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The old guard: meet the elderly protesters of Zakir Nagar and Shaheen Bagh

Despite ill-health and the biting cold, senior citizens have been a resilient force in CAA-NRC protests across the country. Lounge speaks to those who have been in attendance daily in Zakir Nagar and Shaheen Bagh

Bilkis (left) at Shaheen Bagh
Bilkis (left) at Shaheen Bagh (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

At 8.30 pm on 5 January, the pavements on either side of the road leading up to Zakir Nagar dhalan (slope) in south Delhi are dotted with a cortège of flickering lights. Vehicles move without disruption, except to stop and marvel briefly at the silent protest that has been happening here every night since 16 December. Residents of the colony stand solemnly until 11pm, holding up candles or placards against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA).

An inconspicuous presence among the protesters is Shakeela Bano, 60, who has been in attendance every day except the last two, since she fell down and injured her hip. Otherwise, even in Delhi’s biting cold and times of ill-health, she shows up. “It’s tiring to stand for so many hours, and I have an injury, I have had fever, but we do it. For those who were killed in Uttar Pradesh, for the students who were beaten in Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI)."

Like Bano, senior citizens have been a constant and resilient force in protests across the country. Earlier this week, visuals of an elderly gentleman grooving to chants of azadi in the Mumbai protests went viral, and 101-year-old freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy was in the news for participating in the satyagraha in Bengaluru.

Across both Shaheen Bagh and Zakir Nagar, old men and women have braved one of the coldest winters the Capital has seen in 100 years to show up day after day to register their protest against the CAA, which will fast-track the process of granting Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and the proposed nation-wide NRC (National Register of Citizens)—requiring people to prove their citizenship.

Among these elderly protesters is Amrit Khan, 70, who has lived in Zakir Nagar for around 40 years. As he arrives dressed in a grey kurta-pyjama, brown shawl and Nehru topi, children salute him and say Jai Hind, his young grandson hands him a candle and a placard that reads “India is my motherland". Originally from the village of Pari Chowk in Greater Noida, Khan remembers a childhood of plurality and brotherhood among communities. “The Hindu and Muslim children would study in schools together, they would study Urdu and we would study Sanskrit, our elders had done the same," he says. “The division lies only among our politicians."

It is this generation that may have the original documentation that would be required for the NRC. When the process was implemented in Assam last year, people had to produce documents issued before 24 March 1971 as evidence that they or their ancestors were residing in India before that date, and then proof of relationship with those ancestors. However, since then, there has been confusion about the documents that would be considered valid in such a scenario. Some suggest voter IDs, driving licences and passports would not be sufficient proof.

However, those we spoke to have various reasons for resisting the process—defiance against discrimination, helplessness against the loss of those identity certificates over time and solidarity with those who may not possess the papers for reasons of social, gendered or economic exclusion. “Humare buzurg mar gaye, husband mar gaye. Hum kya qabar mein se nikal ke laye bole unhe, ki ‘kagaz la ke do humein’ (My elders are dead, my husband is dead. Now do you expect me to go and pull them out of the grave to ask them where the papers are)?" says Bano. “And even if I have them, I will not show them to anyone. I don’t need to prove my credentials. This is my home."

Ahmed Ashraf, 65, a vaid (practitioner of alternative medicine) in Zakir Nagar, says that though he may have papers, he has been around since the time Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister, and there can be no question that this is his home. But he points out the bureaucratic hurdles people may face, given that common documents may not be accepted as proof of citizenship. “You have invalidated the passport, you have invalidated the Aadhaar card, ration card, voter ID. Who keeps such old revenue documents? And even those who have them have to deal with spelling errors," he says. Khan also mentions that those who live on the fringes of society—like banjaras, or gypsies—do not have documentation to begin with.

Perhaps what truly sets these seniors apart is their lack of fear, given that the nearby JMI has seen the police entering the university library, beating students and reportedly firing bullets. In Shaheen Bagh, 82-year-old Bilkis sits every day from 11am until late into the night. On the first day of 2020, she returned to the protest site early in the morning, after having brought in the new year with thousands who had gathered there the night before. “We are not afraid of anyone—not any politician and not the police," she says, tasbih (prayer beads) in hand. “Detention centre bana rahe hain, wahan rehne se behtar hai hum mar jaye (We would rather die than live in a detention centre)."

Bilkis says that it is the idea of a plural India that she and her late husband grew up with that she is fighting for, “despite all odds". “They passed the Babri Masjid verdict, triple talaq law, demonetization, we didn’t say anything, but we will not stand for this division," says Bilkis.

Haji Naseebullah, an 82-year-old cancer survivor, travelled from Zaidpur in Uttar Pradesh to show solidarity
Haji Naseebullah, an 82-year-old cancer survivor, travelled from Zaidpur in Uttar Pradesh to show solidarity (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Haji Naseebullah, an 82-year-old cancer survivor seated on the stage, has travelled from Zaidpur in Uttar Pradesh to show solidarity. “Take it in writing, and I will sign it—they will never succeed in dividing us. Hitler did not succeed, nor did the British, toh yeh kaun hai (so who do these people think they are)?" he says.

Back in Zakir Nagar, protesters speak to each other in murmurs—of the Constitution and their rights, of the flag and how it represents true diversity, of peace and promises. “We brought this government to power and now they are trying to take away ours," says Bano of Zakir Nagar, who also shows up at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia during the day to show solidarity.

Over the last year, there have been contradictory claims from the Union home minister and the Prime Minister —even as Amit Shah, in April, had spoken of a “chronology", wherein the NRC follows the National Population Register and CAA, Narendra Modi said in a speech on 22 December that there had been no discussion on NRC within his government. There is also ambiguity regarding what will happen to those who are excluded from the NRC—Modi says no detention centres are being built, though there have been reports of one nearing completion in Assam.

Khan, who used to run a furniture business, puts his placard aside and adjusts his cap. He recalls the 1965 war, a difficult time to live through. “Why are you looking to throw out Muslims from this country? Have we not contributed to the prosperity of this country? If there is Lata Mangeshkar, there is also Mohammed Rafi. We have cricketers and wrestlers from the community as well. One of the heroes of the 1965 war was Abdul Hamid, from Ghazipur. If he had thought this was not his land, we may not have won that war," says Khan.

A common refrain among the elderly, however, is that they are there for the younger generation—that is who they are fighting for, it is they who have the responsibility of ensuring a secular, non-divisive and non-communal India moving forward. “Humara kya? Humari toh umar khatam ho gayi. In bachchon ke liye khadi hoon. Desh ke bhavishya ke liye khadi hoon (We are old now and our lives are drawing to a close, I am am standing here for these children, I am standing here for the future of this country)," says Bano.

As he is about to leave, Khan recites two lines from an old song from the film Jagriti, his ode to children and youth across the country.

Hum laye hain toofan se kashti nikal kar,

is desh ko mere bachche, rakhna sambhal kar.

(We have rescued the ship from the storm

It is now your duty to take good care of this country, my child.)

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