Even as you descend the bridge near Lala Gunda roundabout, you can faintly hear the slogans of ‘Azaadi’ from the nearby protest site, the Sajja Munuswamy and Aziz Mohamed Ghouse streets of Old Washermanpet, Chennai’s own Shaheen Bagh.
The minute you get to the edge of the streets, there are men in volunteer t-shirts forming a human chain to keep the crowd from spilling on to the road. One of the volunteer says their job is also to regulate traffic when food supply vans arrive, to ensure that no inconvenience is caused to the public.
Beyond the human chain, are swarms of unknown men at the protest site, but you experience a deep sense of safety too – they seem overtly conscious to make women feel safe amid the crowd.
Even if you are a stranger or a curious passer-by, just stopping by to catch a glimpse of the protest, there are volunteers who readily escort you to the streets.
Cross the human chain, and you see thousands of women along with their children, sporting headbands with slogans of ‘No CAA No NRC’ occupying the entire stretch of Sajja Munuswamy and Aziz Mohamed Ghouse streets. Red carpets have been laid along the length of these streets to allow them to sit and rest in between.
Dissent a la Shaheen Bagh
These protesters have been staging a sit-in at the spot against the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) since February 14.
The protest, jointly held by Muslim organisations, caught the attention of the nation when videos showed police thrashing anti-CAA protesters including women in Chennai. Since that day, Muslim women of the locality, inspired by Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest, have been staging a sit in with their children in protest against CAA.
The mood at the protest site was one like never seen before. It is perhaps the first time that Chennai witnessed an agitation predominantly led by women.
When approached, some of the women were reluctant to speak to the media. “We have been instructed not to speak unnecessarily to press persons,” said a protestor.
But there was a sense of sisterhood that seemed to bind them together. Women were seen distributing evening tea and refreshments and feeding their children even as they continued shouting slogans.
Paid protest or fight for rights?
A popular allegation that has surfaced around the protest, is that it is a politically paid and motivated one. Protesters rubbish such claims.
Shafina, a homemaker said the chief trigger behind the protest was the police violence against anti-CAA protesters February 14. “We are sitting here, abandoning all our household chores because if we don’t fight for our existence now, when will we? By calling our protest paid they are just insulting our community,” she said.
Shafina’s child clung to her just the way other children at the protest site stayed close to their mothers. Some of them were running around, clearly excited by the constant glare of cameras and lights.
“I don’t know what CAA is but I was asked to fight for my rights. I haven’t gone to school for the past four days but I want to protest,” says an eight-year-old Toufiq.
Just like Shaheen Bagh, while the participation of children in the protest has been criticised by many, their mother say at a time when their very existence is under threat, it is more important for the children to fight for their survival than attend school.
There is a steady supply of food at the protest site. Volunteers say the funds for the same is collected both by pooling money and from donations given by city bigwigs.
Asif, a volunteer, while packing biriyani for dinner, recounted the fateful night of police atrocity.
“That night the police came prepared to beat us up, for not agreeing to negotiate. They beat up the women who were protesting. I too got injured in the lathi charge while trying to protect my family,” he says showing his bandaged arm.
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The protest also was an amplification of the fear and insecurity of residents. Every person who spoke had a common concern – the fear of being sent to detention camps and being separated from their families. “My parents don’t have birth certificates and I am scared for my existence in the country, hence I’ll protest till my last breath,” said Mubina, a protestor.
There are at least 20 shops lining the streets that have remained shut since the protest broke out. Abdul Khader, who runs Silver Star Biriyani, is one of the shopkeepers who has lent space in his shop to protesters to store water bottles and refreshment sent by donors.
“I consider it a service in the name of Allah. I don’t care if I miss out on earnings. The Hindu meat sellers nearby have also shut their shop to express their solidarity with our protest,” he said.
If Amma were there…
There was a widespread sense of resentment against the state government among the crowd. Given that Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had announced that no resolution can be passed against CAA, many questioned why Tamil Nadu couldn’t when 11 other states could.
Jayalalitha and Amma were recurrent words that the protesters chanted. “Do you think we would be treated like this if Amma had been here?” they asked, thereby exhibiting a clear affinity towards the late chief minister whose stronghold RK Nagar is a neighbouring constituency.
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“The residents here are quite peeved with the government. If it doesn’t pass a resolution against CAA, it will see the anger reflected in the 2021 Assembly elections,” said Mubina.
The women and children along with the men at the periphery of the protests vow to continue their stir indefinitely until their demands are met.