For over three months now, part of Shagufta Ahmad’s daily routine was to pass through the mirror between two worlds. On one side was the crushing banality of life in the ‘ghetto’—no wonderland. On the other, the call of history. And as if on a mission, she toggled between the two. After winding up her household chores, the 43-year-old would join thousands of women at the Shaheen Bagh protest site at 6 am and leave for home at 7pm. Her beauty salon was temporarily closed and her school-going children’s life was in chaos. But her children are proud of their mother being a part of an iconic protest. It unfolded “in a corner of Okhla”, as a right-wing commentator had scoffed, but it was a corner that attracted international attention, and will lure historians in the future.
Now that the Delhi government cleared the Shaheen Bagh protest site on March 25—everyone seemed to be itching for it—Shagufta’s salon may start functioning soon, the lockdown permitting. But there’s one thing she’s certain of: the protests have only hit a comma, not a full stop. It merely goes into hibernation for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. She wants the government to revoke the new citizenship law, and the NPR/NRC process: she sees them as the enemy of her future, and that of her children. She is among lakhs of debutante protesters in India—none of them career activists—who behold the CAA as a discriminatory law, a harbinger of statelessness.
The leaderless Shaheen Bagh movement has been heralded by many for creating a new narrative, one that invoked the Constitution and saw ordinary women coming out to claim their voice and space in public discourse. The manner and mode of its disbanding—at least a temporary dispersal became increasingly inevitable, in view of the social distancing protocol—itself was a matter of controversy. Had the protest lingered beyond its utility? It had survived the severest winter, and stayed resolute as ‘riots’ convulsed another part of the city. Would it now not heed the public responsibility brought on by a pandemic?
Shagufta is affronted that the question is even asked. They had shifted to a symbolic protest, with only five women, during the ‘janata curfew’ on Sunday, she says. Political activist Kavita Krishnan tweeted that the police cleared away “a protest site that the brave women had already cleared”. Ritu Kaushik, a protester, wonders why the government removed them since they adhered to all the COVID-19 protocols. “We used to sit in small groups, followed all the guidelines. If the government was concerned about us, why didn’t they discuss our demands?” she asks.
The fate of the protest had been hanging ever since the Delhi government imposed a post-corona lockdown. It had appealed to the protesters, who were not ready to budge. Ritu now says the protests will resume with vigour after normalcy returns: “It’s a temporary phase. The protests will grow. It’s not about numbers alone…Gandhi ran a campaign alone. The government will have to bow before the public.”
Women’s right activist Kalyani Menon Sen sees it as part of the state’s hostility. “Our thaali-banging leaders have removed them from a safe space where they were maintaining COVID-19 protocols in a socially responsible way, and shoved them into a place where their safety is compromised in every sense,” says Sen.
The protest, started by a handful of women in mid-December, had hit many roadblocks in its 101 days. Shaheen Bagh was widely berated in the media for allegedly blocking traffic between south-east Delhi and Noida—the Supreme Court itself has found time to be seized of the matter—though few know it was Delhi Traffic Police that had actually barricaded the main arteries. “In the past 100 days, we braved many things. There were attacks on us, the government ran fake news campaigns against us, they try to blame us for the Delhi riots,” says another protester.
For Syed Taseer Ahmad, Shaheen Bagh is not a traffic-stopper but a path-breaker for all of India. “We’ll come back in full force. We were planning a jail bharo campaign before the corona scare. We will intensify our agitation when things become normal,” says Ahmad. Yet, questions about its future shape are not coming from only critics. One section feels the protests in their present shape have stretched on too long, with diminishing returns, and they should be given a new shape. Another argues that a movement that sparked a new political awakening must continue.
Syed Irfan Habib, the Delhi-based historian, belongs to the first lot. He believes the Shaheen Bagh women have “made their point” emphatically. “They can’t stretch it forever. The protesters have to retreat at this point and prepare for future plans,” Habib tells Outlook. Protests in other cities like Lucknow, Patna, Bangalore and Calcutta too had been called off in the wake of the corona pandemic. Political activist and Congress worker Sadaf Jafar agrees with Habib. Jafar was jailed by the Uttar Pradesh government for leading an anti-CAA march in Lucknow in December. An active participant of the Lucknow sit-in, she says the women protesters have written a letter to the police commissioner, saying they are calling off their 66-day-long protest temporarily in the wake of the outbreak. “We are taking a break, we will continue the fight,” says Jafar. They have no faith in the government since it shows no intention of budging from its stand, she says, but nor will they. “We did not start the protest thinking it will impact the government,” she tells Outlook.
On March 12, Union home minister Amit Shah assured the Rajya Sabha that no one will be marked as doubtful citizens during the NPR exercise and documents are not necessary. However, concerns have been exacerbated by the recent affidavit filed by the government in the Supreme Court. In its reply to the PILs on CAA, the government said the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, is a “benign” piece of legislation, and that there is limited scope for judicial review on a law passed on the issue of citizenship by Parliament. The government has also said the proposed NRC is a necessary exercise. Constitutional expert Faizan Mustafa says the affidavit has many contradictions. “It’s shocking that the government affidavit is at variance with the promise made by the prime minister at the Ramlila grounds and the categorical assurance given by the Home Minister barely a week ago. The affidavit does not answer any of the objections raised by the petitioners,” Mustafa tells Outlook. In short, the reason that brought Shaheen Bagh to life still lives, and the body politic too has developed the antibodies necessary to resist it and keep itself healthy.