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

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
20 January, 2020

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.

While Shaheen Bagh suffers from a lack of daily amenities, until now, the residents have somehow made things work without raising their voice. Electricity meters have now been fitted in Shaheen Bagh and sewer lines laid. But potable water is still unavailable. Walking through the lanes, one cannot escape spotting people carrying cans of water in carts, yelling out “Water, Water!” The children of poorer families spend several hours fetching water from taps mounted in a few gullies, or lanes. On the other side of the nullah are Delhi Development Authority flats of the Jasola Vihar area. This is seen as a “clean” locality. The residents of Shaheen Bagh aspire to cross-over to this side but only some have managed to buy houses in Jasola Vihar. The GD Birla Marg on the southern side leads to Noida through the Kalindi Kunj road, which has several factory outlets. On the southern end of the Shaheen Bagh locality is a graveyard. Earlier the graveyard land belonged to the Uttar Pradesh government. After efforts from local residents, the government of the former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav handed over the land to area’s Muslim community in around 2014.

There is a low-cost private school or a “tuition-cum-coaching” centre in every other lane of Shaheen Bagh.  Built just on 200 to 300 square yards, these “schools” are doing brisk business in the name of imparting “good-quality English education.” Some of them have interesting names—National Welfare Public School, New Vision Public School and Wisdom Public School. The residents, aiming for mobility through education, end up spending a lot of money here. The residents of Shaheen Bagh come from a range of different states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. The Muslims of the area have different beliefs related to Islam. The rich and the poor live cheek by jowl. The former have employed guards and live in big apartments with parking space on the ground floor. The well-off residents consider themselves to be different from their poor neighbours and loose no opportunity of demonstrating this. Many school and college drop-outs, having no relevant engagement, have taken to drugs and alcohol. The residents understand these differences well and try to maintain their respective boundaries. Nevertheless, the protest against the CAA and NRC has brought all the social classes together.

Many students in Shaheen Bagh aspire to study at the nearby Jamia Millia Islamia; it is the institution of their dreams. Almost all of Shaheen Bagh’s several lakh inhabitants have some links with Jamia.  Either they, or their relatives, study there, or they have at least heard of it. On 15 December, the Delhi police brutally cracked down and beat students in Jamia protesting the CAA. This shook everyone up in the locality. Without any formal organisation, calling out to each other, people came together on the roads. The protests were happening earlier as well but it was on 15 December, that the protestors first blocked the highway.  Since then, the highway has become the chief site of the anti-CAA battle.

An ordinary tent has been put up at the protest site. There are mattresses and blankets on the floor where women, elderly and young, huddle together with their sons and daughters. Volunteers can be seen welcoming women and asking them to be seated. Ropes have been put up around the arena to secure it. Men and boys are not allowed to enter the women’s enclosure. Many women, along with their children, stay there round the clock. The number of protesters has ranged from around one thousand during the daytime to almost fifteen to twenty thousand in the late evenings.

The spontaneous getting together of people is not surprising. Employers, employees and live and work together in the same locality. Most employers are only small-time traders, the distance between them and the workers is not unsurmountable. The exploitation remains concealed in relationships of help and patronage. The majority of the protestors are from humbler backgrounds—daily-wage labourers who struggle to make ends meet. They have been at the forefront and are more vocal. Yet, people of  different hues have come together for what they believe is a vital and noble cause—that is the overwhelming emotion at Shaheen Bagh. Each wants to contribute more than the rest. At times this is specifically underscored. If there is a small altercation between participants, one or the other woman comes forward to resolve the dispute. The school-college educated women have more of a presence on the stage than the rest, nonetheless they claim that the stage belongs to everybody. Some women and girls are specially dressed for the occasion. It seems like a celebration of courage, togetherness and freedom. Since men and boys are not allowed inside the women’s enclosure, the men are not objecting to the women of their families gathering at a place for a just cause. Referring to the public acclaim that the women protestors of Shaheen Bagh have received, a man said about the women protesters, “This is the first time that they have received such praise.” This seems to be one of the many reasons for their enthusiasm. Another man told me, “We had imprisoned women because of our ego. History shows that Islam has survived because of women.”  

Most of the women at the protest site are homemakers, while some have jobs. One protestor told me that her husband is a construction labourer. She contributes to the household income by cleaning and washing in several houses. “What to do baji,”—sister—“I have six daughters to look after,” she said. “After finishing my work, I come here. Modi has pulled the rug from under our feet.” Many women whose husbands were involved in construction work, carpentry, or the supply of export-goods, said that work was either totally shut or undergoing losses. Many view this as a battle where their lives are at stake. This seems to be the reason for their  fearlessness. Many women from adjoining areas such as Zakir Nagar and Noor Nagar, and from as far as Dwarka and Najafgarh have joined the protests. Some said they also participate in the protests at Jamia. One lady told me she joins the Shaheen Bagh protest after finishing household chores. She leaves the children at her aunt’s place as she said the police cannot be trusted; they may lathi-charge anytime. Another woman said she gives tuitions at home, her husband works for a small company and her children study at Jamia.  A third woman, with a twenty-three day new-born child, said she is a daily participant in the protest. Most women at the protest site wore a hijab or burqa, challenging prevalent stereotypes about the veil being a symbol of backwardness. Instead, they have shown that they are fully capable of waging a struggle for their rights and justice.

I also spoke to some children gathered at the protest site. They studied in the government schools of Jasola Vihar, Noor Nagar and Abul Fazal. There are no government schools in Shaheen Bagh. One child’s father was a carpenter, a second’s a welder, a third’s a driver and a fourth’s a gatekeeper. Two sisters told me their father was a cart-vendor. Another child’s mother worked in a showroom and both mother and child were present at the protest. On the stage, a girl  of about six or seven years was raising slogans and the children responded by repeating them loud and clear. All the women, girls and even children could explain why the NRC and CAA portend danger for Muslims, the society at large, and the nation.

At the Shaheen Bagh protest site, people are also fasting and offering special prayers. Many are turning to god to aid them in their protest against the NRC and CAA. An arrangement has been made outside the tent for offering namaz. Iftar is also served here to the fasting women. People distribute food and snacks—such as biryani, biscuits, juice, and tea—inside the tent.  A few days ago, the owners of the Laziz restaurant in Shaheen Bagh sent biryani for the protestors. On another occasion, a meat trader of Najafgarh distributed biryani. The Rapid Action Force and the policemen deployed on duty at site are also offered biryani and kebabs, despite people knowing well that they can lathi-charge or even shower bullets on receiving orders from their bosses.

On visiting the protest site several times, I realised that this was an organic movement without an organising committee or leaders. The protesters are not accepting monetary donations. The representatives of political parties have not been allowed to intervene. Shopkeepers selling grocery and sweets are offering special discounts to protesters. As several showrooms are closed, and the shopkeepers are incurring huge losses, the owners have decided to forego the rent. The protest is happening despite the circulation of rumours  that officials may try to shut it down. One of the rumours was that Brahm Singh Tanwar, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader, was going to start a counter protest close by.

Despite a tense situation, the protest has continued on. Many protesters happily emphasised that members of all religious communities, and students from universities such as Jawaharlal University and Delhi University had joined in to show solidarity. A young man told me that “three to four hundred Sikh brothers” had come to Shaheen Bagh on one of the days. “They said they were with us in our struggle,” he added.  While the protesters celebrated the coming together of people from all walks of life, they were pained that people from nearby colonies such as Jasola Vihar and Sarita Vihar had not joined them.

I am a resident of Jasola Vihar. Though the protest is happening hardly two hundred meters from one of the gates of my colony, only a few residents from my locality have joined the protests. A Muslim woman resident of Jasola Vihar associated with the protest told me that she was trying hard to conceal her involvement from her neighbours. It appears that people were scared seeing so many people gathered on the road. One could sense a chilling silence. Social distances seem to have increased. However, since the Shaheen Bagh movement has gained momentum, there began a slow yet visible change. Some more men and women from Jasola Vihar and Sarita Vihar joined in solidarity.

Many people outside the Jamia Nagar area view the residents of Shaheen Bagh as lowly-placed Muslims. People in neighbouring colonies see Shaheen Bagh as a place for procuring plumbers, carpenters and other such service providers at reasonable rates. The locality is also known for factory outlets. Otherwise the well-to-do of the adjoining areas stereotype Shaheen Bagh residents as unclean, uneducated and “wild”—people who need to be kept at a distance, a commonplace construction for many other “ghetto-like” localities. Social distance is responsible for the mushrooming of such places and this further alienates communities from each other. It is common knowledge that Muslims find it difficult to purchase or lease houses in mixed localities. The term ghetto was originally used for spaces inhabited by Jews in Nazi Germany. The Shaheen Baghs of today are the new ghettos of this era of fascism where people belonging to a minority religious community feel the need to huddle together for the sake of security.

Today, Shaheen Bagh has become a symbol of resistance which has motivated and pointed the way forward to many others. It is heartening to see many Shaheen Baghs come up across the country.