A question pops out of thin air as we journalists bound down the steps of the metro station of Shaheen Bagh, only to freeze at the sight of people holding candles far away and wending their way down an alley, their slogans of Aazadi and Inquilab Zindabad a mere whisper as they reach us: Why has it taken all of 18 days of protests at Shaheen Bagh to pull us here?
This question grins and winks at us as we see knots of people waiting at different points, with the flames of their candles flickering, to join the procession as it heads to a spot on the highway which connects Delhi to NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh.
This is the spot men and women occupied a day after 15 December, when the Delhi Police brutally dispersed the students of Jamia Millia Islamia protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. And they have been there since then, through nights and days, braving the bone-chilling winter, as much serenaded for their spirit as criticised for throwing the Capital’s traffic in disarray.
The night ripples with excitement. A left turn, then a right turn and we are in the bowels of Shaheen Bagh. Vendors are hawking chicken soup. The aroma from eateries wafts across. A little before we are to take yet another left turn, we hear a roar. It is from Ground Zero. We hasten, only to find that question echo: Why has it taken us 18 days to come here?
There is no time to answer the question. Besides, some of us have been to protests at Jantar Mantar and Mandi House, the sites designated for expressing opposition against the state in the Capital. We have battled the supporters of the CAA-NRC on social media. Shaheen Bagh does not fall on the route we take daily, each of us argue to silence the questioning voice; it is also the place some of us have never visited before. Humans gravitate to the familiar, don’t they?
The inner dialogue is suspended as we melt into the throng. Someone is speaking from the dais. Applause, cheers, slogans follow.
But the question—why 18 days?—has started to influence our behaviour. We scan the crowd: there are women in hijab as well as those without it. Zeba Khan is not, nor is Fatima. There are men with beards as well as those clean-shaven; there are those visibly poor as well those decidedly middle class. A placard hanging from the wall reads, “Secular Tea”, a tantalising invitation for a wintry night.
We prick our ears as a speaker leads a chorus. We wait to hear Islamic slogans such as “there is no god but God” or “God is great.” They chant what people do at Jantar Mantar. This seems a typical Delhi crowd of protesters. No Islamic slogan, one of us notes aloud. As if in response, Arabic words echoes in the air. These translate to: “In the name of Allah, the merciful, the beneficial.” The voice is of a Sikh gentleman, who has come all the way from Punjab to address the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh.
Our relief provides a clue as to why it has taken us 18 days to visit Shaheen Bagh. It requires further distilling, which is sparked by a conversation in an eatery, where we have gone to grab a plate of tandoori chicken. A group of three, including a woman in her early twenties, is huddled around an adjacent table. One of us tosses a question to them: Isn’t the protest in Shaheen Bagh happening in a bubble, a protest of Muslims mounted for Muslims?
The bearded man says that he has been, over the last three weeks, to all protest sites, Jantar Mantar and Mandi House included. “The protesters there are different from those in Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia. Those in Jantar Mantar are educated and cultivated. They are what you can call the elite. It is difficult for the Jamia protesters to be accommodated there.”
The bearded man, in an ironic tone, presses ahead, saying there are certain spaces in the Capital labelled “secular”, where protests become a drill that is required to be wound down by 6 pm.
It is also about stereotypes and perceptions.
The bearded man explains, “When Jamia Millia students protested, it was said it was natural for them to do so. They are predominantly Muslim; the CAA-NRC are said to affect them most. Protests, say, in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University on the same issue are depicted as fighting for a larger cause, selflessly, ideologically.”
It sounds a typical Muslim crib, except that the bearded man is not a Muslim. He is a Hindu who teaches at Jamia.
The penny drops: We did not come to Shaheen Bagh all this while because we expected it to be a Muslim protest, a sectarian protest, replete with Islamic slogans and symbols, which do not conform to our ideas of identities and nationhood.
We are back in the humming crowd, which has swelled up twice the size of what it had been two hours ago, at 8 pm. We have sported new lens to watch the assembly.
There are cries of Jai Bhim as a Dalit group takes the stage, holding aloft a portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar. A speaker holds forth on Savitribai Phule, whose birth anniversary happens to be today, 3 January. A speaker informs that she opened her first school with the help of a Muslim, Usman Sheikh. A resounding applause follows. Theatre personality Arvind Gaur’s troupe sings what are described as revolutionary songs; the crowd joins in. It seems just about everyone here can recite Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, which is arguably the most powerful lyrical rebellion against authoritarianism.
Haris Khan, a civil engineer, says he can organise all the documents he may require for the NRC. But he says he is here to fight for the poor and illiterate, those who cannot procure documents, for which they never felt the need. This is not a protest mounted in a bubble, he and others insist, pointing out the many non-Muslim visitors who have come calling. Not necessarily like you and I, not those who speak English with felicity.
As the night turns colder and the crowd bigger, with women wearing scarves and men sporting beards continuing to stream in, a strange dichotomy glares at us. There are Muslims raging on social media, asserting that they must flaunt their religious identity as the Indian state is targeting them because they are Muslim. Perhaps many of them had underplayed their Muslimness to embrace the secular Indian identity, and feel alienated at the state’s suspicion of their Indian-ness.
By contrast, Shaheen Bagh’s residents are unconscious of their Muslimness and its markers as they consciously seek to transcend these, without giving up on them, to forge a connection with those who do not belong to their community. They may reside in a labyrinthine Muslim sprawl, over which hangs the fetid smell emanating from an open drain, but their imagination has leapt out to knit the colours of India into a seamless tapestry.
Before the protesters evacuate Ground Zero, willingly or under duress, visit Shaheen Bagh, even out of curiosity, to watch live the metamorphosis of a community and the nation called Hindustan.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.