Signals from Shaheen Bagh: Not all battles are fought in electoral arena

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Shaheen Bagh has lifted a veil from a section of our society — Muslim women — that was thought to be the most oppressed
The Shaheen Bagh protest lasted 101 days, inspired many similar protests across India, and drew parallels with the Khilafat movement of a century back.

Despite these triumphs, as academic Apoorvanand argues in his essay, in Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, an anthology edited by journalist Seema Mustafa, the Gandhian satyagraha led by intrepid burqa-clad women failed in one key respect: To evoke compassion for their cause among common Hindus.

To a certain kind of Hindu, he writes, the protests represented Muslims conspiring against not just the Indian state but against Indian nationhood and were also an affront to Hindus. The chasm between what he calls “Hindu sensibility” and “Muslim sensibility” has seldom been wider.

Yes, thousands of Hindus, notably college students, felt concerned enough to join these protests, or expressed solidarity, after attacks on students in Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But the liberal and secular Hindus who did — “libtards” and “sickulars”, depending on your viewpoint — are denied Hinduness and are thought to be suffering from “foreign” traits, Apoorvanand says. A whisper campaign that the protests were anti-India or anti-Hindu culminated in the communal riots in east Delhi on February 25.

Days before the riots, sympathisers of the movement — Harsh Mander, Apoorvanand and Syeda Hameed — appealed to the protesters “to recognise the limitations of the times we are in and find different instruments, a new language to continue the battle”.

But if secular Hindus have a feeble voice among their coreligionists, why should Muslims, who face existential fears every day, have listened to them when they had, for the first time in several decades, come together to reject their continued marginalisation?

In his essay in Mustafa’s anthology, Sharik Laliwala, who has researched the lot of Muslims in Gujarat, argues that Indian Muslims have entered a post-Islamism phase. Theirs is an active assertion of constitutional and secular symbols without abandoning religiosity, which does not spring from atheistic fascination with secularism, he writes.

If Apoorvanand’s prognosis is bleak, in his essay, “Mahatma Gandhi Would Have Approved,” Mander asserts that “the protests have already won” by rendering a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) “highly impossible”, and “its permanent success” is that it is the first national movement for Hindu-Muslim unity after Gandhi’s assassination.

In Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement, journalists Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf, as also Mustafa in her introduction to the anthology, also seem convinced of a putative Dalit and Muslim alliance embedded in the protests. But Laliwala busts this political mythology. He says the alliance between Muslims and Hindu Dalits is incoherent because of the overrepresentation of elite ashraf castes, and a mismatch of socio-economic interests. Nonetheless, Laliwala notes, there have been “unprecedented solidarities”.

It is a faultline that still worries shapers of the Hindutva project as well, but secular parties lack leaders of the kind of gumption and common connect of a Lalu Prasad Yadav to reimagine Dalit, OBC and Muslim unity that had halted the Sangh Parivar’s juggernaut after Babri Mosque’s demolition.

If the women of Shaheen Bagh were the heroes of the movement, Salam and Ausaf have documented the contribution of the men who made those protests possible, several of whom are now facing police cases.

As students converged on the main road near Shaheen Bagh after police beat up students in Jamia on December 15, Sharjeel Imam, Aasif Mujtaba and Aftab galvanised the women of the neighbourhood.

Their inspiration was a Hindu woman, Aarati, who stood nearly all alone that night with a tricolour in hand to protest the police action. That sowed the seed that it should be a women-led protest and reclaim the symbols of nationalism. As the women sat on the road, the men installed CCTV cameras to counter potential attempts at stoking violence and formed human chains to protect them.

The women, as several authors point out, sat at the protests in bitter cold and amid fears that a police or paramilitary raid was highly probable. They were not defending the Sharia, or the supremacy of the Quran or Hadiths, but the idea of a plural Indian nationalism.

Salam and Ausaf recount how Shaheen Bagh’s founder, Shariq Ansarullah, now 61, came to name the area. Ansarullah loved Muhammad Iqbal poems. One of them from 1935 stated, “Tu shaheen hai, parwaz hai kaam tera, tere saamne aasman aur bhi hain”(You are a falcon. Soaring high is your nature. There are skies yet for you to conquer). As the women protesters, the shaheens, soared, it was fitting that several poets and musicians performed at the protest site, and the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and Iqbal became anthems of the movement.

The women of Shaheen Bagh scored some smaller triumphs too. For the first time ever, a couple of mosques in the vicinity opened their doors for women to offer their prayers.

While Salam and Ausaf have avoided writing about the subsequent communal riots, essays in the anthology tell the story of those three days — how not a single temple was damaged, including in Muslim-majority localities, but several mosques were burnt or razed, and Muslim homes and businesses singled out, while adjacent ones with Hindu owners were spared.

In his essay, Nizam Pasha writes on the contradictions in the citizenship laws, the CAA-NRC-NPR’s origins in Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish “ancestor pass”, and the role of Rajya Sabha MP Ranjan Gogoi, from the time he was a junior Supreme Court judge until his retirement as Chief Justice in 2019, in the NRC conducted in Assam.

In an interesting historical nugget that Apoorvanand cites, it was as early as 1949, months before the idols were placed inside the Babri Mosque, that Indira Gandhi wrote to Nehru, “I hope Farrukhabad was not too dusty or tiring. I hear [Purushottam Das] Tandon ji wants to change its name and that of every town which ends in “bad” into “nagar”. If this sort of thing goes on much longer, I shall be provoked into calling myself “Zohra Begum” or some such thing.”

Shaheen Bagh has lifted a veil from a section of our society — Muslim women — that was thought to be the most oppressed. It has also reminded us that not all battles in a democracy are fought in the electoral arena. There are some that are waged non-violently on its streets, nukkads and mohallas.

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