Can Coronavirus End the Shaheen Bagh Stalemate At last?
An outbreak of the novel coronavirus that began in China about three months ago has caused a global pandemic—infecting more than 246,276 people and killing over 10,038. In India alone, there are about 194 positive cases of COVID-19, out of which 17 have been reported from New Delhi.
With their indomitable spirit, they have blatantly refused to evacuate the site even as concerns of their vulnerability amidst the coronavirus pandemic continue to grow. The important question that thus needs to be raised here is wether an elusive middle ground between the government and the Shaheen Bagh women can be found in times of the ongoing public health crisis.
Shaheen Bagh: Victories & Setbacks
The protest at Shaheen Bagh—led by women, predominantly Muslim, since mid-December last year—against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has captured the imagination of many Indians. For these women, the peaceful sit-in is as much about combating bigotry, politics and misogyny as it is about their own very existence and identity. With exemplary resilience, the women at Shaheen Bagh have continued to demand the rollback of the CAA through the coldest winter’s nights, the hailstorms and the rain and even through the violent communal riots in the North-east Delhi.
For instance, in early January, Amit Malviya, BJP’s social media head alleged in a tweet that women participating in the Shaheen Bagh protest were being paid by the Congress. Several other prominent right-wing leaders followed the rhetoric. In fact, on various occasions the Shaheen Bagh women have been branded as ‘jihadis’ or ‘traitors’. But despite the constant repression, these women have refused to stop.
Shaheen Bagh Put the BJP On a Back Foot
Nonetheless, the Shaheen Bagh protest has definitely put the BJP on a back foot. The first sign of this was visible when PM Modi provided justifications regarding the CAA and announced a hold on the National Register of Citizens and National Population Register. In addition, BJP’s ploy to campaign on the lines of the CAA failed miserably and instead, served as one of the major factor responsible for their defeat in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. Moreover, on 12 March, the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah assured that no one will be marked as doubtful citizens during the NPR updation.
Although, victories in some sense, this is not what the Shaheen Bagh women are satisfied with. What they do want, however, is the government to completely withdraw the CAA. And therefore, at a time when the entire world is battling the coronavirus, women at Shaheen Bagh are not ready to end their stir until they achieve their goal.
With Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister, barring all social or political gatherings, the Delhi Police has held a series of talks with various stakeholders to end the ongoing protests. A public interest litigation has also been filed, demanding the SC’s intervention to evict all protestors. But for the Shaheen Bagh women, the CAA is a much bigger threat than the coronavirus pandemic.
Can COVID-19 End the Stalemate?
The coronavirus threat might have put the national capital in a dangerous situation but it is highly unlikely that the pandemic will succeed in breaking the longstanding stalemate between the government and the Shaheen Bagh protestors.
Evidently, till now, the Shaheen Bagh women have shown no signs of relenting from their position. They have remained firm in their demand of uprooting the CAA. At the same time, even the BJP has maintained its stand of not budging an inch on the issue. The very fact that the BJP leaders are ready to clear the “doubts” of the protestors regarding the CAA reflects the government’s inflexibility on the newly formulated citizenship law.
Besides, the BJP leaders have not even made an effort to instigate one-on-one conversation with the women protestors. Despite Amit Shah’s offer to talk to the demonstrators in February, which saw a number of anti-CAA protestors march to his residence, no dialogue took place. The marchers were, in fact, forced to return empty handed. In the aftermath of which, the BJP government has only been defending their position by stating that the Shaheen Bagh protestors are deprived of proper leadership to hold talks with.
Public Health Concerns to Trump CAA Concerns?
And now that the government has, perforce, had to concentrate its efforts in spreading awareness about COVID-19 and preparing adequate responses to meet the potential consequences of the disease, it has conveniently handed the responsibility to deal with the Shaheen Bagh protestors over to the SC. The two-judge bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Jospeh will take a call on the blockade in Shaheen Bagh on Monday, 23rd March. So clearly, there is no reconciliation or dialogue that will be happening directly between the government and the protestors.
Considering that the BJP is not even minutely interested in listening to the grievances of the Shaheen Bagh women, finding a middle ground in times of COVID-19 pandemic also seems like a distant reality. But will this public health crisis bring the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest to its end? The SC’s hearing on Monday will tell us the answer.
(Akanksha Khullar is Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS) at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)