Shaheen Bagh inspires a women-led CAA protest in Kolkata’s Park Circus

For a majority of the women protesting in Park Circus, this is their first time participating in a protest. Indranil Aditya / NurPhoto / Getty Images
14 January, 2020

Since 7 January, the Park Circus Maidan in central Kolkata has been the site of a sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The protest, led by the women residents of Park Circus, is inspired by a similar sit-in at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, which has been ongoing since mid December. The women are protesting the CAA, the National Register of Citizens and the brutal attacks on students in universities such as Jawaharal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University.

Park Circus is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. The protest is taking place in a ground outside the local mosque. Unlike other anti-CAA protests in Kolkata, in which students and people from upper and middle-classes have participated, the Park Circus protest largely comprises working-class individuals. 

Hundreds of women, some with their children, gather every day with posters and placards. Over time, the residents of Park Circus have been joined by others from across Kolkata. For a majority of the protesting women, this is their first time participating in a protest. The protestors told me that they intend to be on an indefinite sit-in, until at least 22 January, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear petitions challenging the CAA. There is no single organisation visibly spearheading the protests. The participants told me that the ordinary public is leading the movement, and that the only banner they are protesting under is the Indian flag.

On the afternoon of 8 January, a truck carrying several burqa-clad women arrived at the maidan. As they exited and walked towards the ground, several women chanted slogans, with calls for azadi—freedom—from communal politics. Dressed in a black burqa and dark sunglasses, Tabassum Akhtar, a 44-year-old resident of Ekbalpur in south Kolkata, led the sloganeering. “There is a fire in our hearts,” she said. “We are very angry. We have no direct relationship with the children of JNU, but they are our everything.”

Another protestor, 22-year-old Rafiqua Hayat, told me that on 7 January, she chanted protest slogans for the first time in her life. Hayat is a recent graduate from Sivanath Sastri College, where she studied accounts and finance. Until a few months ago, she said, she had no interest in politics. She would spend all her internet data on Instagram and Facebook memes. Now, she regularly watches the news and keeps track of videos on the NRC and CAA to educate herself.

At the protest ground, a large space had been cleared out for the women. Thin sheets of grey and white foam, along with cotton mattresses, had been spread out. A makeshift barricade tied together with ropes aimed to keep men outside the space. Women led all the chants. Once in a while men took over, not to assert themselves, they said, but to give their “sisters” a break. In addition to the protestors, there were around a hundred volunteers at the protest site, distributing blankets, water bottles, boxes of Chinese food or biryani and endless cups of tea.

I spoke to Mussarat Parveen, a 55-year-old resident of Ripon Street, located two kilometres away from the protest site. A widow with three sons, Parveen is a homemaker. She said she barely ever stepped out of her house, but now she believed she did not have a choice. “We have to do something to save the country,” she told me. Several other women emphasised that they were homemakers who rarely left their homes, but added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions had “compelled” them to come out in protest.

Parveen joined the protest when it broke out in the evening of 7 January, returning home only at 8.30 am the following day. She cooked for her family, did housework all day and then returned to the maidan at 11.30 pm. When I spoke to her, in the early morning hours of 9 January, she had not slept in the past two days. “I can’t fall asleep now, there is so much going on,” she told me. “I hope Modi will understand what we are doing to Hindustan, what we are doing to our land.”

Some women told me that they were labourers foregoing their daily wage to attend the protest. A woman in her fifties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me that she lives a few hundred metres from the protest site and cooks for families in the nearby neighbourhood of Malik Bazar. A single mother of three daughters, she barely makes five thousand rupees a month. She said she had been at the protest site for three days straight and had only gone home to take her medicines. “We have come here for our rights,” she said. “Why should we leave Hindustan? Why should we let Modi proceed with [the CAA and NRC]”?

On 9 January, I watched as 21-year-old Firdaus Saba, dressed in a brown hijab and royal-blue woollen shawl, chanted azadi slogans into a mic. The speakers behind her carried her chants through the crowd. Saba is a physics student at Kolkata’s Aliah University. She told me this was her eighth protest as a sloganeer. On 8 January, when she left the campus to join the protests, she told her hostel authorities that she would not be back until the next day. She spent the entire night at the protest grounds chanting “Halla bol”—Raise your voice.

“I wanted to join the protests at Shaheen Bagh,” Saba told me. “I couldn’t do that. I was able to see and participate in another Shaheen Bagh in Kolkata.” She passionately elaborated on the reasons she was protesting. “We are not Indian by chance; we are Indian by choice,” she said. “In 1947, we rejected the two-nation theory; we rejected an Islamic state. Today, our Hindu brothers and sisters will reject the Hindu nation. We didn’t choose Islamabad or Karachi, or Bangladesh, we chose India because it is a secular and democratic country.”

Saba added that in the founding vision of India, people were given the right to speak and the right to freedom of expression. “Why are we being stopped?” she said. “We have a right to equality. Why is that being taken away from us? Why is the Constitution being broken? We are not here as Muslims; we are here as Indians. We haven’t come here to save ourselves. We have come here to save the Constitution and the law. We will leave only after we have saved it.”