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.