New Delhi, India – “You have to go to Shaheen Bagh,” I was told at a party on Christmas night in India‘s capital, New Delhi. “You can’t cover the protests without going there. The atmosphere is amazing. It’s like a block party.”
For more than 50 days, people in Shaheen Bagh – a Muslim working-class neighbourhood – have been protesting against a new citizenship law that activists have dubbed “anti-Muslim”.
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Legal experts say the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which makes faith the basis for acquiring Indian nationality goes against the country’s secular constitution. The law is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Similar protests have broken out across the country after India’s Hindu-nationalist government passed the amendment to the 1955 citizenship law on December 11 last year.
The government’s plan to implement a nationwide counting of citizens has particularly spooked Muslims amid fears millions could be rendered stateless. A similar exercise in the northeastern Indian state of Assam excluded nearly two million people from the citizenship list (National Register of Citizens or NRC) last year.
Secularism and the constitution
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, says the law does not discriminate against Muslims but is intended to help persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries. It blocks the naturalisation for Muslims.
When I arrived in New Delhi to cover the anti-CAA protests, I realised these protests are an important moment in India’s history.
I spent my first day at one of the main protest sites, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), where a thousand or so people had gathered on the main road outside the university. It was a bitterly cold December day, the coldest in over 100 years.
The temperature was dropping to as low as three degrees Celcius, but people – many of them women accompanied by their young children – sat on carpets on the road all day, while men stood on the sides.
Protesters listened to speakers talk about secularism and the constitution, and how the Modi government was threatening to undermine both.
A young girl, who looked no more than 10 years old, had a sign, reading “Save the constitution. Save India”, pinned to her red sweater.
She could hardly wait to respond to the speaker asking: “Hum kyaa chaate hain?” (what do we want?) as she pumped her green glove-covered hand up in the air, screaming “azadi” (freedom) with every fibre of her being.
The “azadi” slogan, which has become popular across the country, has been inspired by Kashmiri separatists. Last August, the Muslim-majority region, which has witnessed an armed rebellion against Indian rule, was stripped of its limited autonomy.
Large murals, banners and posters denouncing the government and the law filled every inch of space on the university’s walls and gates.
The Indian flag was everywhere: Painted on people’s faces; being flown from street lights; children held small flags; the adults waved large ones. A group of students in long white coats held up placards, which read “Medical Students against CAA” and “Our Prime Minister Is Sick”.
The atmosphere was jovial even though Jamia was the site of what rights groups describe as a brutal crackdown by the police on peaceful protesters just a week earlier.
Jamia is a prominent Muslim institution and has students from all faiths. I interviewed Rupal Prabhakar – a Hindu woman – who had come to sing a prayer to the crowd in solidarity against the December 15 police action. She had never taken part in a protest or sung to a large crowd before. She told me she felt compelled to come because it was her duty to stop the government from dividing people along religious lines.
A young man passed a large cardboard box full of hot samosas around. A student distributed boxes of vegetable biryani; others handed out bananas and bottled water.
As is often the case in India, people insisted we have something to eat even after we said no. A chai wallah, or tea vendor, walked into our shot while I was talking to the camera, holding out his tray of steaming hot paper cups of masala tea, asking ‘chai, madam?’ I was happy that made it on air because incidents like those – random acts of kindness – summed up the atmosphere at Jamia to me.
On January 30, a gunman fired at a protest march near Jamia, injuring a student’s arm. The attacker’s Facebook profile showed he is a Hindu nationalist who supports the citizenship law.
January 30 was the 72nd anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – the leader of India’s freedom struggle – by a member of the Hindu far right, who believed in the supremacy of Hindus and blamed Gandhi for conceding too much to Muslims – India’s largest minority. Thursday’s attacker shared posts praising the man who killed Gandhi.
Just two days later, on February 1, another man opened fire at protesters in Shaheen Bagh, saying: “This country is not for everyone. It’s only for Hindus.”
On Sunday night, two people on a motorcycle fired shots in the air in Jamia – the third such incident in four days.
I did not have time to make it to Shaheen Bagh when I was in New Delhi in December, but I went on my first day on the job as India Correspondent on January 20.
When we arrived at the sit-in, we were greeted with a 10-metre tall installation of the map of India, with the words: “We the people of India say no to CAA, NCR, NPR.”
There were many other installations, including one depicting a detention centre. The government is using such centres to lock away those who cannot prove their citizenship.
Huge posters hung from the overbridge, which spans the main road. People were proud of what they had created – a community centre facilitating discussion on what is happening in the country.
There was a tent offering free medical care. Hundreds of books were stacked up in tents serving as free book depositories. A chai wallah was making fresh tea, as people gathered around for a cup on a cold night.
We walked inside the largest tent, where hundreds of women and children listened to speakers. The older women sat at a long table at the front of the tent.
There were men and women of different faiths. An old man sat holding a Hindi-language bible in his hand.
To initiate process of dialogue amid hate speeches and "goli maaro" slogans, Friends of Shaheen Bagh, an informal collective, has put up posters+flowers near police barricade at Shaheen Bagh today. Their belief? Everything can be resolved by dialogue.
— Kainat Sarfaraz. (@kainisms) February 2, 2020
The shootings at anti-CAA protests in Jamia and Shaheen Bagh come in the wake of hate speeches given by governing party leaders, who have dubbed Shaheen Bagh a centre of “anti-national activity”.
Last week, Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs Anurag Thakur condemned the Shaheen Bagh protests, leading chants of “shoot the traitors” at a BJP election rally in New Delhi.
Earlier, Parvesh Varma, a BJP member of parliament from West Delhi, said the people at Shaheen Bagh are “Muslims who want to take over India” and that they would rape and kill New Delhi residents.
On Sunday, at least 100 government supporters gathered near Shaheen Bagh, chanting: “Shoot the traitors.”
A few yards away, a banner placed in the middle of the road, which connects New Delhi to the satellite city of Noida, read: “Aao baithen, baat karen (come, let’s talk).”