The Garden of Freedom

Lessons that Shaheen Bagh teaches us about citizenship

02 February 2020
Women at the Shaheen Bagh protest on New Years Day.
Ishan Tankha
Women at the Shaheen Bagh protest on New Years Day.
Ishan Tankha

ON THE NIGHT OF 31 DECEMBER 2019, I crossed six flyovers along Delhi’s outer ring road, and then drove down a winding road, passing two police stations and a cemetery, to get to an unusual new year’s night gathering. About a kilometer away from Jamia Millia Islamia—the university where I had lost and found myself as a student almost thirty years ago—I arrived at Shaheen Bagh.

The last days of the year had witnessed Delhi’s coldest winter in possibly one hundred and twenty years. I surveyed the people who had gathered there. There were women in hijab, students with guitars, feisty grandmothers and neighborhood poets. A slogan inscribed on the tarmac read “Next, is Now.” The men and neighbourhood boys were making tea and arranging food, and together with some women, frisking visitors for security at the barricades set up at the entrance to the site. Groups of women and children kitted out in sweaters, jackets, mufflers, balaclavas and woolen caps carried handmade signs and many of them sat under quilts and blankets to shield themselves from the cold. Energetic chants rang out into the night—“Inqilab Zindabad” (long live the revolution) and “Hum Kya Chahte? Azadi!” (what do we want? Freedom!), the latter borrowed, it seems, on a perpetual loan by Indian patriots, from the voices of insurgent crowds of Kashmir. A makeshift platform, festooned with flags, signs with slogans, and a portrait of BR Ambedkar, became a stage for an autonomous, spontaneous, totally self-organised, leaderless rehearsal of a new vision for citizenship.

The sit-in began on 15 December. That Sunday, the Delhi Police had entered Jamia Millia University without permission, in pursuit, they later said, of protestors who had been trying to march from the campus to Jantar Mantar in Central Delhi to mark their opposition to the promulgation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by Parliament four days earlier. They fired tear gas shells into the library, beat up students, and later forced them to march out of the campus with their hands raised in the air.  

The CAA offers refuge to persecuted religious minorities, barring Muslims, from three of India’s neighbouring countries. These immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are eligible for citizenship, if they are able to show they were persecuted in their home countries for religious reasons. But persecuted Muslims from those same countries are less likely to get citizenship. It is also unclear why persecuted communities from other neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka have been left out. The Citizenship Amendment Act, when seen alongside the proposed National Register of Citizens—which has already rendered almost two million people stateless in Assam—and its paper shadow, the National Population Register, implies that many Muslims may find themselves having to be tested, on the basis of documents and legacy papers, to see whether they qualify as Indian citizens. The amendment violates the letter and spirit of Article 14 of the Indian constitution which declares that “The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law, or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” By creating an arbitrary qualifier based on religious identity, the CAA discriminates between people, creating opportunities for one set and handicaps for another. Effectively, it tells Muslims that their lives matter less than that of others in the India that is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. 

Following the police crackdown at Jamia, something changed. The protests swelled into a movement. The government could not have had any prior sense of the assertions of citizenship that were about to be unleashed, and the kind of people who would stand up, unannounced, alive and without permission. A spontaneous midnight demonstration by citizens and students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University that night itself, in front of the Police Headquarters at the ITO Crossing, marked something of a beginning. I was there to witness the shock on the faces of my younger companions. Their rage and sorrow, at being assaulted so brutally for simply standing up for the right to equality granted by the Indian constitution, was palpable. The protests received widespread mainstream attention and fifty-two students who had been detained were released after persistent public pressure, well past midnight.

In the next days, students from universities from all over the country began demonstrating in solidarity. Even those universities, such as the IITs and IIMs, which, until now, had not been known for its student politics. Within Delhi, there have been repeated demonstrations organised and coordinated by citizens through social-media platforms. Marches would start at Mandi House, or at Jama Masjid in the Old City, or in the campuses of Delhi University or JNU. Alternatively, gatherings were announced on different days, and at different locations at the designated “protest site” in Jantar Mantar, India Gate, as well as in different neighborhoods—Hauz Khas, Welcome Colony, Alaknanda, Defence Colony, Jaffrabad, or in front of the state houses of Uttar Pradesh, and Assam. 

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist with the Raqs Media Collective.

Keywords: CAA NRC Shaheen Bagh citizenship JNU Jamia Milia Islamia BJP ABVP