Steadfast, peaceful: Delhi's other Shaheen Baghs protesting against CAA

The foot overbridge at Shaheen Bagh, adorned with posters bearing popular slogans
> 1 pm: Inderlok

One can spot the site of the protest near the Inderlok Metro station from the foot overbridge. It is festooned with the Tricolour. The protest is organised on the frontage road so as not to inconvenience traffic — a sign that while it has drawn inspiration from Shaheen Bagh, it has also learnt from it. Some 200 women are seated in a barricaded area, shouting slogans and listening to speeches. They are guarded by their own and also by masked police personnel stationed by the yellow barricades, now a familiar sight in the city.

At Asia’s largest “Cooler Market”, two young women, one a law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, took permission from the shopkeepers in the area before turning this side of the road into a protest site on the night of January 19. Opposite it is the local police station. “We want to educate everyone here about the Constitution, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as the population here is mostly illiterate,” says 21-year-old Shabnam Saleem, one of the two women. The site is located next to Shahzada Bagh, a semi-industrial area in Inderlok, which had become a refuge for Muslims during the 1974 communal riots in Sadar Bazar.

“The Okhla region, where Shaheen Bagh is located, is more privileged than us in terms of access to facilities such as education, which is why spreading awareness here is a challenge. We young women go from door to door and tell people: Agar aaj awaz nahi uthaoge, toh kal hamare janaze uthenge (If you don’t raise your voice today, tomorrow we will perish),” says Saima Rehman, a resident, adding “The men are cooking food at home and the women are out on the streets.” 

“Our women are not confined to their houses. And today, they are leading the way,” says a middle-aged man at the site. To this, Makhdum Raza, a law student, adds, “Duniya ki koi bhi jung mohabbat se jeeti ja sakti hai (Any war in the world can be won with love)”.

> 5 pm: Turkman Gate

Despite the heightened security and scrutiny, women continue to fill the tent at Turkman Gate, while men line up diligently behind them, ready to offer assistance

A grand red-brick antiquity from the walled city of Shahjahanabad, one that has guarded its residents for centuries, is surrounded by 55 policemen. The number seems a little excessive given that they are monitoring a protest which at this hour has barely 50 women in a white and pink tent at Turkman Gate. “We are here to make sure the protesters don’t block the main road and cause traffic jams,” says the inspector on duty.

Turkman Gate had become a symbol of resistance during Emergency, when citizens came out to rebel against the then Congress government’s forced sterilisation campaign and demolition drive of unauthorised houses. The incident had led to police firings and deaths.

The reaction we get when we make our way into the tent to talk to the women is anything but welcoming. When we tell them we are journalists, a 50-year-old woman who does not wish to be named says, “All of you tell one-sided stories, the kind where we are accused of accepting Rs 500 to join the protests.” It takes some 20 minutes to convince the group that we are here to listen to their side of the story. 

Finally, they begin to talk. “Seven of our boys were detained by the police on January 16 for protesting peacefully. No one gave us any explanation. Even though they are back now, we are sick of being targeted for talking about the unconstitutional nature of CAA and NRC,” she says.

Kunwar Shehzad, one of the male volunteers distributing samosas and tea, says this is an organic gathering of women from the local community. According to Shehzad, the police have installed two cameras on the wall adjacent to the tent to monitor the goings on inside. But this is not a fight against the police, he adds. “The police are supposed to work for the people but right now they are working for the government. They are simply instruments of power,” he rues. 

Despite the heightened security and scrutiny, women continue to fill the tent, while men line up diligently behind them, ready to offer assistance. 

> 7 pm: Khureji Khas

On January 13, some local students convinced women in their households to ‘create a Shaheen Bagh’ in Khureji, some 20 km from Shaheen Bagh

Khureji is a Muslim-dominated area situated some 20 km from Shaheen Bagh in East Delhi. On January 13, some local students convinced women in their households to “create a Shaheen Bagh” in their locality.

“Around five women gathered for a spontaneous protest and sat on a mat on the roadside in the afternoon. Minutes later, the Delhi Police tried to evict them but they were steadfast, and gradually hundreds poured in and lined up on the roadside with candles in hand,” says Khalid Saifi, co-founder of United Against Hate, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation that seeks equal protection for all.

On the intervening night of January 14 and 15, the police returned and lights at the protest camp were switched off at around 2 am. Thousands of residents from nearby localities reached the spot in solidarity. The protest has been continuing since.

What started with a table and a mat on a vacant plot filled with rubble turned into a secured protest zone. With about a thousand black balloons and numerous flags of India adorning the area, the barricaded tent has separate entry points for women and men. “Aayiye, galle mileye (Come, hug me)” says a short, veiled woman volunteer as she urges women to bend a little. She sports a tag that says “security” and frisks visitors like a professional bouncer to make sure they are not carrying anything that will disturb the peaceful protest.

Khureji is located in the Krishna Nagar assembly constituency — a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bastion for a long time. BJP leader Harsh Vardhan was the member of the Legislative Assembly from here from 1993 till 2015, when he made way for Kiran Bedi to contest the election. Bedi lost to S K Bagga of Aam Aadmi Party. A couple of days after the protest began, a pro-CAA rally was taken out not far from the site.

> 8.30 pm: Seelampur-Jafrabad

The sit-in takes place in a service lane by the Seelampur-Jafrabad main road, allowing for free movement of traffic

The Khureji sit-in has had a ripple effect on the residents of Seelampur and Jafrabad 5 km away. Nazia Gul, a 25-year-old from Seelampur, says she had to go from house to house to convince the women to come out and protest. For days, candlelight marches were held to mobilise people of the area that had seen a violent clash in December between the locals and the police. Nine people were arrested.

The women made several attempts to organise an indefinite dharna but a continuous crackdown from the authorities acted as a deterrent. “Finally, after the Khureji sit-in, about 20 women agreed to sit on the night of January 15. And now, a week later, we are here in thousands.”

A deafening sound of approaching sirens cuts through the patriotic speeches. Within a minute, close to 50 personnel from the anti-riot and crowd-control Rapid Action Force, in their blue helmets and camouflage-uniforms, jump out of the buses to secure the area. As we watch, slightly intimidated by what is in store, Gul casually states, “This is a daily affair.”

The sit-in takes place in a service lane by the Seelampur-Jafrabad main road, allowing free movement of traffic. On the other side of the road, men form a human chain, holding candles and posters through the night. Some RAF personnel have been positioned close to them, too. “It will not take us more than a minute to clear this crowd. We are only awaiting orders from the government,” remarks an RAF personnel.

> 10 pm: Shaheen Bagh

The site where it all started is eagerly awaiting its guest speaker: Bhim Army chief Chandra Shekhar Aazad. We walk around the barricaded protest site that is resonating with an impassioned male speaker’s voice: “January 26 is right around the corner. We celebrate this day to honour the adoption of our Constitution in 1950. What is happening right now with the CAA and NRC is unconstitutional.” His speech leads to an eruption of applause, as the crowd chants, “Inquilab Zindabad”.

Close by, an installation of a miniature India Gate and a large map of India are lit up with red LED lights. Calls for communal harmony can be heard from a distance, generating applause and tears while grand plans for celebrating Republic Day are being drawn up. Nivedita Menon, feminist writer and professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, will kick-start a lecture series, “Nagrikta pe Charcha” (Debates on Citizenship) at 3 am on January 26, for which a message on WhatsApp is being circulated to inform people. It reads: “Let us come together and study what it means for a people to adopt, enact and give to oneself a Constitution.”

Last heard, a similar Shaheen Bagh-style protest has begun 14 km away, at Gandhi Park, Hauz Rani in Malviya Nagar.

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