choose to cross over, as did the farmers from Punjab who arrived at the protests and thousands of people from different communities from all over the country, and become aware of the ties that still bind us together as a people. Even at this moment, when they were being marked out by the new citizenship laws for being Muslims, the women of Shaheen Bagh fought to create universal solidarity as part of their resistance. It is this aspect of Shaheen Bagh that is most threatening to the architects of the CAA, NRC and NPR and it therefore comes as no surprise that today they are trying to vilify it. But Shaheen Bagh will continue to be a beacon of hope for anyone who fights against injustice and Mehrotra’s book is an in-depth and moving tribute to the resilient women of Shaheen Bagh—who were not merely protesting against a discriminatory citizenship law but were, as Mehrotra’s illustrations capture beautifully, celebrating the very idea of what it means to be a citizen.