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‘Shaheen Bagh: From Protest to a Movement’, and ‘Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality’ review: A million Shaheen Baghs

When the women of Shaheen Bagh, some of whom were in their eighties, pitched their tents on the evening of December 15, 2019, on Street Number 13 A, to protest against the brutal police handling of children studying at Jamia Millia University, they set off a chain of events. The students had been voicing their anxiety against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 that introduced religion as a factor in granting Indian citizenship. The women’s action caught the attention of the world and succeeded in converting most of the people to their side. The women, many of whom had never stepped out of their homes before, found their voice, while raising theirs in the most civilised way known to mankind. Two books chronicle this protest — and a movement — and argue that it is integral to the idea of India enshrined in the Constitution.

Education as safety net

In Shaheen Bagh: From Protest to a Movement, Zia Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf write that most of the women hailed from families that had either not allowed these women to study when they were young or could not afford to provide them education. “Now, in the autumn of their life, these women saw education as an opportunity for upward mobility in life. For years, they had emphasised good education for their children. When their children or grandchildren went to study in Jamia, they took pride in it. Also, there was unexpressed safety; they knew the youngsters had gone virtually next door to study as the university was less than two kilometres away from their homes. Jamia offered them hope for a better future, and the reality of a secure and stable today. They could reasonably expect them to reach home safely after their classes.”

What forced the women to come out on the streets to seek justice was the attack on their children by a police force meant to protect them. But slowly the protest became an assertion of their own rights as women whose first act of defiance was in claiming a corner of a street as their own. It was their private space on a public street, out of bounds for men who were content in letting the women take the lead.

Now they were invoking the Gandhian spirit of Satyagraha and protesting under the shadow of the man who had given the Constitution to the people of India. It was the people, the women, who had felt threatened by the recently introduced Citizenship (Amendment) Act of the Narendra Modi-led BJP Government and a possible National Register of Citizens that threatened to disenfranchise them by turning them into strangers in their own land.

With songs and poems on their lips and a copy of the Constitution clutched in their hands, the women of Shaheen Bagh managed in their quiet way to unsettle powerful men. But the backlash was swift. A powerful minister in the government exhorted people to eliminate the women. And then Delhi was engulfed in riots. The authors have succeeded in chronicling every single day of the protest, which sparked off similar protests by women in different parts of the country.

‘A gift of togetherness’

In Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, edited by Seema Mustafa, we have a collection of articles/reports/opinions by people who were both moved by the women of Shaheen Bagh as also by those who had lent their voice to the protest. So, what have the women given us?

‘Shaheen Bagh: From Protest to a Movement’, and ‘Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality’ review: A million Shaheen Baghs

As Mustafa writes, “For those hundred days before the carnage, the women of Shaheen Bagh gave Delhi a living heart, a gift of togetherness, hope and self-confidence. It should continue to inspire and enlighten the nation long after March 24, 2020, when a global pandemic achieved what hate speeches and gun-wielding goons could not, and forced the women back into their homes.”

With Bloomsbury withdrawing its book on the February Delhi riots, following criticism for inviting people under cloud for hate speech on the occasion of the book launch, a charge that the publishing house has since denied, the authors of the Shaheen Bagh books too have come under fire on social media.

The Twitter brigade drew a parallel between the books by questioning the raison d’être in withdrawing one and allowing the others to remain on the stands.

For the record, Shaheen Bagh is about the struggle for identity and equality by women who eschewed violence. It is a testimony to the faith women of Shaheen Bagh have placed in the Constitution and a reminder to those who love their country to do the same.

Shaheen Bagh: From Protest to a Movement; Ziya Us Salam, Uzma Ausaf, Bloomsbury,₹599.

Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality; Edited by Seema Mustafa, Speaking Tiger, ₹450.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 9:58:16 PM |

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