‘There Was No Grand Plan To Start A Movement From Shaheen Bagh’

BOOK EXCERPT: ‘Shaheen Bagh & the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality’

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Book cover of ‘Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality’, published by Speaking Tiger Books (2020) –– used for representational purposes.
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(DISCLAIMER: The following has been excerpted, with permission, from the chapter ‘The Night of Broken Glass: 15 December 2019’ by journalist and author Seemi Pasha, from the book of essays titled ‘Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality’, edited by Seema Mustafa. This work has been published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.)

(NOTE: The sub-headings are NOT part of the original text, and have been added by The Quint.)

Something snapped inside them that night. Maybe it was the fragile trust they had in the men in uniform who had taken an oath to protect them; or the belief, severely tested in recent years, that the State might be unfair to them, but it would never publicly violate them. They had always been offered assurances, however empty, that the state machinery was there to protect them. Call it naivety, but it came from the conviction that as citizens of the world’s largest and uniquely secular democracy, they enjoyed certain privileges.

That night they realised they had no one to turn to but one another.

“We Were Terrified”

As the sound of gunshots reverberated in Jamia Millia Islamia—where students had been demonstrating peacefully against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—and the air filled with clouds of tear gas, people from nearby ghettos started pouring out onto the streets. There was fear, panic, disbelief and chaos. What if their children had been shot, brutalised or detained? People started knocking on their neighbours’ doors and informing those who hadn’t heard the news. Within minutes their phones were buzzing with videos of students being dragged into the streets by policemen and mercilessly assaulted with lathis. There were reports of cops entering the campus library, the university mosque, classrooms and even the girls’ hostel. As pictures of bleeding and battered students went viral, people started running towards the university campus to save their children.

Thirty-eight-year-old Malka, a resident of Shaheen Bagh, said she was preparing dinner when she got a call from a sobbing friend whose daughter was trapped inside the campus. She left the vegetables half-cut on the kitchen counter, the masala half-cooked on the stove, picked up her dupatta and made a dash for the door.

“By the time I reached (Jamia) it was almost dark. We could not make out the faces, but we saw girls jumping over the boundary walls and running towards the adjoining Batla House. My friend could not find her daughter and her mobile phone was unreachable. I will never forget that hour we spent walking around looking for her. We were terrified. We finally got a call from her saying that she had managed to get away.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Malka, a resident of Shaheen Bagh, to Seemi Pasha

Even after she realised that her friend’s daughter was safe, Malka stayed behind on campus trying to help as many students as she could.

“We Were Sitting On The Road Already –– And We Decided To Continue Sitting”

Nineteen-year-old Humza (name changed), who passed out of the university-run senior secondary school in 2019, recalled that he was studying in the campus library when a team of cops in riot gear and armed with lathis barged in.

“They started breaking windows and chairs and throwing books on the floor. We were completely taken by surprise. We got up and started running out from the back but they chased after us saying, ‘Saale katue, tumhe azadi chahiye? Aao hum dete hain azadi (You want freedom, come, we’ll give you a taste of freedom).’” (‘Katue’, a derogatory term for men who are circumcised, is used almost exclusively to refer to Muslim men.)

Twenty-seven-year-old Mushtaq (name changed), who runs a small business in the neighbourhood, got onto a bike and rushed to the university campus when he heard the news.

“There were close to two lakh people on the streets all over Okhla. We reached the campus and started taking injured students to nearby hospitals. We did not know what else to do.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Mushtaq (name changed) to Seemi Pasha

Mushtaq could not quite remember who asked him to go to Shaheen Bagh. “Some messages were sent out asking people to reach the bus stop at Shaheen Bagh near Kalindi Kunj.” When he reached there, he found close to fifteen thousand people standing on the road that connects Delhi with Noida.

“We sat down on the pavements and on the road and started talking about what needed to be done. Some people arrived with anti-CAA posters and tricolours. Someone suggested that we block the road in protest. We were sitting on the road already and we decided to continue sitting,” he said.

‘It Was Clear That There Was No Leader Or Mastermind’

There was no grand plan, no design, and no intention to start a movement from Shaheen Bagh, but one thing led to another, and before they knew it, they were at the centre of a powerful protest.

The men who had managed to block traffic for almost six days, following the police crackdown in Jamia, knew that the cops could scuttle their protest whenever they wanted, so a handful of women offered to sit there. Someone loaded a few carpets and blankets onto a rickshaw and brought them to the bus stop at Shaheen Bagh.

Some fifteen or so women huddled together under the cold winter sky on the first night of their historic protest.

By next evening, a tent had come up to protect them from icy winds and fog. Women from the neighbourhood who were not able to sit out all day because of their household duties, started bringing hot tea and home-cooked food in the evenings. Someone set up a small music system to play patriotic songs from old Bollywood films.

Within a few days a stage came up with a mic for public announcements, speeches and poetry recitals. 

Young students from the Fine Arts Department of Jamia Millia Islamia took charge of the art work, printing and painting posters, making graffiti and putting up art installations. Volunteers from NGOs pitched in with a medical centre and legal cell. As the crowd swelled, packets of the now infamous biryani started arriving from nearby eateries to be distributed at mealtimes.

As in any organic protest, individuals and small groups started volunteering, taking charge and assuming responsibilities.

Soon fluid structures started emerging from the initial chaos, but it was clear that there was no leader, organiser or, as the government would like to call it, ‘mastermind’.

(The opinions expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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