Protest in Time of Pandemic: How Will Shaheen Bagh Counter Corona?

In light of coronavirus pandemic, what lies ahead for Shaheen Bagh and other anti-CAA sit-in protests across India? 

Updated
India
8 min read
Shaheen Bagh protesters sitting on wooden beds during Coronavirus pandemic threat.
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Extreme cold. Vicious fake propaganda. A communally-charged election. Worst Hindu-Muslim violence in years. Shaheen Bagh, a sit-in protest against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act has endured it all for more than three months.

But now with the coronavirus pandemic almost shutting down the world and claiming at least 125 cases in India, what lies ahead for Shaheen Bagh and all the other anti-CAA protests across the country inspired from this sit-in?

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, on Monday, 16 March, while announcing the measures his government is taking to avoid large gatherings in the city said the restrictions of not allowing more than 50 people in one place also applies to protests.

How Are Shaheen Bagh and Other Sit-ins Planning to Curb Coronavirus?

By now, dozens of baghs on the model of Shaheen Bagh has come up across India, in metro cities and small towns.

SHAHEEN BAGH:
While Shaheen Bagh organisers said they are yet to take a call whether to completely disband the protest and have been conducting regular meetings with the Delhi police, many who were supporting the women sit-in have now urged the protest to be called owing to the health risks.

A volunteer who has been helping in organising the protest said, “The women have been coming to protest for so many days. It is very difficult to disband the entire protest overnight. We are in talks and trying to convince them of the immediate health emergency. So far, we have also asked few doctors to come and spread awareness about the need of at least reducing the number of protesters to 50 at one point of time.”

To maintain “social distancing” and follow the precautions, the organisers at Shaheen Bagh have arranged for wooden beds, masks and hand sanitizers for the protesters.

With less crowd during afternoon, women could sit in a comparatively more spaced out manner at Shaheen Bagh on Tuesday.
With less crowd during afternoon, women could sit in a comparatively more spaced out manner at Shaheen Bagh on Tuesday.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
By evening, as the crowd swelled, the women were sitting on the floor. Some women were also seen wearing masks.
By evening, as the crowd swelled, the women were sitting on the floor. Some women were also seen wearing masks.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

BILAL BAGH (BENGALURU):

The organisers of Bengaluru’s Shaheen Bagh-style protest in Bilal Bagh has decided to continue the protest. Saquib, one of the organisers, said, “We are trying to get handmade masks and trying to spread awareness about coronavirus. We can’t stop the crowd from coming. From 7-10 PM, the crowd swells up to 200-250 people. We try to cut it down to 150 at least.”

“We are sitting in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh. There are a lot of other Baghs across India who have lent support to Shaheen Bagh. None of the other Baghs have got up till now because Shaheen Bagh has not taken a call.”
Saquib, Organiser, Bilal Bagh Protest
The women in Bilal Bagh have refused to call off the protest till Shaheen Bagh does.
The women in Bilal Bagh have refused to call off the protest till Shaheen Bagh does.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

In a statement, Bilal Bagh organisers said, “As the first bagh to take the inititiave, in light of the health of everyone, we are ready to make an exit point to the bagh provided the chief minister of Karnataka addresses the women and students of Bilal Bagh and answer their doubtful questions.”

Protest in Time of Pandemic: How Will Shaheen Bagh Counter Corona?

MUMBAI BAGH:

Rubaid Ali Bhojani, organiser of the Mumbai Bagh protest, another Shaheen Bagh inspired sit-in, said, “We have issued a notice asking protesters with severe diseases, senior citizens and those who brought their kids to not come to Mumbai Bagh because coronavirus has been affecting people with weaker immunity systems.”

However, this does not reduce the risk of community-wide spread since if a young person, infected with COVID-19, not showing the symptoms, comes to the protest, they can infect another young person who in turn may infect an elderly/low-immunity person somewhere else.

Epidemiologists have been talking about the need to ‘flatten’ the curve of the virus as it spreads across the world in order to avoid a high jump in numbers. This flattening will delay the peak and spread it out. This delay will give us more time to develop vaccines and figure out treatment options.

Since India is still in its initial phase of the epidemic, timely interventions can perhaps work in doing just this.

Ali further says, “We have also made some provisions for handwash in the washrooms near the protest site. Our volunteers are standing at the entry points of the protest site with hand sanitizers and masks. We also have an in-house team of doctors who are conducting medical check ups. We have requested BMC officials to help us sanitize the place too.

When asked if they are planning to call off the protest, Ali says:

“Since there has been no face of the movement, it is quite difficult that one person asks the protest to be called off and people stop coming. But we are exploring options.”
Protesters wear mask to Mumbai Bagh sit-in, provided with hand sanitizers at entry point.
Protesters wear mask to Mumbai Bagh sit-in, provided with hand sanitizers at entry point.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
Protesters seen sitting on chairs placed at a distance from each other in Mumbai Bagh.
Protesters seen sitting on chairs placed at a distance from each other in Mumbai Bagh.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

CHENNAI’S SHAHEEN BAGH:

In Chennai, the protest inspired by Shaheen Bagh, in Washermenpet, has been temporarily suspended from Wednesday, 18 March. The organisers, in a statement, said, “Once the situation gets better, we would continue our protests with renewed vigour till the TN assembly passes a resolution against CAA-NPR-NRC.”

Meanwhile, protesters gathered in large numbers in another part of Chennai raising slogans against NPR, CAA and NRC.

PUNE:

Like Shaheen Bagh, Bilal Bagh and Mumbai Bagh, the organisers of the Pune protest have also decided to continue the protest but with fewer people.

‘Urgent Need to Scale Down The Number of Protesters at a Given Point of Time’

Shaheen Bagh ki dadis have made headlines far and wide but they also fall under the demography that is the most vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. The disease has proven fatal for the elderly with low immunity across the world. Even in India, the three people who had died due to the virus are all above the age of 65 years.

Poet Hussain Haidry, whose 2017 poem ‘Hindustani Musalmaan’ rang out in many a anti-CAA protests across the country said there is an urgent need to scale down the protests or continue them symbolically. Speaking to The Quint, he said:

“The protesters should not be seen as fools but looked at with empathy. They are sitting there with a cause and one cannot disregard the cause completely overnight. But owing to the health emergency, one must seek a middle ground and continue the protest symbolically.”

In a Facebook post, he suggested that only three women can sit on the stage at one given point. He suggests the women can sit in shifts with enough “social distance” between them and proper checks and precautions need to be taken care of.

[Important: Regarding Protests] I have a suggestion that can perhaps help us continue the protests and also use the...

Posted by Hussain Haidry on Sunday, March 15, 2020

“As an addition, if we must, we have at most five to seven women only sitting in the vast space in the pandal. Not more than ten women in any protest area, all spaced out far from each other. All of them would be checked medically, too,” Haidry adds in his Facebook post.

This is a suggestion that Ali, organiser of the Mumbai Bagh protest, said is being considered and a decision will be taken in a meeting soon.

‘Need to Tone Down the Panic to Turn the Narrative in Our Favour’

Haidry is skeptical that “the government and its propaganda machines can severely harm our movement and our community if we continue the protests at full scale now”. He says there is an urgent need to scale down the protest to a symbolic level to keep the narrative alive.

To do that, he suggests to continue using the counter on the number of days the protests have been going on in banners, photos and in other symbolic ways.

We don’t create an impression of panic because of our mass gatherings; we tone down the panic to keep the true narrative going. We don’t alienate the people joining the protests; we tell them that it’s on and running, and that their presence back there is only a matter of time. And much awaited.”

When asked if the movement can be continued exclusively on social media, Haidry says, “It might not be feasible since the troll army on social media is in a bigger number than those opposing the citizenship act. The protest need to continue on ground in some symbolic way.”

‘Protests Need to Move Beyond a Sit-in’

Former JNU student leader Umar Khalid, who is associated with a citizen’s campaign called ‘United Against Hate’ and has been in the forefront of several protests since December, says, “The movement has always been in the interest of the country and taking precautions during a health emergency is also in the interest of the nation.”

“Even if there was no coronavirus, we need to think of taking the movement beyond a sit-in. Yes, maybe, I would have talked about the next step a few days later had the pandemic not hit us. But we do need to think of new strategies to continue the protest,” Khalid said.

Moreover, he says, “If not completely, at least partially the movement has been successful in putting pressure on the government. Home Minister Amit Shah, in the parliament, said that nobody will be marked ‘D’ or ‘Doubtful’ in the NPR exercise but unless the government brings out a notification, we need to think of a new strategy to stop door-to-door NPR exercise. And that will not be possible if all protesters gather and do a sit-in in one place.”

Pranav Sawhney, who has been regularly compiling lists of the protests against CAA-NRC-NPR across the country, says the fact that at least 12 states and union territories have taken a stand against NPR/NRC shows accomplishment of the protests at some level. He writes on an Instagram post:

"...in the face of an aggressive pandemic, these protest sites are hugely vulnerable. I appeal to all the inquilabi women at the forefront of this protest to consider taking a break. This is not a mark of failure. This makes for a great time to resist, rest and reconvene for next steps. I am fully cognisant of my lack of agency in this decision, but I appeal nonetheless for a weighted decision to be made."

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