90 days on, infectious spirit of Shaheen Bagh protesters refuses to die down

The women-driven political movement has galvanised masses against the brazenness of the citizenship law unlike any other protest that the country has seen before

The women-driven movement has galvanised masses against the brazenness of the citizenship law unlike any other protest that the country has seen before. Photo: TheFederal

Twelve days — that’s how old Umiya Habiba, now little over three-months-old, was when her mother, Rihana Khatoon, first brought her to the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in South Delhi that has become the symbol of resistance nationwide. Rihana has camped out on the streets for 90 days, alongside thousands of women, men and children, bracing harsh winter and severe rainfall.

But how has her life changed ever since India’s largest protests in decades began? Well, not much, she says. She wakes up at 5 am, offers Namaz, makes breakfast, sends three of her four kids to school, comes to the protest for three hours a day, goes back to her home in Okhla Vihar, helps her kids with their homework, cooks dinner and comes with her entire family to Shaheen Bagh at night for another three-four hours.

“If looking after my family and house is my responsibility, coming to the protests everyday is also my responsibility,” says Rihana. “I was one to hardly step out of my house and barely had any friends, but now I have made so many like-minded friends fighting for their rights and the future of their children.”

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Baby Umiya Habiba with her mother Rihana Khatoon. Photo: TheFederal

Just like Rihana, hundreds of women, mostly uneducated and reserved to their homes, have taken to the streets to protest against CAA, which ostensibly discriminates nearly 200 million Muslims living in India. Most of the women have re-adapted their lifestyle to take out time for their “duty” and fight shoulder-to-shoulder against “Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.” They wake up earlier than usual, rest less, do household chores, run errands and yet, take out time for mass sit-in that shows no signs of dulling down.

To mark three months of the political movement, 1,500-2,000 people, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and those belonging to other religious faiths or none at all, gathered together as a witting show of strength. As the night progressed, more and more people, especially the working class, throng the blocked road of the Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. The massive make-shift camp sheathed with thick plastic and wooden barricades is built in three partitions — in the front is a raised stage for anybody to voice their opinion; then on one side is an arena with wooden platforms covered with carpets, thermocol sheets and thin blankets for women to sleep on, and on the other side, thin mattresses have been spread out for seating; the corner end is reserved for men with little space to be seated and more to stand tall.  The roads around the protest site continue to be blocked.

If not for the closed shops, ATMs and banks, the foot-over bridge serving as a pelmet to long banners and posters that stream below, the road-side railings bent by an energised crowd and women sitting on road-side low-heighten blocks, one barely gets the feeling of being in the middle of the road. From bamboos of the camp to enclosures of electricity transformers, there is not a single corner that does not have anti-CAA or anti-NRC posters, banners and flags stuck on to it. “I have not sold so many Indian flags during Independence Day or Republic Day also,” says Aslam, who has been selling flags for over 20 years.

“In three months, I have shed seven kilograms and suffered a urinary infection because I would often withhold going to public washrooms,” said 52-year-old Azra Shaheen, who barely knew anything about the ramifications of the CAA movement but now knows most of it, thanks to the thousands of speeches she has heard over the three-month course of her silent outcry. There is also a flow-chart near the stage that explains the link between NPR-NRC and CAA in Hindi.

“People are shocked that women know so much about these issues. Women who were asleep have now awoken, they have created history and inspired everyone.,” says Kanta Sharma.

The reverberations of the speeches made by activists, students, lawyers, priests, doctors, housewives, among others, filled the room, mounted with speakers in every corner, with an intoxicating passion. But people are also increasingly wary of outsiders and caution fellow-protesters to speak with caution. In the middle of a speech, the brouhaha turned into mild disarray when few women rushed to move out of the camp, triggering a ripple effect. The cause of the stir was a quarrel between two guys. The speaker at the time, Ritu Kaushik, a protester and volunteer since early December, resounded for calm and continued her speech: “I challenge the government to try and pass NRC and CAA. I guarantee that majority of Indians will not let that happen.”

Related news: Shaheen Bagh protesters demand fair probe in Delhi violence

To further lift the spirits of an already determined crowd, Ritu said that although some media has wrongly broadcast/written that Shaheen Bagh protests are over or that only a handful of women swarm the site, “15-20 women are also enough to lead a revolution.” Clinched fists raised to the heavens along with loud accolades rang in the ears of everyone present.

The women-driven movement has galvanised masses against the brazenness of the citizenship law unlike any other protest that the country has seen before. But why? The reasons that have struck have a chord with these women are multi-faced — some are ragingly worried for the future of their children, some lack documentation and some, like 90-year-old Asma Khatun, want to leave behind the India they had known for decades, the country that “used to be secular.” However, Indian women tend to have less documents compared to their male counterparts. They often move away from their place of birth, get married in another city, migrate with their husbands, fail to get their names on property documents and some do not even have births registered.

Such is the case with 43-year-old Razda Anwar, a mother of three children, who does not have her birth certificate. “Just because we are poor and uneducated, and failed to get documentation, we should go to Pakistan? Why should I do that? Who do I have in Pakistan? India is my country; besides will Modi help us stand on our feet if we are forced out anywhere else?” squeals Razda, with a huge packet of three blankets in her hand to help her and her family spend the night.

Adding to the sequence of questions that the government has failed to answer or perhaps listen to, another woman says: “If my citizenship is questionable, so should my vote be. Narendra Modi should re-contest the elections.”

And yet, with parched throats and pounding hearts, the first thing these women are likely to ask you is if you need tea/water or food. Even if one hesitates, they would hand it you. From snacks to beverages to meals, well-wishers have taken turns to make multiple arrangements to successfully execute the protest. Some women make food at their homes and bring it for others as well.

Related news: Shaheen Bagh shooter Kapil Baisala granted bail by Delhi court

A doctor provided over 200 masks to these women as a precaution to the coronavirus pandemic. But these protesters say they have much worse to worry about. The only relief has been the flocking of people to a little-known neighbourhood from all corners of the world and the domino-protests it has lead to.

“I come here from Himachal Pradesh every month to offer support. I barely speak to anyone but it comforts me to silently listen to the speeches and watch the encapsulating bravery of these women from one corner,” says 67-years-old Lalit Rawat.

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