“Can a man who cannot tolerate Muslim names tolerate Muslims?”: Zakir Nagar’s women against CAA

Shahid Tantray For The Caravan
28 December, 2019

Every evening for the past week since 16 December, the residents of Zakir Nagar, a locality in south Delhi’s Okhla area, have stood on the street holding a candlelight vigil to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens. The locality is a little over a kilometre away from the Jamia Millia Islamia university, that has been the center of anti-CAA protests and subsequent police bruality. The purpose of the vigil is also to register the locality’s opposition to the police’s violent crackdown on the students of Jamia.

The protests in Zakir Nagar are part of nationwide demonstrations against the CAA since the law was enacted on 12 December. Across India, the police have clamped down on protests by beating people, firing tear gas shells and detaining hundreds.

When I visited the Zakir Nagar vigil on the night of 23 December, people were peacefully lined up on either side of a road leading to the local mosque. Children sang the poet Muhammad Iqbal’s Saare Jahan Se Accha. Men distributed biscuits and tea to the people braving Delhi’s cold December nights. Amidst the vigil, the participants engaged in conversations about the consequences of the newly enacted law. Emotions ran high at the protest in Zakir Nagar, but the fear of the Narendra Modi-led government was not one of them.

On an entire stretch of one side of the road, women stood holding posters with slogans calling for the repeal of the CAA. For most of them, this was the first time that they were participating in a public protest. “Till today, we have never come out on the streets, but today it is the question of the whole country,” Nishat, a resident of Zakir Nagar, told me. Her poster read, “Laathi, goli nahi, rozgar, roti do”—Don’t give us laathis and bullets, give us employment and bread. Describing the other protestors, she added, “All the women who wear burqas and niqabs are here to stand up for their rights.” Nishat said she had been attending the protests at Jamia during the day and then joining the protest in her locality in the evenings.

“The prime minister has not taken one good decision till today,” Nishat continued. “He raises burdens for the common man, be it demonetisation, be it GST”—the goods and services tax—“or the Babri Masjid dispute. All his decisions so far have not been for the welfare of the people but for the owners of big companies.” The protests across the country have given her hope. She said she sees them as a vindication of the Muslim community’s resistance to Modi.

Fauzia, another protestor, said that when Modi has shown no concern for “big people” like Indian soldiers, ordinary Muslims stood no chance. “You saw what Modi did to the soldiers fighting at the borders? If he can betray soldiers who are laying down their lives for us then what are we?” she asked, refering to allegations that Modi continued shooting for a TV show for The Discovery Channel even after being informed of the terror attack in the Pulwama district of Kashmir on 14 February. The attack killed atleast forty soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force. Modi later made multiple references to the Pulwama attack in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rallies before the Lok Sabha elections.

Fauzia arrived at the protest carrying a photograph of BR Ambedkar. “The laws made by him are under attack,” she said, comparing the secular Constitution to the communal overtones of the CAA. “He did not make laws just for Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians. He made them for everyone. He was not partial in drafting the laws.”

Shabana Khan, another protestor, highlighted the peaceful nature of the protests. She said she felt no fear or shame participating in these protests since they had not resorted to violence. “Inshallah, we will continue to protest till the Modi government withdraws the law,” Khan told me. “My appeal to the public is that we have stood up for you, so please stand up for us.” Several other protestors, including Khan said they believed the Modi government will eventually attempt to divide Hindus too. “Even after passing this bill and even after committing wrongs against the Muslims, what is the guarantee that Modi won’t go against Hindus as well?” Fauzia said. Agreeing with her, Nazma, another protestor said that it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s agenda to divide the Hindus as “upper caste, lower caste.”

The women protestors at Zakir Nagar also said the BJP government is erasing every aspect of the country’s history that has a Muslim association. “What is your problem if cities have Muslim names?” Nishat asked. “How can a man who cannot even tolerate Muslim names tolerate Muslims themselves?” Nazma added, “The struggle that is ongoing today has begun in a Muslim university. Jamia students know what is right and what is wrong. The best part is that students from Jamia have stood up for us.” She said she believed that everyone who has participated in the anti-CAA protests understands that laws cannot be made on the basis of religion.

The women also believed that Jamia’s students faced police excesses because the university is perceived to predominantly Muslims, which they said is a misconception. “Children from every caste, every community study in the university,” Naseema Begum, an elderly protestor whose granddaughter studies in Jamia, told me. “You receive education from here and then become ministers and officers. And then you beat the same students and destroy their university. Why?” Begum added that the govermnent was attempting to brand Muslims as foreigners. “The government did not see whether we are citizens or not when they were seeking votes,” she said. “Now they want to divide the country.”

Echoing similar views, Fauzia believed that Modi had created an insulting impression of Muslims as uneducated. “Modi laughs at us and thinks that we don’t know what CAA is, what NRC is,” she said. “We will not be fooled anymore. We have taught the uneducated as well. Everyone understands what is going on.”

Speaking with anger, Fauzia continued, “The country got rid of the British. We will continue to fight. We are not worried about our lives.” Referring to the home minister Amit Shah and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, she added, “Whether Modi or Amit or Yogi or Supreme court or the high court stands with us or not, the voice of the people is powerful.”

By 10.30 pm, the protestors had dispersed for the night. A young man stood at the steps of a nearby building, sharing factual information about the CAA to a gradually growing crowd.