The CAA protests and the birth of the Shaheen Bagh movement

Books document a unique, peaceful resistance, when women came out of their homes to register their protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The women took to the streets, pointing out that the CAA has the potential to disproportionately impact Muslims residing in India

March 20, 2024 08:30 am | Updated 11:19 am IST

Protests against CAA-NRC during Republic Day at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi in 2020.

Protests against CAA-NRC during Republic Day at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi in 2020. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Till December 15, 2019, even old residents of Delhi did not have much of an idea about Shaheen Bagh. Many had never heard of it; others just about knew its location. It all changed one cold December evening as news came of alleged police atrocities on Jamia Millia Islamia students protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the vicinity. The women of Shaheen Bagh, living around a kilometre from Jamia, were galvanised into action. The CAA had to be opposed, peacefully, persistently. To the surprise of everybody, leading the protests were elderly women of Shaheen Bagh, women in their 70s and 80s, who had never stepped out of their homes. But here they were, holding the Constitution of India in one hand, and copies of the Quran in the other to assert their status as equal citizens of the land.

Women at the centre

The Shaheen Bagh protest soon became a movement which not only spread across the country but also got international attention. The Dadis (grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh even made it to Time magazine. Reams began to be written on the determined struggle of the Shaheen Bagh women against the CAA, which allows religious minorities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to get citizenship in India. Among the first books was Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, edited by veteran journalist Seema Mustafa, and published by Speaking Tiger, and Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement, published by Bloomsbury.

Mustafa’s book was notable for essays by many women and key Muslim observers who argued that the CAA-NRC (National Register of Citizens)-NPR (National Population Register) combine affected the citizenship of Indian Muslims most strongly, and women in the community were even more vulnerable, as they rarely had any land documents under their name.

Among the essayists were Mustafa Quraishi, Zeyad Masroor Khan and Seemi Pasha besides human rights activists and intellectuals like Harsh Mander, Nayantara Sehgal, Apoorvanand, Zoya Hassan and Nandita Haksar. Each essay opened a little window to the world of Shaheen Bagh protesters, showing the mettle of the women, untrained to lead a protest against a new law, yet able to provide leadership at a critical juncture. Theirs was probably the first movement led by Muslim women since Independence. They had not come out on the streets to protest against the Shah Bano case or the Babri Masjid demolition. They had kept their counsel even on the instant triple talaq case. However, here they were, fighting for Article 14 of the Constitution, sitting under the open sky in the chill of Delhi’s winters. Every day began with a rendition of ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha’. Every midnight arrived with the national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’. Mustafa’s book was a richly elevating experience, one that quietly exposed the double standards of larger society and polity. Thanks to the Gandhian struggle, Shaheen Bagh became a pilgrimage spot for all those who swear by the idea of India. And the hijab-clad women of Shaheen Bagh became the unlikely revolutionaries.

Visual document

After these two books on Shaheen Bagh in the summer of 2020, came three others, between 2021 and 2022. There was a visual chronicle in the form of Aasif Mujtaba and Mohammed Meharban’s Hum Dekhenge, Protest and Pogrom: A Photo Document. The book, which had a foreword by noted legal eagle Prashant Bhushan, came with limited but engaging text, and photographs which documented the movement with many heroes as well as some intrepid victims. It had a photograph of some 40,000 women celebrating Republic Day with not an inch of space left at Shaheen Bagh. It also had the picture of the nephew of Mudasir Khan crying before the body of his uncle who succumbed to injuries he suffered during the 2020 riots in north east Delhi.

Also Read: Who will benefit from the new CAA Rules? | Explained 

Then came Nehal Ahmed’s Nothing Will be Forgotten: From Jamia to Shaheen Bagh (LeftWord Books) which was an account of the police action at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Ahmed, a PhD scholar at Jamia, was present on campus when a completely peaceful protest site soon started resembling a war zone. His was a moving account of students shattered by violence on their campus, yet finding creative ways of resistance against the discriminatory law which made religion the benchmark of providing or denying citizenship to those coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh; all but Muslims were welcome under the new law. Ahmed managed to come up with a snapshot of a moment in history.

Props of a protest

A book written in Hindi, Shaheen Bagh: Loktantra ki Nayee Karvat, by Bhasha Singh garnered attention for its immaculate detailing and persuasive research. Bhasha’s book, published by Rajkamal Prakashan, brought to the reader the rich Urdu vocabulary and poetry used by protesters of Shaheen Bagh, their abiding pride in the national flag, their ability to educate the masses about the pitfalls of CAA-NPR-NRC with the use of a mock detention centre, and a library on the pavement at the protest site.

It recounted too how the women gave space to freedom fighters of all hues on their stage yet managed to keep politicians and clerics at bay.

These books prove that the Shaheen Bagh women may have been forced to retreat to their homes due to the pandemic but they managed to force the government not to issue a notification for the new law for four years — the new Rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by Parliament in December 2019, were issued on March 11, 2024.

The books are a fine example of literature with social responsibility, when writers stepped out of their little cocoons and into the heat of the battle.

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