The photograph was taken in the late evening of December 12. The students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in Delhi were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill –- the Rajya Sabha it the same day -– under the shadow of a giant statue of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib on campus.
The photograph of three girls standing on a wall and addressing the protesters became an instant hit. Students and other concerned citizens shared it rapidly on the Internet. Documentary photographer Sharbendu De says the image is powerful because it alludes to protest images from the Arab Spring, besides being compositionally robust.
“More notably, it has linkages to the image of Nubian queen, the 22-year-old student from Sudan, who became the face of anti-government protests in April this year,” says De, adding that the hijab (headscarf) worn by two of the JMI girls lends more bearing to the image.
But who are the three girls in the image? The one in the centre is Ladeeda Sakhaloon, a first-year student of BA Arabic and a native of Kannur, Kerala. She is flanked by Chanda Yadav on her right and Aysha Renna on her left. While Yadav comes from a village in UP’s Chandauli and is doing BA in Hindi, Renna hails from Kerala’s Malappuram and is in the second year of MA History.
“We started the protest from our hostel at around 7. For half-an-hour, there were just four of us,” says Sakhaloon, adding the number gradually swelled as they went around visiting other hostels, mobilizing students. By the time the girls climbed up the wall to address other students, there were over a thousand students who had amassed in protest.
“If we don’t protest, who will? My parents have always said that you must fight injustice. When my father saw that photograph, all he said was, ‘You are on the right path,’” says Sakhaloon, who already has a BA degree in Economics.
The girls leading the protest were raising the slogans ”CAB, tera naam Islamophoba”, “Sanghvaad ki qabr khudegi, Jamia ki dharti par”, “Neel salam, assalam”, and “Intifada, inquilab”.
For Yadav, coming to Jamia was a struggle against the wishes of her extended family. “They said you are going to a Muslim university. You’ll become like them, you’ll start eating what they eat. The hatred for Muslims and JMI made me all the more curious about the university. And after spending over two years here, I know how wrong they were,” says Yadav, who is the first girl from her village to move out in pursuit of education.
Her mother advises her to stay away from "such things as protests". She doesn’t know what her mother’s reaction will be, if and when she sees the photograph. Her vocal cords are still recovering from the sloganeering they were subjected to two days ago. “But I’m happy. We see photos of students protesting from across the world. We are doing our bit,” she adds.
Renna, too, cried herself hoarse on that day, “I wanted my voice to reach miles and miles. I knew I was representing each one of the students standing in front of me.” She says the CAB, now an Act, is paving the way for ethnic cleansing as it denies citizenship on religious ground. “It’s an attack on Muslims, and as direct as one could be.”