As the Coronavirus fear spread across the world, there is a murmur among protesters in Shaheen Bagh and at other anti-CAA protest sites over whether they should suspend activities for some time.
Many at Shaheen Bagh believe that the severity of the outbreak, tagged a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), means that protests should be suspended immediately to ensure the security of protesters and to ensure that the virus does not spread. Many oppose this idea, fearing that if once suspended, it will never be revived.
As of Saturday, Novel Coronavirus or Covid-19 had caused the death of 5,544 people across the world, mostly in China and Italy. While its spread in India is still slow, two people have succumbed to the infection, one each in Karnataka and Delhi. New cases are being reported daily, and there are 84 in all, two reported only on Saturday.
Schools, colleges, cinema halls and sporting events have been ordered shut till the end of the month in the Capital city. Doctors are asking people to avoid crowded places and have advised people to minimise their social interaction.
Given the heightened sense of fear, many fear a genuinely threat to their safety at Shaheen Bagh and the other anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protest sites. Dr Shahid Jameel, a renowned virologist and chief executive officer of Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, an independent charity that funds health and biomedical research in India, tells me that in a global pandemic, it is but inevitable for cases to mount, even in India. “They are likely to shoot up in days to come,” he says. “This virus is showing efficient human-to-human transmission.”
He points out that data from China and Europe shows that one infected person transmits the virus to two or three others on average. “Therefore, in the absence of any other protection, i.e., vaccines or medicines, social distancing is the only way to reduce its spread. Large gatherings are to be avoided,” he says.
There is no denying that the protesters are unable to take practical precautions in the face of the mounting challenges posed by the spread of this new health threat. Jameel, who is also an elected fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy says that the government’s urgent measures, while sensible, will not prevent but just restrict the spread of Covid-19.
The bottomline is that in order to reduce fatalities, it is important that the number of sick people should remain below the capacity of hospitals. “And you can only limit the number of sick people if fewer people get infected. The only tool available to do this is social distancing: Masks, dupattas, etc will not help,” Jameel says.
The Shaheen Bagh protest is considered the mother of all nationwide protests. It began in the wake of a police crackdown on protesting students at Jamia Millia Islamia University soon after the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, passed into law. Led by women and students, especially college-going women, these protests have spread to over 500 sites despite crackdowns, intimidation and arrests, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi.
It is these protests that helped create awareness about the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the BJP government at the Center wants to create. These protests can also take a share of the credit for the roughly ten states that have passed resolutions against the conduct of a nationwide NRC. They have also prompted the government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to say that there will be no NRC. However, the threat of a NRC for the entire country remains, until section 14A of the Citizenship Act, 1955—which is where the NPR and NRC exercise draw legal basis from—is suspended. That said, the fact remains that various BJP leaders have spoken in contradictory voices on the nationwide NRC, and the future is far from settled.
As a result of these, the question for the protesters now is whether suspending their sit-ins will end up dampening the spirit of the anti-CAA movement and even, perhaps, reverse their gains so far. As Haseeb, a regular at Shaheen Bagh tells me, “Once suspended, this protest may never get revived. We should instead put messages at every sit-in that say ‘CAA is more dangerous and deadly than Coronavirus.’”
Rabia, another regular, says that the protests have had a profound impact over the last three months and for that reason they should not budge. “Women have braved the cold, rains and even hail storms to continue their protest. Nothing could dampen their spirit. They didn’t leave even when the Delhi riots broke out late last month when the threat to their lives seemed so real,” she point out.
It is often said at the Shaheen Bagh site that dozens of people died and thousands of Muslims were rendered homeless in the recent violence in Delhi. Yet, it is the Coronavirus issue that is being disproportionately magnified to force people to vacate the site. “We will not leave, as Covid-19 is an imaginary threat while the threat to our lives and citizenship is real,” Rabia says.
Bushra, who has been going to both the Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia protest sites points out the other side: “It is time we suspend the protests,” she says. “It is insane to think they cannot be revived. It could even come back in a better way, now that people have learned from experience.”
The government of India has invoked the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued an advisory against mass gatherings. It says that states have been advised against gatherings due to the risk of Coronavirus spreading. “In case any such mass gatherings are organised, states may take necessary action to guide the organisers on precautions to be taken,” it reads.
Fact is, the threat of Coronavirus is real—and it is getting more real for Indians now. Other than schools, colleges, sporting events and other public gatherings, many nations have suspended prayers and congregations so as to control the community spread of the virus. “To continue the protests will endanger innocent women, their families and the larger communities where they live,” Bushra feels.
All considered this will not be an easy call for the women of Shaheen Bagh to take—but it is a decision that they will have to, sooner or later, make.
The author is a writer and columnist. The views are personal.