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Citizenship as Participation: Muslim Women Protestors of Shaheen Bagh

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The peaceful indefinite sit-in by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh has become the epicentre of nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act–National Population Register–National Register of Citizens, as the protestors have brought to the fore a protest performative that is to be comprehended beyond the physical protest site. As a people’s protest in the true sense, it contests the state’s excessive urge to define and dominate, and flags pressing concerns vis-à-vis discrimination in the face of a consumerism-driven argument of inconvenience. In doing so, the protestors help us understand resistance as an expression of belonging and citizenship as a participatory tool, rather than a status granted by the state on the basis of select documents.

By Irfanullah Farooqi

Ever since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 (CAB 2019) was tabled in Parliament, there has been a visible unrest in the country. As the bill turned into an act (Citizenship [Amendment] Act [CAA] 2019) on 12 December 2019, the unrest spread like wildfire. Seen alongside the lined-up National Population Register (NPR), a six-month exercise to be conducted between 1 April 2020 and 30 September 2020, and the impending National Register of Citizens (NRC), the CAA is opposed for its discriminatory and anti-constitutional character. It subscribes to a disturbingly restricted understanding of minorities, religious persecution, and India’s neighbourhood.

While protests, marches, and demonstrations have punctuated the national life of India for the past few weeks, the peaceful sit-in by women at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi has become the epicentre of the nationwide protests against the CAA, NPR, and NRC. As I write this, Shaheen Bagh, through its unusuallanguage of resistance and a somewhat unique claim vis-à-vis belonging hasalready inspired people in several cities to join hands for peaceful indefinite sit-ins. So far, we have been informed of sit-ins in Kolkata, Gaya, Kanpur, Allahabad, Bengaluru, and Deoband. InDelhi itself, peaceful sit-ins at Khureji, Seelampur, Turkman Gate, Kardam Puri, Mustafabad, and Inderlok have registered their presence.

The Site and the Protestors

Shaheen Bagh, also called Abul Fazal Enclave Part II, is the southernmost colony of Okhla. With almost 100% Muslim population, the colony came into being in the early 1980s. Although it is a part of the larger Jamia Nagar area, it remained a colony rarely visited by those visiting Jamia Nagar from other areas of Delhi. For a very long time,Jamia Nagar has been frequented by people from all over Delhi for food.Hotels, restaurants, and eating joints in Zakir Nagar, Batla House, Tikona Park, and Abul Fazal Enclave cater to hundreds of non-Jamia Nagar customers everyday. Shaheen Bagh never figured in that list. However, the colony shot to prominence with its market along Road 13A (the one that connects Mathura Road with Kalindi Kunj and is currently blocked by the protestors) with a significantly long line of factory outlets of major brands offering discount all year round. So, it was through the sale offers at Nike, Adidas, Monte Carlo, Woodland, Reebok, and so on that people got to know the place, but needless to say, not the people.


The people of Shaheen Bagh have remained somewhere behind the well-lit factory outlets. The women of Shaheen Bagh were further behind, a little beyond the unknown. However, with the peaceful sit-in at Shaheen Bagh that has turned into its second month now, the women of the area have come forward in the most unanticipated way possible. It started as a humble demonstration against the Delhi Police beating Jamia Millia Islamia University students on 13 December 2019. However, the brutal crackdown in Jamia that took place on the evening of 15 December 2019 turned the Shaheen Bagh protest into something else. Hundreds of Muslim women sat on Road 13A that connects Delhi to Noida, and ever since then, the blockade remains.

Who are these protestors? Anyone visiting Shaheen Bagh will be able to tell us that although, as of now, it is a mix of various people who have decided to come together to register their protest against a discriminatory law, it is the Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh who stand out at the site. As has been reported in almost all the write-ups on the Shaheen Bagh protest, most of the women of Shaheen Bagh who are a part of the sit-in are protesting for the first time in their lives. In the beginning, this aspect of the movement was exploited to express a “concern” around protestors not being aware of what they are protesting about. However, over the weeks, almost everyone is convinced about the extraordinary ways in which the first-timers invoke new understandings of resistance and, in doing so, help us understand other facets of power. It is the first-timers who urge us to attend to the primacy of resistance, that is, move from resistance to power, rather than the other way around.

A New Protest Performative

The gathering at Shaheen Bagh has evoked a new performative of protest, especially for those whose understanding of protests and demonstrations emerged out of regular attendance at Jantar Mantar. At Shaheen Bagh, the script of protest is rewritten simply because the protestor is endowed with a very different vantage point of belonging. Moreover, when the spectrum has a 90-year-old woman on the one end and a 20-day-old infant on the other, it is bound to offer us a new grammar of protest, a new language of resistance.

Unlike other sites of protest and demonstration, at Shaheen Bagh, one gets to know the centrality and primacy of “people.” There is a stage that remains occupied all the time, but it is the audience that is more important. Speakers and performers come and leave the stage, knowing very well that the actual performance, a hearteningly interminable one, is before them and not by them. Through their deep and informed silent presence, the first-timers of Shaheen Bagh (the oft-repeated reference found in various media reports) have altered our perspective on the ways in which the stage and the audience adhere to a certain priority scheme.

The protest’s performative calls for a new frame of understanding because it is not restricted to the site. As one gets down at the Shaheen Bagh metro station and heads towards the protest site, there is a likelihood of being driven to the site by an auto or e-rickshaw wallah who does not even charge the meagre fair of ₹10. Owners of showrooms on Road 13A have decided not to take rent from the rentees for as long as the blockade continues. This amount could very well be in lakhs. As one reaches the site, one sees people distributing bottles of water, juice, tea, boiled eggs, fruits, biscuits, biryani, puri sabzi, etc. Then there are students and activists who are found running initiatives to inform people through creative art, doing sessions with children on harmony, peace, and compassionate living, inculcating mindfulness through conversations, and so on. None of these people are to be found on the stage or in the audience. However, through these selfless acts that suggest an individual transcending their own location anddenying that politico-economic structures have the final say, the people at Shaheen Bagh have made us understand the unique ways of protesting.

A protest that goes beyond the immediate visible site of reference suggests deep connections that exist between resistance and belonging. Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh have demonstrated an uncommon expression of belonging through their resistance. People who have joined them so as to extend solidarity have acknowledged the sanctity of this rare expression. This is the reason why many activists who have been a part of numerous different protests over the years have conscientiously remained away from the stage. They have addressed the gathering when asked to, but they have been conscious of the uniqueness of the setting. This simultaneity of Muslim women coming in huge numbers and seasoned activists and “knowledgeable” people knowingly standing out of the frame can be considered as a fresh chapter in the history of protests and demonstrations in independent India.

Not against Anyone Specific

There is something unsettlingly convenient about accepting the premise that the protest in Shaheen Bagh (perhaps in other regions too) is against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If Muslim presence is predominant in the protest and the ruling dispensation at the centre is known for its anti-Muslim policies, what can possibly stop us from seeing Shaheen Bagh as an anti-BJP protest? While it cannot be denied that there have been repeated references to stalwarts of the current regime, the protest is about more than the regime and its discriminatory policies.

Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh draw our attention to the way a marginalised identity experiences its location and, consequently, association with the rest. In that respect, their protest is against the pathologically inhuman ways in which the state, for decades, encroached upon their everyday spaces of domestic life. A little more than three decades ago, writing on the political culture of the Indian state, Ashis Nandy (1989) warned us about a state that was decisively moving from the realm of service to the realm of domination. Nandy was highlighting something distinctly characteristic about the modern state, its obsession with order and, in that regard,governable subjects. Nandy was quite clear that for such an entity, the essential problem is not its failure, but its success.

Protestors at Shaheen Bagh are not against the regime, but a governing psychology or template that defines marginalised identities solely from the vantage point of lawlessness, chaos, violence,ignorance, etc. It is this reading of the margins by the state that urged Das and Poole (2004) to refer to the state as an “incomplete project” (p 5) and its margins as those pockets that are “insufficiently socialised into the law” (p 9). Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh are posing a serious question to that alleged “insufficient socialisation” of theirs into the law. Instead of being defined as members of a community allegedly inclined towards lawlessness, they have rightfully become the epitome of the lawful, the bearers of the constitutional.

The state is also questioned by unsettling the nationalised memory and remembrance. For instance, the India Gate replica at Shaheen Bagh is, in a true sense, a people’s response to national memory, as it carries names of people who were killed by the state during the protests against the CAA and NRC. By drawing our attention to a new perspective on sacrifice and mourning, the India Gate replica at Shaheen Bagh brings to the fore the powerless’s claim on memory and mourning. Similarly, the 40-feet iron and mesh map of India inscribed with the words Hum Bharat ke log CAA–NPR–NRC nahin maante (We, the people of India, reject the CAA–NPR–NRC) is a people’s humble-yet-stunning response to state’s indulgent and extravagant national projects, such as theStatue of Unity.

Discrimination vs Inconvenience

Recently, residents of adjacent colonies, such as Sarita Vihar and Jasola Vihar, took out a rally opposing the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, citing the inconvenience caused by the road blockade. Backed by the Resident Welfare Association of these colonies, people claimed that instead of blocking Road 13A that connects Delhi and Noida, the protestors should protest at dedicated and identified sites. This narrative of inconvenience conveniently tries to dislodge the narrative of discrimination.

The protest at Shaheen Bagh is a marginalised people’s uncommon response to discrimination. When we earnestly speak against discrimination, we go beyond our immediate identity markers. A call against discrimination is a call for the “we” invoked in the preamble of the Constitution. On the contrary, inconvenience places the individual before the collective. A rallying cry around inconvenience is the call of the individual expressing concern over what they are facing. The logic of inconvenience invokes a “we” that is fundamentally different from the “we” our Constitution’s preamble opens with. Almost all the protests and peaceful demonstrations, a living expression of people’s solidarity against discrimination, are denied their due because of the inconvenience caused by them. Instead of earnestly inquiring into what forced common people to come out on roads and remaining there for several weeks, the inconvenience fraternity is only interested in “For how long it will go on?” The pervasiveness of this pathology, this unsettling indifference can be attributed to our living in a society where most of us are identified as consumers.

A society decisively tilted towards consumption as opposed to social justice and equality is a society that turns its back on injustice and discrimination. In such a society, we find it more logical to talk about losses incurred due to protests (not loss, for it offers a philosophical or existential promise), rather than getting our acts together against the suffering faced by specific groups. Problems are identified strictly from a class-informed perspective of everyday routines, which is why an additional two hours in traffic preponderates over concern about a law that is discriminatory against the marginalised sections.

Issues with ‘What Next’

In addition to those crying over the inconvenience caused by the Shaheen Bagh peaceful indefinite sit-in, many sympathisers of the protest too ask themselves, “What next?” This anxiety cannot be dismissed as an altogether insignificant one. However, people’s movements are to be appreciated in terms of how they inform the “ongoing.” In not putting forth a full-fledged plan of action, the brave Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh have questioned the state’s peculiar occupation with planning that routinely excludes and marginalises various groups.

As of now, what matters the most is that with every passing day, the protest site is acquiring more dynamism. As the women talk to each other, discuss theissues, and reflect on what turned them into flagbearers of one of independent India’s most glorious phases, they add more meaning to our national present. Queer activists are taking sessions with Muslim children from the locality. Braving the harshest weeks of Delhi winter, women protestors are knitting messages of peace and harmony. Artists are painting 500-metre-long cloths with messages that uphold the values of the Constitution. Each of these extraordinary acts that bring a hope-affirming version of a community makes a claim for citizenship as participation, as something not simply granted by the state, but realised in our behaviour towards each other, our contribution to our nation’s diversity.

We can set up committees to look into whether Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge is anti-Hindu or not, but we cannot stop these peaceful protests contributing to the emergence of a life-giving Hum (“we”) in nooks and corners of the country. As the women of Shaheen Bagh tweak their daily schedules in the hope of tweaking the dominant national narrative, we are witnessing a new Hum that assures the present an uncommon longevity and refuses to define the future as a next occurrence.

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