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How Shaheen Bagh became the idea of India

Two new books revisit the anti-CAA protests that began in Delhi and spread to other parts of the country

Women leading the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh on 1 January.
Women leading the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh on 1 January. (Mint)

Not long ago, before the pandemic took over our lives, the nation was shaken by perhaps the most powerful popular movement in recent memory. Started by ordinary Muslim women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, it was joined by people from a cross-section of religions, gender, caste and social status. As their protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) grew louder, similar movements, led by women and students, sprung up in other parts of the country. From Park Circus in Kolkata to Lucknow’s Ghantaghar to Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh, relatively less-known neighbourhoods in Indian cities began to fill up with people from all walks of life.

Shaheen Bagh: From A Protest To A Movement (Bloomsbury,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599) by journalists Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf.
Shaheen Bagh: From A Protest To A Movement (Bloomsbury, 599) by journalists Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf.

For weeks, speeches were made, poems recited, songs sung. The Preamble to the Constitution was read aloud in chorus. Political parties made attempts in between to oust the protesters; a man called Kapil Gurjar fired bullets at the gathering in Delhi; communal violence broke out. But the protesters stuck to the rulebook of non-violent agitation to the letter. Then the covid-19 lockdown forced the gatherings to end, and the buzz around Shaheen Bagh fell silent.

Public memory is fickle. It waxes and wanes with the news cycle. Memorialized in books, the history of our present stands a better chance of being preserved. And that’s what two new books on Shaheen Bagh do.

Shaheen Bagh And The Idea Of India (Speaking Tiger, 450), edited by journalist Seema Mustafa, is a thoughtfully curated anthology of writings and photographs that document the origins, scope and continuing legacy of the movement. The second book, Shaheen Bagh: From A Protest To A Movement (Bloomsbury, 599) by journalists Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf, coming out later this month, has a similar purpose—of understanding the value of the movement in India’s polity and social life.

Until 15 December, when women came out of their homes for a sit-in protest against the CAA and NRC, not many were aware of the existence of a neighbourhood like Shaheen Bagh. But within days the name came to signify much more than a geographical site: Shaheen Bagh became a metonym for the democratic ideals of the Indian nation. It was invoked to refer to the constitutional principles that bind the citizenry together: fellow feeling, compassion, kindness.

Yet, as both books argue, “Shaheen Bagh" isn’t just a blip in the annals of contemporary Indian history. Rather, it reminded us—Indian citizens—of what should be the norm, as set by our Constitution. The principles of equality and liberty that our founding fathers and mothers fought for came alive on the streets and alleys of India, thanks to the women of Shaheen Bagh, and others around the country.

Each writer and photographer involved in these books records the moments of hope and hopelessness that the anti-CAA protests witnessed. There are stirring first-person accounts by homemakers who came out of purdah to oppose a law that could turn millions like them stateless overnight; stories of songs, poems and posters created; postcards written to the prime minister; biryani and hot tea served on cold nights. There are also essays on the vulnerability of women under the NRC and CAA, the debate over bringing children to the protests, and legal perspectives on the road ahead.

However, beyond the theories, concepts and historical analogies, what remain are the extraordinary stories of fortitude, resilience and unity. The idea of Shaheen Bagh, as the title of one of the books puts it, has indeed become the idea of India.

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