The protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on February 26, 2020.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
The protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on February 26, 2020.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Review: Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India edited by Seema Mustafa

This collection of essays on the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest led by women against the CAA-NRC-NPR shows how the movement enriched the democratic imagination of India
By Maaz Bin Bilal | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 04, 2020 07:14 PM IST
294pp, Rs450; Speaking Tiger
294pp, Rs450; Speaking Tiger

tu shaheen hai parwaaz hai kaam tera
tere aage aasmaan aur bhi hain

— Allama Iqbal

You are the falcon, your nature is flight,
There are more skies that await you.

The Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest led by women against the CAA-NRC-NPR soared far beyond the small ghetto in South-East Delhi to enrich the democratic imagination of India and the world. The collection of essays, Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, edited by Seema Mustafa is an invaluable record, analysis, and manifesto of this citizenship movement.

The editor is the founding editor of the online news and opinion portal, Citizen, with a focus on ecology and gender among others. The writers of the essays collected in the volume are leading journalists, lawyers, activists, and academics who were keen observers and sometimes participants in the movement. With each focussing on a different facet of the protest at Shaheen Bagh, such as its inspired counterpart sit-in protests in other parts of the country, the constitutionality of the NRC-CAA, the subsequent riots in Delhi, the state response to protests and riots, and possible ways forward, the book provides us with a vital document to work through the immense moment with a critical lens and to take stock.

That most essays are by women, and many by Muslim participant observers is also a key asset of the volume. This was a secular democratic movement led by Muslim women since the CAA-NRC(-NPR) combine affects the citizenship of Indian Muslims most strongly, and in all patriarchal societies, such as our own, women are often the most vulnerable. The volume thus records the complaints and hopes of the community most affected by these rulings of the Indian state in their own voices. It also further shows that Indian Muslim women (and men) not only have the resolve to take to the street to fight (peacefully) for their rights but are also more than equipped to take up the fight discursively. These voices are joined by those of senior human rights activist and intellectuals such as Harsh Mander, Apoorvanand, Nandita Haksar, and Nayantara Sehgal.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. Ground reports from a protest, 2. The idea of Shaheen Bagh, and 3. A riot, a witch hunt. Journalist Seemi Pasha, in her two chapters in the first section and one in the third, recounts the dynamics on the ground. Through testimony and reportage, she points out the radical coming together of Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh to protest against the oppression of the government that elsewhere claims to be the saviour of minority women. The Shaheen Bagh moment is remarkable for bringing the marginalized into the public domain. Kahkashan Riaz in her testimony claims to have cast aside her veil for it. The gathering is secular, safe — particularly for women, until attacks and threats come from the anti-protest right. Prakash Devi from Karol Bagh tells Pasha the safety and respect she feels here as a woman in a public space is one she has never experienced before; an azadi from male bad behaviour.

Seemi Pasha’s chapter on the riots records the extent of the targeted violence, and also analyses the seemingly different standards the Delhi Police enforced when registering complaints against criminals and rioters as opposed to protesters. While many protesters have UAPA invoked against them and are finding it difficult to get bail, Manish Sirohi, who was found with guns that he brought to Delhi on the night before the riots, has been released on bail. Pasha reminds us that the very FIR against the protesters of North West Delhi accusing them of conspiracy is registered on the request of a sub inspector partly on his suspicion of the protesters picking up their children early from school on the day.

Seema Mustafa, editor of the collection (Courtesy the publisher)
Seema Mustafa, editor of the collection (Courtesy the publisher)

Mustafa Quraishi’s account struck a chord with me where he tells us that he is often prodded to leave the country by family and friends in light of increasing discrimination, but Shaheen Bagh worked as a beacon of hope and belief against the bind of being a second class citizen in one’s own country or a foreign land. In a personalised as well as analytical account Sarvover Zaidi and Samprati Pani explain the interpersonal dynamics of the protests, the mimetic alterity of Shaheen Bagh as it came to be emulated across states (including UP where it met with the most brutal of responses), as well as the friendship between strangers that the protesters found among each other.

Sahgal, Mander, and Zoya Hasan place the protests historically, in the tradition of the Gandhian freedom struggle with women at its forefront once again, and point out its major gains. Nizam Pasha has written a legally astute and insightful account comparing the CAA to the Nuremberg laws, and explaining the gradual changes made in the long history of citizenship laws in India, establishing the “downward attribution of criminality” in blood lines of immigrants, and finally summarising the various recent orders and notifications passed by the current government through passport rules, and the RBI, giving greater rights to the non-Muslim migrants from the three-neighbouring Muslim states that build up to the CAA. Such nuances are often missed by the non-legally trained.

Renuka Vishwanathan has emphasized the vulnerability of all women in a patriarchal country under the NRC, where they may have no property or other identification papers. Enakshi Ganguly makes an astute case for children’s right to protest. Sharik Laliwala gives voice to the new secular Muslim vocabulary of India’s Muslims, while Apoorvanand decries the becoming ‘Hindu’ through Hindutva of the Indian public, where Hindus who disagree with the ruling dispensation or are secular may no longer be regarded as Hindus; he applauds the secular vocabulary and democratising energy of Indian Muslims. He considers ridding Hindus of anti-Muslim hatred as indispensable for democratising the Hindu mind.

Shaheen Bagh: The Idea of India is a most important document recording this crucial moment in the ongoing history of Indian liberty and democratic struggles. It might work to show us the way forward as well.

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