At the Shaheen Bagh metro station on the magenta line, one has to cross a metal footbridge to reach the South Delhi neighbourhood that has become synonymous with protests against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the CAA. A friend who went with me to the area — one of our several visits — on Sunday, January 19, pointed out how the footbridge was ill-lit. “Compare this to the metro station at upscale Jor Bagh, which has far less human traffic than this area,” she said. “See how well-lit and clean that is — even infrastructure delivery has class distinctions.”
On the night of our visit, the crowds were bigger than usual. They had probably been drawn by a poetry event scheduled for that evening. Those who were scheduled to read were Saba Azad, Hussain Haidry and Aamir Aziz. The narrow lanes of the densely populated area, which suffers from a lack of civic amenities, were chock-a-block with hundreds and thousands of people making their way at snail’s pace towards the enclosure where women of the area have blocked the G D Birla Marg — which leads to Noida — to protest against the CAA. Even as we joined the crowds, we could hear slogans of “Azadi” and Aziz’s popular poem: “Yeh Hai Jamia ki Ladkiyaan (These are the girls of Jamia).”
Jamia alumnus and former Jamia Nagar resident, Aziz, had earlier written poems such as “Acche Din Blues”, critiquing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha election promise of “acche din (good days)”, and “The Ballad of Pehlu Khan”, the dairy farmer lynched by cow protectors in Haryana in 2017. His latest poem is a celebration of the spirit shown by some women students of Jamia Millia Islamia, the central university in South Delhi that was invaded by armed police officers on the night of December 14 last year. The students celebrated in Aziz’s poems had stood up to a group of policemen attacking their university comrade.
At Shaheen Bagh — or similar protests across the country, such as at Park Circus in Kolkata — women have emerged as the face of the protests. According to some news reports, this has prompted Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to demand: “Why only women, where are the men?” But, he seems to be missing the point entirely. In an article for The Wire, reporting on the Republic Day celebration at Park Circus, Jadavpur University professor Kavita Panjabi writes: “A republic truly comes of age when its women too claim it… When millions of women begin to insist that the state is a matter of res publica, a public affair, and not the private estate of rulers to decree… then it marks the turning point in the history of the nation.”
In another poem Aziz claims: “Sab yaad rakha jayega (Everything will be remembered).” A translation he posted on social media threatens those unleashing violence on peaceful protestors: “Everything will be remembered, / My friends who were murdered by your lathis and your bullets…/ It will be remembered how you conspired to break the nation… / how we desired to unite the nation.” The Shaheen Bagh protests have continued through the bleakest midwinter for more than a month. The protesters have been described as being in the pay of the Opposition, of conspiring to “break” the nation. But the spontaneity and courage of the women and children will also be remembered.
Another poet present at Shaheen Bagh on January 19 was Hussain Haidry, who has written “Hindustani Mussalman (Indian Muslim)”. In it, Haidry transcends all divisions in the religion of Islam through his devotion to the religion of the nation: “Bhai, what kind of Muslim am I? / Am I Shia or I’m Sunni? / Am I Khoja or I’m Bohri? / …Am I rebel or a mystic? / Am I devout or sophistic? / Bhai, what kind of Muslim am I? / I know I’m an Indian Muslim.”
In his essay “Why I Write”, George Orwell claims: “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism… Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.” Haidry seems to recognise this fact almost instinctively. As the CAA and the protests against it are centred around the issue of nationality, one cannot help but admire such an approach.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out this month