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Speaking truth to power, in Shaheen Bagh and beyond

The confrontation between the people of India and its government over the CAA-NPR-NRC has given rise to unprecedented solidarity being displayed in the daily rallies

The women of Shaheen Bagh are collectively confronting a crisis.
The women of Shaheen Bagh are collectively confronting a crisis. (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

In a corner of south Delhi, sitting on a main road for the fourth week in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the women of Shaheen Bagh remind me of Ammi, my mother-in-law.

Ammi, who was from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, used to remind me of Mataji, my grandmother, who originally belonged to Lahore. One of them was a Muslim woman, the other a Hindu Punjabi. Both of them gave me a sense of secure belonging that has sustained me emotionally. I had known both of them only as elderly women and, to my eye, they looked remarkably alike. They had the same talents with embroidery, managing kitchens that served elaborate feasts regularly, and intuiting the needs of others. They were creative and strategic. They governed their worlds quietly from the background and knew when a crisis needed them to cross invisible boundaries and step into the foreground.

This is what the thousands of protesting women in Shaheen Bagh seem to have done. They have emerged into the public space to collectively confront a looming crisis. Most of them are first-time protesters. Some of them are students, some are matriarchs. There are young women with small children in their laps. There are great-grandmothers. There are artists and organizers, poets and singers. Sometimes they are angry, other times they laugh with abandon. They take time off to pray, to go home and keep the kitchens functional. They return with determination. They know what the CAA-NPR-NRC (a new citizenship law, a population register, and a proposed one of citizens) is about and videos of them explaining why it is wrong are viral on social and mainstream media.

The nature of the unfolding confrontation between the people of India and its government over the CAA-NPR-NRC is so new and so vast that I struggle for words that can help me understand what is going on. There is an unprecedented solidarity being displayed in the daily rallies that draw out thousands of people all over Indian towns. There are no visible leaders calling out to people to protest in one mode or another. Yet the country has found a way to speak truth to power.

There is also a new and brazen violence that has been unleashed—most visible in the police assaults on protesters in various districts of Uttar Pradesh and attacks on students of Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

On a fact-finding visit to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, I met a man who reminded me so much of my grandfather that it made my heart ache. The same brown complexion, gruff voice and familiar grey winter coat. Haji Hamid Hasan has been a well-to-do timber businessman and his home was attacked by police personnel who destroyed the interiors ruthlessly. His 14-year-old grandson had been beaten and detained and his son was still in prison when I met him with a team. His granddaughter lay in bed with head injuries while the rest of the family spoke in low voices as they recounted the violence they had endured.

The elderly man walked out of his home along with us and addressed two shopkeepers who have been his tenants for almost two decades. “Am I a bad man?" he asked loudly. “Tell them what a bad person I am, tell them how I have treated you all these years...."

And then he broke down. As I watched him cry, I wanted to hold him and address him as Dadaji. There were others with me who consoled him. The shopkeepers recounted how generous Haji Hasan had always been. “When someone is unwell in our home, he comes all the way to ask about how we are doing. He really takes care of us. We have never felt like we are different because we are Hindus and he is Muslim," one of them said.

We will repair what is broken, I resolve to myself at moments such as this, mostly to address the panic that begins to rise within me. The world has lived through crises before. Humans have been cruel to each other before and yet we have managed to restore peace. I try not to think of conflict zones that have never recovered. We will not be one of them. I was born in a peaceful India, I must participate in protecting and restoring it.

In conversations within circles of journalists, activists and otherwise concerned citizens, people wonder about the phenomenon of the protesting Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh, the students of Jamia and other places all over the country. Will the state respond with violence one day and force them to evict? Is this movement sustainable? What is its impact?

We don’t have a road map, we must learn to imagine anew.

Saida Sultana, my sister-in-law, calls me from Lucknow to get updates on the news. She has been to the home of the Muslim rickshaw-puller who was shot and killed on the first day of the protests in her city. She found out that his wife was a Hindu. The mother and the wife of the victim are sharing the financial help they are receiving.

“Can you tell them to not target students," Saida Aapa says rhetorically, days after the students of JNU have been attacked by armed mobs. “Just leave the children alone."

Unexpectedly, my mother also discusses the anti-CAA protests with me. She is visibly angry about the divisive nature of the Act. Something has touched people at their core, and many of those who have been quiet before are finding their voice.

At protest sites, the numbers continue to grow, drawing newer groups of people—both in curiosity and with a feeling of fraternity. The more we confront the grief of others, the more we find that our ability to connect with each other expands. We are surprised by the rush of energy that solidarity brings.

There is no doubt that we are living in extraordinary times—the kind of moment when the best of humanity is pitted against the worst we are capable of. This is not a time to rest. It is a time to soak in the inspiration, to allow oneself to be led, to find one’s voice and use it to empower the collective.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.

Twitter - @natashabadhwar

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