The Garden of Freedom

Lessons that Shaheen Bagh teaches us about citizenship

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

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. 

Whatever intent Amit Shah may have had in pushing through this legislation, the net effect of the CAA has been a severe spike in anxiety within Muslim communities all over India. Fears of being “document poor” leading to statelessness, of being sent to detention camps, of having a future darkened by the relentless pursuit of papers has led to the straightforward refusal to comply. This refusal has come not only from Muslims. It has come from all kinds of people, Dalits, Adivasis, migrant workers, women and anybody who feels insulted at having their claim to the country of their birth weighed against a set of papers. A simple statement, written by a young poet, rings out clear from the thousands of protests that are going on everywhere. “Hum kaghaz nahin dikhayengey”—We will not show our papers.

The police clampdown has been brutal. Notably, while massive public gatherings against the CAA-NPR-NRC occurred all over the country, the only places where egregious police violence was reported happen to be in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party or where the police reports directly to the BJP-ruled central government, as in Delhi. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, neighboring the national capital, over twenty people were killed by police violence in the span of six days. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Singh Bisht, who styles himself as a monk and calls himself Yogi Adityanath, promised “revenge” and has unleashed a reign of terror on the Muslim citizens of the state. Policemen in Mangaluru, in the southern state of Karnataka, entered a hospital and fired tear gas shells at patients. Police firing has led to deaths in Assam too, in the North East. 

In Delhi itself, after the attack on Jamia Millia Islamia University, there was further police violence in the mainly Muslim neighborhoods of Daryaganj and Seelampur. Section 144, which allows the police to impose a restriction on the assembly of groups larger than a few people at a given site, has been invoked repeatedly, and invariably, violated. The police and paramilitaries are deployed ahead of time in some of these locations, and in several instances have detained busloads of demonstrators and dropped them off at remote locations. Among those detained for protesting have been prominent public figures such as the political activist Yogendra Yadav, the historian Ramchandra Guha and the advocate Prashant Bhushan. Sometimes, people are stopped on their way; the police picks up individuals from autorickshaws and taxis even before they arrive, and taken to police stations, metro services are suspended and the internet slows down. 

These measures have not necessarily had the effect that was intended. Rather, it is like a slogan that has become popular, appearing on posters in several demonstrations, claiming: “if you divide us, we will multiply.” 

Through all of this, while protestors return to daily life and regroup on different days, it has been the women of Shaheen Bagh who have held their vigil continuously. People in different Delhi neighborhoods began setting up their own Shaheen Baghs—at Khejuri in East Delhi, in Turkman Gate in the Old City. A “Shaheen Bagh” appeared at Park Circus in Kolkata, at Mansoor Ali Park in Allahabad, at Sabzi Bagh in Patna, among others. 

Mohammad Iqbal, a poet revered in both India and Pakistan, wrote a poem about seeking and finding other worlds, beyond the known stars: “sitaron se aage, jahan aur bhi hain.” That poem has a couplet which suddenly takes on a new meaning. 

Tu shaheen hai parvwaaz hai kaam tera
Tere saamne aasmaan aur bhi hain 

Go falcon stretch your wings in flight
the horizons have opened for your delight

Thousands of people from all across Delhi, and more recently, from the rural hinterland of Punjab, have flocked to the site, making this dusty patch on the highway a new site of secular pilgrimage. The charismatic leader of the Bhim Army, Chandra Shekhar Aazad—who had his own iconic moment when, despite police injunctions, he emerged onto the steps of the Jama Masjid holding the Constitution in hand and was consequently arrested—also visited and received a rousing welcome. Everyday, since the Jamia violence, the women of Shaheen Bagh have sat in; sung tuneless and melodic songs; chanted slogans; waved flags; listened to the haranguing of politicians and pretenders; dealt calmly with alarmist rumors and disgusting calumny; knit mufflers; held prayers, fasted and shared food, gossip, laughter, tears and rage; and have been the groundswell of a constant surge of warm solidarity that transforms even this bitter winter of our discontent into a glorious spring of revelry and resistance. 

This now seemingly temporarily permanent arrangement at Shaheen Bagh has been threatened by right-wing politicians, intimidated by sporadic police presence, courted and berated by television anchors. On 30 January, a gun-wielding minor fired at protesting students outside Jamia Millia, after shouting “yeh lo azadi”—take your freedom. In a video that has been widely circulated, he is seen walking backwards waving his gun as the Delhi Police look on a good while before taking him away. His Facebook profile, which has now been taken down, showed pictures of him posing with members of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella organisations under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A post on his page read “Shaheen Bagh, game over.” Two days later, on 1 February, a second man fired a shot, this time in Shaheen Bagh, before being escorted away by the police. 

The women of Shaheen Bagh have simply refused to move.

30 January 2020, Protesters including students of Jamia Milia University as well as women and residents from Shaheen Bagh protesting against the Delhi Police inaction after a young man shot a peaceful protester in front of the police near Jamia. The police did not allow the protesting students to lead a march to Rajghat as they had planned. Ishan Tankha

JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO, the Modi regime was gloating over its self-presentation as the protector of Muslim women, whom it had emancipated from the “curse of triple-talaq”—the thrice-uttered formula of instant divorce that, it was alleged, left so many Muslim women abandoned and destitute. And now, it was as if the very same women who Modi claimed to champion had turned out in their thousands to refuse and reject their would-be emancipator, and to settle the terms of the futures that they wanted. They were enacting their preference for being treated as equal citizens rather than as ex-brides in need of rescue. Here was a people unwilling to be saved by those in power. 

It is not for nothing, then, that a coalition of young and old women, of student leaders and grannies, of protest-mothers with dharna-babies strapped to them, and young working womenhave become the visible faces of this movement. They arrive on the political stage, totally unannounced, unrehearsed and unprepared to yield. The standard tricks of inducement and coercion simply do not seem to work with them. 

In a video that made international headlines and seared its way into our consciousness, several policeman could be seen chasing and visibly taunting a young man and three women—Aysha Renna, Ladeeda Farzana and Chanda Yadav. The students took refuge in the driveway of a private residence. The policemen dragged the man out on to the street. The young women tried to form a protective circle around him, but that did not prevent the police from lashing out at all of them with their lathis. The image of Aysha, finger raised in anger at a helmet-wearing policeman, immediately became one of the icons of this present moment, embodying the extraordinary fearlessness that young women have been able to muster in the face of a repressive state. 

They have a strange fearlessness that comes out of not wanting to be unnecessarily confrontational, even while they resolutely stand their ground. This means that both brute force and blunt fraud are effectively defanged. Consequently, power stands on much more uncertain ground than it would have found itself on, had it been facing down the classic Indian political mob—a bunch of unruly young men and their middle-aged masculine minders, who can either be beaten down, or bought over. As of now, neither policemen nor politicians know quite what to do when faced with the women of Shaheen Bagh.

Shaheen Bagh and what it represents naturally invites comparison with earlier moments of mass mobilisation. It has neither the organisational backbone and media muscle of the Lokpal Movement, fronted by Anna Hazare, Ramdev and the India Against Corruption network, nor does it have the spontaneous rage of the crowds of mainly young people that had gathered to mourn and avenge Jyoti Singh, the young woman who had been brutally raped and murdered in Delhi in the winter of 2012. Unlike both these episodes, it is both more unpredictable and more measured. What we are witnessing today is much less univocal, because it is untied to any single issue platforms like corruption or rape. It also refuses the representative logic that marked earlier political moments. There is a stage. But the stage is not where “leaders” sit. Symbolic as well as actual power—including the authority to decide who will and will not take the stage—remains amongst the throng of women and children who sit facing it. That is why there is no leader, no high command, no central charter. 

Instead, it is as if the enigmatic, elusive construct of citizenship, and the refusal to offer oneself up for identification to the state, enables and opens out a conversation over a whole spectrum of issues and questions; ranging from the freedom to be different, to the meaning of equality and fraternity. To be in Shaheen Bagh is to be constantly engaged in discussions about the difference, and relation, between subject and citizen. This is a conversation that is both more philosophical and concrete than anything else that has preceded it politically. It also sets the terms for the conversations that we will still be having, well into the future.

The anti-CAA protests do not have a benign presiding patriarch like Jayaprakash Narayan was for the Nav Nirman agitations in the 1970s, or like Mohandas Gandhi was for Quit India in 1942. Nor does it have a charismatic centrifugal inspiration like Charu Mazumdar was, briefly, for the Naxalite uprising. And most importantly, it is not, like almost the entirety of past political mobilisations, almost entirely, exclusively, male. Sixty percent of every current demonstration is made up of young women. The centrality of the student, especially of the female student, in the currents and eddies of this moment, is not something that can be dismissed easily. It builds on the mass mobilisation that young women undertook to defend themselves against sexual violence in Indian cities in 2012, and in the turbulence on university campuses across India, from 2014 onwards, where women activists from within student unions have played a leading role in defending the freedom of the universities from predatory interests tied to the present regime. We have seen this in the movements sparked off by fee hikes, curfews for women at hostels and budget cuts in education, by restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in campuses.

I saw one of these young women, Akhtarista Ansari, lead a student protest in Jamia on 15 January, a month after the attack on Jamia campus. She articulated an expansive idea of “Azadi.” It was a freedom that included everything from self-determination in Kashmir, to bodily autonomy for young women in public spaces, to dignity for Dalits, to freedom from racial prejudice for students from the North-East, to equality for the queer community, to self-respect and freedom from police-profiling for young Muslims, to affordable education for all students, and to fair wages for workers. She spoke ofthe memory of Rohith Vemula—the Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad who took his own life on 17 January 2016, after facing months of administrative harassment—and the longing for Najeeb, the student who disappeared from the Mahi-Mandavi hostel on the JNU campus, on 15 October 2016, after being attacked by ABVP members. 

Photos by Shuddhabrata Sengupta

In each of these instances, what students have been fighting for is the future. Not just their own futures, in terms of jobs and opportunities for higher education and research, but also for the future of those who will come after them. The entire debate over citizenship is basically a dispute about the nature of all our futures. 

How do we make sense of the dyad of the grandmother-rebel of Shaheen Bagh and the granddaughter-student-activist of campuses like Jamia or JNU, who stand within the beating heart of this present moment? It is as if two hitherto marginal social categories—girls barely out of their teens, and old women with one foot in the grave—are rewriting the script of what constitutes politics in contemporary India. This may have partly to do with the fact that very young women, and very old ladies, are the two social categories who have the least anchorage in, but the most at stake, in the social fabric of our time. That alone endows them with a natural urge for freedom as well as the urgency to exercise it. They may have the least claim to constituted authority—in that they are least likely to benefit from the grease within old boy networks—but at the same time, it is also true that if things change for them, especially for young Muslim women, they will have fundamentally changed society as a whole. 

ON THE MORNING OF 5 JANUARY 2020, when the sun shone briefly again after a long pall of bitter cold, I made my way to a peaceful protest called by an informal network of artists “Artists, Unite.” They had gathered to make drawings and write inscriptions against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and police violence, on the surface of pavements and footpaths close to the Metro Station at Rajiv Chowk. 

As I walked towards this gathering, my attention was caught by a knot of intoxicated men, facing an indulgent phalanx of uniformed police and paramilitary personnel. These men had come to protest against the citizens’ protest. Not wanting to stage a confrontation, the protestors had moved some distance away. But the counter-protestors were in no mood to relent. And so they launched into a full throated set of exhortations to “Shoot the traitors of the nation”—“Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko,” a slogan that was later repeated by the BJP’s Anurag Thakur in a hate speech during an election campaign for the forthcoming Delhi elections. 

There were further general hoarse outcries against anyone who was a dissident against the Modi-Shah regime. But folded within that anger, I thought, I heard a frustration at being unable to contain and counter the Shaheen Bagh phenomenon. It was as if the regime had offered its foot soldiers an alternative target. This made itself clear to me in an ironic battle cry, “JNU ko, Jamia ko, deke rahengey azadi, Afzal wali azadi”—We will give the students of JNU and Jamia the same freedom that we gave to Afzal Guru. The women of Shaheen Bagh had received enormous amounts of support from the student community of all of Delhi’s universities—Jamia, JNU, Delhi University and Ambedkar University. This was in acknowledgment of the fact that the sit-in itself was partly initiated in response to the police violence against students at Jamia. Mothers had come out in support of their daughters and sons. And now it was the daughters and sons, from Jamia, and JNU, and elsewhere, who were volunteering to support their mothers’ vigil. Shaheen Bagh and the student protests had an amniotic, umbilical relationship. 

And it was this code that was laced into the slogans against Jamia and JNU. As if to say to the bearers of the threat, if you cannot hit the mothers of Shaheen Bagh, seek out their real and metaphorical children. It was the promise of death, being held out to students of two universities in Delhi, one of which—Jamia—had already been the target of police violence, and another—JNU—which, unbeknownst to anyone, was going to be so that very evening. 

The Jawaharlal Nehru University campus has been in the grip of an agitation by the University Students Union against an aggravated hostel fee hike and a repressive, paternalistic hostel manual, that treats the students, especially women students, as infantile charges rather than self-aware adults. This agitation, faced off by an inflexible university administration, resulted in a students’ boycott of registration for the new semester in the university. Students picketed the registration offices to enforce this boycott. In the previous days, ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, had been trying to break this boycott. This had led to some scuffles. Some of the students belonging to different left-wing groups had to seek medical attention for their injuries, and had been hospitalised. Some of these students were known to me, and I was going to see them in the AIIMS Trauma Centre that Sunday evening, after the citizens protest at Connaught Place, when a phone call from one of them changed my plans. 

She called, from the hospital, and told me not to come to the Trauma Centre, but to go immediately to the North Gate of the JNU Campus because, as she said, there was a “massive attack going on.” I rushed to the main gate of the campus, facing Munirka village, to see a street plunged in darkness, across which stood barricades and a massive armed police deployment, calmly letting a large mob of right-wing men chant the very same slogans that I had heard earlier in the afternoon at Connaught Place. 

What had unfolded during the course of that evening was unprecedented in the history of university spaces in India. A gang of fifty odd men, and some women—masked and armed with iron rods, hockey sticks and acid bottles—had entered the JNU campus and gone on a rampage. The violence continued for more than three hours. The JNUSU president, Aishe Ghosh, was attacked so badly that she had to have fifteen stitches on her skull. A professor, Sucharita Sen, was also attacked. The brutality of the attack on Aishe was such that it is a matter of sheer luck that she survived. The image of her bloodied head and face began circulating across thousands of phones while the attack carried on inside the campus. The police knew what was going on. They were present, they did nothing to stop the mob. Meanwhile, the masked attackers, several of whom were subsequently identified as members of ABVP in JNU, and in Delhi University went from one hostel to another, targeting the rooms of students who were members of Left organisations, Muslims and Kashmiris. They ransacked the rooms and injured several students. We saw it all live, as students who were being attacked began posting videos from their phones of the assaults even as they were occurring. I received calls from some students who were trapped inside, and could hear curses, the sound of running feet, and people screaming in pain. 

Outside the campus, I saw the mob that had formed a cordon at the gate attack an ambulance, assault Yogendra Yadav—a former JNU student—and say that they had gathered to “fight to the finish.” Not only did the police, which was present in full strength, not intervene, it openly cajoled the mob. It laughed with them at those who had gathered to witness this horrifying spectacle. I noticed, as I had begun to at several demonstrations and protests, that the policemen and officers on duty did not wear their name badges. There were masked men on the loose inside, and policemen without identification, outside. 

Later, as the attackers melted away into the darkness from which they had come, I accompanied a journalist and an a former JNU student as we made our way into the campus, past a pair of startled Nilgai, through a passage unknown to most people, down a forest path. When I reached Sabarmati hostel, the site of the worst violence, what I heard and saw was terrifying. Students spoke of being chased down corridors, of jumping from balconies, and of security guards looking on. A visually disabled student was beaten despite his protestations to blindness. The mob seemed particularly intent on looking for the rooms of Kashmiri students, who survived by hiding themselves away from the rooms allotted to them. 

Outside the main gate to JNU, I had witnessed a well-built ABVP activist, well over six-feet-tall, play the martyr, and say that the violence had been sparked when a female activist of All India Students Association, AISA, a left-wing student formation, attacked him. He said that the reason the ABVP members had to hit back at women in “self-defense” was because “these leftist girls are vicious and deadly.” Inside Sabarmati Hostel, I found the woman student-activist this man had named. She was diminutive, and when I asked her if she had indeed hit the ABVP strong-man, she laughed incredulously, and asked me, “Look at me, look at how big I am, do you think I could have hit him and survived? But yes, we were resisting their attempt to sabotage our picket, by forming a human chain, and that is when he hit me.” Later, I found a video, where this very man could be seen lashing out at women students, with a stick. 

The University administration, we learned later, refused to intervene through this crisis. The police, which had so easily walked into the Jamia campus to assault students, refused to enter JNU, despite calls from students and faculty, letting right-wing hooligans complete the task they had been assigned. 

The violence at JNU may have been intended to serve several functions, although it is doubtful that it gave the desired results. It gave the restless BJP-RSS-ABVP cadre something to do, especially when they were unable to do anything about Shaheen Bagh. It let off steam, offered a distraction, suddenly gave television anchors an excuse to talk about “student unrest,” and provided the Delhi Police with an opportunity to do some timely victim-blaming.

Even as sting operations unraveled the extent to which the ABVP had mounted this operation, the Delhi Police issued statements at a hurriedly convened press conference. Two police complaints both named Ghosh, the student-union president who narrowly escaped being killed, as an accused. In its statement, the Delhi police named all the Left organisations on the JNU campus in its preliminary finding, and conspicuously avoided naming the ABVP, even though the bulk of the video evidence that had already been circulated pointed to the ABVP as perpetrators.    

The police distributed printouts of hazy screenshots from the phones of ABVP activists, which identified Ghosh amongst a group of unarmed students, apparently running, as the “ring-leader of a gang of comrades.” Meanwhile, details of WhatsApp groups with names like “UnityAgainstLeft” and “FriendsOfRSS,” became available. On the timelines of these groups were entire conversations mapping out and executing the attacks. Amongst the members were not only the leading lights of ABVP units of different Delhi campuses, but also a few faculty members of JNU, well known to be mentors of the JNU ABVP unit. A few students told me that they had seen these professors guide the mob. 

As the night wore on, I received a message on my phone that simply said: “message from Shaheen Bagh to all JNU students and their well wishers, if anyone needs medical treatment or refuge, please contact us immediately, we can reach you.” I knew that several JNU students had been going to Shaheen Bagh over the last two weeks, as volunteers. This was Shaheen Bagh, reciprocating, mothers reaching out to daughters.  

5 January 2020, Children from Jamia School take out a candlelight procession in the streets of Jamia through Shaheen Bagh to join the women protesters at the Shaheen Bagh protest site. Ishan Tankha

THE JNU STUDENTS’ REFUSAL to register without a reversal of the fee hike and the hostel manual, and the Shaheen Bagh initiated “won’t show papers” campaign, have a common basis. This is about insisting that in order to be recognised, one does not necessarily have to be counted. That entitlement and enumeration are two different processes that must not be confused with each other, or be substituted for each other. That citizenship, the question of belonging and participation, whether as a student in a university, or as a sovereign subject in a state, and a society, is more about quality than it is about quantity. That a human being, a subject, an agent, can never be reduced to a number, an item in a register.

In the transactions between the state and citizens, we can offer up an opportunity to be identified, for limited purposes, and to limited extents, only if the state lives up to its part of the bargain—to enable and sustain a climate where freedom without exclusion flourishes for the sake of all the peaceful inhabitants of a community. That community can be a university, a workplace, a neighborhood, a municipal ward, a city, a province, a country, or the world. This can rely on protocols that distinguish between insiders and outsiders, for specific purposes, but these cannot be rigid and inflexible. 

A student in a university can agree to registration provided that process of identification does not prohibit her from moving between the different wings of a hostel. The refusal of women students in JNU to register is contingent on their insistence that the hostel manual, which severely curtails the freedom of movement of women students, be repealed. The refusal of Shaheen Bagh’s women to show papers is similarly anchored in an understanding that the bonds of sisterhood and mutual aid are more real than the paper-thin markers of nationality and authenticated, certified identity. 

In protest after protest, I take portraits of people with the signs they carry, and I ask people before taking their pictures whether it is okay to reveal their face. Nine times out of ten, I get, “Of course, let people know that I am here.” Some students bring signs with their names written on the paper, and the date of the protest, as if to say that the cause they embody carries their signature, and the timestamp of their approval. I wonder about this brazen, open declaration of self, and about how it squares with the ubiquity of surveillance, of facial-recognition technologies for crowd management, for the identification of what the Delhi Police has taken to calling “habitual protestors” for the purposes of profiling. 

At the same time, I see policemen conceal their name badges, take cover under darkness, wear masks. I see right-wing vigilantes with masks. And I look at all the videos in which the protestors turn their phone cameras on to the policemen, asking them their names, demanding that they show their real faces, asking them for their identification documents, asking why the big cars of the state have illegal “black screened” windows. It is as if the people who say “won’t show papers” are demanding that the embodied representatives of the state show them their papers. 

What is going on? What is this new contest between the open-faced insistence for recognition, the demand for the unmasking power, and the simultaneous refusal to be identified?

This is the realisation that brings observant hijabi women, students, lesbians and gay people of all faiths or none, transpeople, immigrants and itinerant workers together in their refusal to submit to the exclusionary protocols of tests of citizenship. A queer activist at a protest, called by feminists and queer initiatives against the CAA and the NRC in Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 3 January, went up to the mike and said, “People of my sexual orientation often have to leave their families, without documents, in a hurry… a test of citizenship tied to demonstrating one’s ties to one’s natal family is something that many of us will not be able to perform.” A sex worker at the same protest said, “Our children don’t know the names of their fathers, how do you expect them to write the name of their paternal grandfathers in government forms?”

This is why Indians who see themselves as perfectly patriotic, knowingly sing the twin anthems of the protests, “Hum Dekhengey,” or “We will see”—an insistence on seeing the real face of power; and “Main Nahin Manta,” or “I do not agree”—the rejection of a perverted constitution. Both were written by Pakistani poets—Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, respectively. By doing this, the protestors in Delhi, demonstrate that their sense of belonging to their land is at the same time a refusal to be constrained by the nationalistic straitjacket that perpetually positions the Indian as adversarial to the Pakistani. This is why the protestor holding the Indian tricolor shares the same space as the protestor holding the “Free Kashmir” sign, because of the growing recognition that the condition of freedom for one kind of person can never be underwritten by the condition of enslavement of another, at least not for very long. 

On the one hand, there is Shaheen Bagh, and the politics that it is putting in place, directed and embodied by women—in a way unprecedented in Indian political history—refusing the media-driven demand for delivering leaders, or even a negotiable set of “demands,” impossible to repress, open, diverse, shape-shifting but permanent at the same time. And on the other hand is the clueless monotony of law and disorder, a Hindutva homogeneity, inevitably masculine. Who will win this face off? 

At a recent protest in Delhi University, as part of the All India General Strike called on 8 January, by workers and students organisations, Kawalpreet Kaur, a student of law at Delhi University, and one of the many conveners of the Young India Joint Action Committee Against the CAA and NRC, led a simple act of non-violent civil disobedience. She held up the paper on which the “Delhi University Proctorial Notification forbidding Protests and Demonstrations without Prior Permission on Campus” was printed, and tore it in one swift gesture. A thousand raised hands tore five hundred pieces of copies of the same notification with her. 

The answer to the question of who wins this battle on a day-to-day basis is of much greater significance than who loses or wins the next general election, or of who stays in power, and who does not. This, and not the mediated spectacle of pre-configured elections, is the substance of the actual politics of our time. That is why what is happening in Delhi, is part of an inter-continental tectonic turbulence. The linked tremors of our time are felt, not just in Delhi, but in places as far apart as Hong Kong, Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, Paris and Santiago—cities that in the recent months have been racked by inexplicable waves of insurgent joy and rage.

The movement learns, adapts, changes, reconstitutes itself. A campaign of calumny is orchestrated on television. News anchors level charges of “burqa clad women being brought to the protest site on payment of five hundred rupees.” Immediately, an irascible eighty-two year old grandmother who has been at the site for a month, through the cold, appears on a video that goes viral. She holds out an earthy scold to the TV scamsters, telling them that they can try paying two thousand rupees—four times the measly five hundred—to each of the protesting women, to try and see if they could be persuaded to leave. The defanged rumour persists, more as a joke, than as a malignant, divisive threat, overshadowed by the angry grandma who becomes an urban folk hero. 

This suppleness and agility, this ability to joke away a rumour, to give flowers to policemen, to invite the hated prime minister to tea—which appears soft at first—is actually a core strength. No rigid red lines are drawn, nothing is etched in stone, everything is possible because everything is permeable. The movement is a neural network that routes around its own weaknesses and incapacities. It is not thrown off-kilter by any momentary surprise. 

There is a “do-it-yourself” ethic, a robust auto-didacticism at work within each of these situations. People are teaching themselves and each other the basics of law, first-aid, graphic design, history and political theory, on the fly, because they are essential parts of the toolkit of everyday resistance. There are street kitchens, snack bars, child-care and nursing stations, libraries, cell-phone charging points, informal pharmacies, legal-aid kiosks and lost-and-found counters. 

At Jamia, after each night’s protest winds down, I see a squad of students clean the street. They pick up every scrap piece of trash, sort between paper and plastic, and leave the street clean for the next morning. By day, the same people who volunteered to clean the street read the preamble to the Indian Constitution. 

Through repeated readings of the preamble of the Constitution, which the police, without any irony, tries to prevent in college campuses and public spaces, a new language is being forged. It is being spoken into existence by the many peoples who call India their home, and who want to live here. Most of them are citizens, though some may never be. All of them have listened to the speech and silence of the women of Shaheen Bagh. This language has a new grammar of verbs and prepositional forms, ways of doing and being, which insists that syntax of citizenship is a work in progress, and will be so, forever. 

22 January 2019, Chandrashekhar Azad, the leader of the Bhim Army gives a speech to thousands of protesters at Shaheen. Ishan Tankha

WHAT ARE THE LESSONS that Shaheen Bagh teaches us about citizenship? 

The first lesson is a reminder, and a proviso. It makes us remember that the declaration of the rights of the citizen, was, in its inception, even at the time of the French Revolution, a declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen. It offers a proviso, that after Shaheen Bagh, this charter, this compact between human beings about how they choose to govern themselves, is about the rights of the woman, of the child, of the man, and of the citizen, in that order.  

The rights of the citizen cannot be divorced from the rights of the human who is not, or not yet, a citizen. This is as true for unborn children, citizens of the future, as it is for unverified immigrants—who are citizens of the future in a different sense. I saw this with my own eyes when I saw a school-bus-load of ten- to twelve-year-old school children going home after school in Delhi at a traffic light suddenly unfurl handmade signs out of the windows of their bus to the high pitched accompaniment of chants for Azadi, against CAA and the NRC. My guess is no one had told these children what to do. They were simply claiming their right to the quality of their citizenship, in the future. 

The quality of citizenship that a people enjoy has something to do with how hospitable they are prepared to be to others, and to those who will succeed them in the future, because exclusions eventually turn in on themselves, and inclusions only enlarge the horizon of liberty, in space, as well as in time. 

No one understood more clearly than BR Ambedkar how deeply the exclusionary principle was embedded in the dominant normative, caste-driven frameworks of Indic societies. That is why his vision of democracy is founded on an annihilation of caste. 

“An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there should be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.

Exclusionary citizenship is just caste with a paper tag. It needs annihilation just as much as caste does. A National Register of Citizens automatically creates the category of “un-citizen,” a new untouchable, on whose absence, banishment, imprisonment or erasure, the newly constituted “uber-citizen” becomes a perpetually self-doubting Frankenstein. (You can never be sure of how good your papers are, until the next moment of scrutiny).

This regime of exclusionary citizenship creates walls between people who cohabit a diverse, layered society, in which people are constantly on the move, in which the categories of inside and outside are fluid, as they should be in a megalopolis like Delhi. It creates micro-hierarchies, mirroring caste, between two people, born within a year from each other straddling either sides of an arbitrary cut-off date, who for all practical purposes might speak the same east-Bengal dialect, eat the same food, be neighbors, or share the same house, or be related to one another. One of them might be able to furnish a paper, becoming certifiably Indian, while the other, whose paper claim being more fragile, or frugal, could be consigned to the limbo of statelessness. This terrible fate has already divided millions of people from their kith-and-kin in Assam. If generalised all over India, it can only lead to a dystopic reality of divided families, detention camps and deportation orders. No one understands this more clearly than the women of Shaheen Bagh. As Muslim women, who move from natal to marital homes, often without papers, their claim to citizenship is built on the nurturing experience of life, not a stamp on a paper. 

Their refusal to show papers is built on a moral principle. And that principle is the understanding that the peoples of India cannot build a house of freedom for themselves if its foundation stands on the exclusion, of any people unable to furnish documentary proof of their citizenship claim. If that is done, then citizenship, instead of a ticket to have rights, or a knot in the fabric of solidarity that is constantly being woven and is always unfinished, becomes the lock of a paper cage. The state then becomes the custodian of the key to that cage.

There is a make believe “detention camp” at Shaheen Bagh, an improvised artifact of plywood, cardboard and aluminum rods. It is only a stage-prop, a reminder of the political theatre that life refuses to enact. At the mouth of the alley through which you enter the protest site, there is also a friendly “checkpoint.” On most days when I walk in, a young man, in a smart suit and tie, and cheerful women, young girls and aunties of the neighborhood, greet you with a warm hello, pat you down to see if you are carrying anything that could be dangerous and then usher you in. I observed that in the women’s queue, the “pat down” for security between the “guard” and the “visitor” often ends in a brief, fleeting embrace, and a smile. You are not asked whether you are from Jamia Nagar, Okhla, Delhi, India, Kashmir or elsewhere. You could be the bearer of any passport or none, but you do not need a visa to enter Shaheen Bagh. No one asks to see papers. You are not asked to prove that you are not a Bangladeshi day-laborer in Okhla, or a Rohingya resident of an informal refugee colony not far from Shaheen Bagh. And even if you are, it doesn not matter. As long as you come with an open heart, you are a friend. 

The state, or any arrangement that society selects to arrange its affairs is something that is made by human beings, in conversation with each other. It is not a state that determines which humans will be citizens, that is, decide which bodies will play an equal and determining role in shaping the actions and intentions of government. Rather, it is human beings who will determine what powers the state can deploy. It is human beings who retain the capacity to dilute or take back those powers if need be. 

15 December 2019, A young man outside Jamia university with his guitar returning from a protest. Ishan Tankha

It follows from this that citizenship is, everywhere, and at all times, a work in progress. Something that is knit, woven, sung or held in a handshake and an embrace. Or simply, lived, walked towards. This is at the heart of the refusal to show papers, this is what transforms the winter of our discontent into the possibility of more than one glorious futures. 

This keeps me awake, and it should keep all of us awake, now and through the coming nights, even as the darkness deepens. 

The sixteenth-century poet, mystic, leather-worker, cobbler, Ravidas, who would have been considered “untouchable” by many of those who held power in his time, is an early user of the word “shahri”—the Hindustani term commonly used to refer to a citizen. In his enigmatic and utopian song, “Begumpura,” which is a part of the Sikh scripture, the Granth Sahib,  as well as of the legacy of medieval poetry reclaimed by Dalit movements, Ravidas invites his listeners to walk with him to Begumpura, the citadel of bliss. (It can also be read as the “city of ladies,” through a pun on the word begum—which can mean both lady, and without sorrow). Ravidas says: 

Kahe Raidas khalas Chamara
Jo hum-sahri su mitu hamara

Says Ravidas, the free leatherworker
All friends are fellow citizen, 
all citizens are friends. 

Shaheen Bagh, a city of women within this capital city, remakes citizenship, as a compact of friendship between strangers. From Shaheen Bagh, it is a long walk and a brief journey, to Begumpura.