To better understand the Shaheen Bagh protest, we must understand the locality itself

20 January 2020
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Since mid-December, Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in south Delhi, has been the site of a women-led protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. I first visited the Shaheen Bagh protest site on 19 December 2019. “Amit Shah has said he won’t go back even an inch on the CAA,” a woman protestor spoke into a mic, referring to the home minister. “We too want to tell him we won’t budge even a millimetre from here.” Since the women of Shaheen Bagh started their indefinite sit-in, their protest has received much public attention. As people across Delhi joined in, a movement began to be built.

But who are these women who have blocked a highway—the GD Birla Marg—for more than a month now? To better understand them and their mobilisation efforts, it is important to understand the locality.  

In Delhi’s Jamia Nagar area, comprising localities such as Batla House, Zakir Nagar, Ghaffar Manzil, Noor Nagar and other smaller localities, Shaheen Bagh is the newest inhabitation. Until around 1985, the area consisted of small vegetable farms. Around this time, members of the Hindu Gujjar community started to divide the land into plots for sale. Since the rest of Jamia Nagar had become densely populated, people began purchasing these cheaper plots. Many people earning petro-dollars in Arab countries bought property here. Until 1990, there were kacha lanes, or dirt roads, no sewer lines and no electricity, and just about fifty to sixty houses. Since water accumulated in the vacant plots, mosquitoes and insects swarmed the area. Idris Sahib, a Shaheen Bagh resident who lived in the area in 1990, told me half in jest that the “the mosquito nets would blacken from outside.” He added, “Since there was no electricity, we would kill mosquitoes within our nets in torch-light.”

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, the population of this area increased exponentially. Members of the Muslim community, residing until then in mixed localities, began to migrate to this area for the sake of security. The few Hindu and Sikh residents of Shaheen Bagh sold their properties at high prices and shifted to other places.

Today, the area is densely populated. There are tall apartment buildings on slender plots, ranging from 25 to 400 square meters. The population is fairly diverse. There are people who are from the labouring classes, such as construction workers, plumbers, welders, carpenters, and grill-makers. Professors of the nearby Jamia Millia Islamia and rich businessmen also live in the area. There are narrow lanes but also a forty-feet wide road. On one side of the locality, beyond the road, is the river Yamuna. On the other, there are two dirty nullahs, replete with garbage dumps. One of the channels  has been covered to build two mohalla clinics, a bridge to the metro and a narrow park.  Women and children can often be seen enjoying the sun, using exercising-cycles installed in this park. In a corner of the park is the office of  the Aam Admi Party’s Amanatullah Khan, the member of the legislative assembly representing the area.

Farah Farooqi is a professor of education at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Keywords: Citizenship (Amendment) Act Shaheen Bagh National Register of Citizens Jamia Milia Islamia