22-year-old Sadaf was working in her office at Shaheen Bagh when bulldozers made their way through the crowd to attempt and bring down allegedly “illegal” structures on 9 May. As one of the backend executives of a clothing brand, her job—which happens to be her first one— requires her to be in the office from 9 am to 5 pm. The said office is just one lane away from the site of the attempted demolition. While she remained relatively unmoved by the chaos and commotion when the bulldozers attracted huge crowds in resistance, her friends—Shweta and Rinky—became evidently restless.
“We stayed put inside our office, but could hear the noises from outside, and were also tracking the live visuals on our phones,” the three friends told The Quint on 12 May, days after the incident. “We are not from here, we come from the opposite end of the city, so our families were also worried,” Shweta and Rinky emphasised.
While Sadaf was understanding of their fears, she didn’t feel much anxiety herself. “Ab kaisa dar, ab aadat hogayi hai! (What fear now, I am used to all this by now)”, she said, with a smirk.
Unlike her two colleagues, Sadaf was born and brought up in the lanes of Shaheen Bagh, and said that the last few years have rendered her “immune to the endless demonisation.”
But despite this ostensible nonchalance, there still lies dread over what worse could happen. It is for this reason that she wasn’t comfortable with her picture being clicked. “I wear the Hijab, and you know how things are these days on that front also,” she said. Shweta chimed in and added jokingly: “Kal ko pata chale Sadaf ki photo nikal aaye aur police isko uthane aajaye (What if tomorrow Sadaf’s photo comes out and the police comes and picks her up)". The three friends laughed and went back to their office as their lunch break ended.
Media Attention Since Anti-CAA Protests 'Suffocating'
The demonisation that Sadaf referred to has to do with a series of onslaughts the locality was subject to during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests. Shaheen Bagh became the epicenter of the protests in the national capital from late 2019 to early 2020, before the Covid pandemic hit and the protests had to face an unexpected end. But during the course of the widespread protests, it was the Shaheen Bagh template that was followed and replicated across various parts of the country—from Hyderabad to Jaipur, as each city’s own sit-in model of protest against the Act touted as discriminatory.
For many who frequented the Shaheen Bagh protests, it symbolised a certain joy of resistance and camaraderie in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and odds. But for the local residents of Shaheen Bagh, that is only one part of the story.
Hussain, a local shopkeeper in Shaheen Bagh, recalled the protests as “a big mistake."
“Yes, we were fighting for our constitutional rights, and that is important. But since then, Shaheen Bagh’s name has been associated with all sorts of nonsense, no one even knew of Shaheen Bagh before that. But now, it is constantly in the limelight and godi media vilifies us, it has become suffocating,” he said.
Hussain then talked about a video he watched a few days ago, one that has now been circulated across whatsapp groups all over the country.
Impact of the 'Bangladeshi Infiltration' Narrative
In the said video, a ‘journalist’ is walking around in Shaheen Bagh, and stopping passers-by to inquire about their background and where they have come from, to which most reply with “Bangladesh.” The interviewer then asks several leading questions like, “Did you come here by flight or by crossing the fence?”, and “Is Kejriwal giving you free electricity and food here?”
The video was shared by many across social media, including BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay.
“It’s really weird. I have spent my entire childhood here, and I have barely seen any Bangladeshis. But the minute any media shows up, these 'Bangladeshis' also appear out of nowhere,” 23-year-old Anas, a resident of Shaheen Bagh said.
According to a news report by AltNews, several of those interviewed in the video are actually Bangladeshi tourists who have come to India to for embassy-related work. But the video, and the messaging, had already done its damage.
The people of Shaheen Bagh, however, aren’t new to this kind of defamation and hostility.
In January 2020, at the peak of the anti-CAA movement, Gunja Kapoor, who runs a YouTube channel called 'Right Narrative', disguised herself in a burqa and entered the protest site. The situation got out of hand when the protestors recognised her and called her out on her deceit, and the police had to intervene to pacify the matter.
Around the same time, anchor Deepak Chaurasia, consulting editor at News Nation TV channel, was heckled when he went to report at the site. Many TV channels tried to insinuate that the protestors are “paid”, which made them all the more wary and ultimately resulted in them setting up a “media registration desk” at the site to ensure there is no provocative media reportage of the historic protests.
The distrust in much of the mainstream media is still a prominent sentiment among the people of Shaheen Bagh.
“The media sensationalises everything that happens here. Even if it doesn’t happen in Shaheen Bagh, but happens in a locality close to it, they will take Shaheen Bagh’s name. For example, there was a drug raid a few kilometers away from Shaheen Bagh, but the media kept using Shaheen Bagh’s name in its headline to sell the story,” said Saud Ahmed Qureshi, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia who has been staying in Shaheen Bagh for the last 5 years.
Burst of Political Activity Viewed With Skepticism
But it isn’t just the media, several politicians have actively participated in this demonisation of Shaheen Bagh. Most notably when ahead of the 2020 Delhi assembly elections, BJP’s Parvesh Verma, the West Delhi MP said that Shaheen Bagh protesters will “enter your house… abduct your sisters and mothers, rape them, kill them the way militants had treated Kashmiri Pandits”.
BJP’s Kapil Mishra had tweeted that “Pakistani rioters had encroached on the roads of Delhi” during the protests. In fact, Home Minister Amit Shah himself had led the election campaign by asking for the voters to press the button on the voting machine with such force that “its current is felt at Shaheen Bagh”.
Given the backdrop of this persistent vilification, it was noteworthy to see members of various political parties hitting the field during the demolition drive in Shaheen Bagh last week. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s Amanatullah Khan, Congress‘ local leaders advocate Arfa Khanam and Delhi media cell incharge Parvez Alam, AIMIM’s Kaleemul Hafeez were all present—resisting the bulldozer action. The visuals of Khanam climbing atop the bulldozer in a bid to stop it from moving forward, went viral.
Amantullah Khan, who is the MLA of Okhla constituency in which Shaheen Bagh lies, then also participated in a similar protest two days later against the demolition drive in Madanpur Khadar and got arrested. He was later released.
But the residents of Shaheen Bagh take the burst political activism and activity with a pinch of salt. “Yes, they did what they were supposed to do. As elected representatives, or as those who are interested in making a name for themselves in politics, this was their responsibility and duty, nothing else,” said Imran, a 40-year-old resident who runs his own business.
Moreover, many haven’t also forgotten how AAP leader and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal distanced himself from the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protests and even said, "If Delhi Police was under our jurisdiction, we would have cleared the Shaheen Bagh roads in 2 hours”.
“Just like Modi thinks 100 times before making any decision, Kejriwal works on similar lines. There is hardly any politician who can be completely trusted in these times,” said Shan Muhammad, a worker in the dairy market. “But it’s okay, something is better than nothing,” he added.
Despite these misgivings, several shopkeepers in Okhla, including Shaheen Bagh, shut their shops for a day when Amanatullah Khan was arrested on 13 May, in solidarity with the MLA.
The AAP was heavily criticised for pushing the “Bangladeshi/Rohingya infiltrators” narrative after the Jahangirpuri demolition last month. The party was also largely absent on the ground, with a leader from the party showing up well after 24 hours of the demolition drive there.
Saud recalled a demolition drive that took place in Dhobi ghat near Batla House back in September 2020. “That area has even poorer people, but you will not see any politician there, because they know that Shaheen Bagh has all the media attention they cannot afford to miss being seen here on such occasions. It’s all about optics,” he said. “Yes, there is a fascination with Shaheen Bagh. But ultimately it is a normal locality with normal sewage and water-supply related issues. It would be good if politicians focus on these things too,” he added.
A Language of 'Brotherhood' Since Batla House Encounter
After hours of clamour, the bulldozers had to eventually recede, as the residents themselves pulled down the scaffolding that was objectionable. In the entire stretch of the market, some shopkeepers had put their store shutters half-down while others had properly locked their stores—fearing that things might get escalated.
But Mohammad Aslam, an AC mechanic in the area, didn't describe the day as being replete with fear, but with “josh (energy)”.
“Woh chaati thok ke aaye aur muh neeche karke gaye (They came beating their chests, but went back with their faces disappointed),” he said.
Aslam described Shaheen Bagh as a place with a language of its own—after having seen all that it has.
Not too far from here lies Batla House, which witnessed the notorious encounter case in 2008.
“L-18, right?”, Sahil, a 25-year-old resident remembered the address where the encounter took place, like it was yesterday.
“There would be so much police here all the time, so much terror over who could face the stick next...we learnt to stand by each other as a result. We had no other option,” he said.
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