An uneasy calm in Shaheen Bagh, one year after protest

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Dec 17, 2020 05:57 AM IST

This year, as another protest -- this time over three farm laws that aim to liberalise the farm economy -- continues to rage with thousands of farmers on a similar sit-in protest at several of the Capital’s entry points, police are ensuring that nobody starts a protest within the city -- including in Shaheen Bagh’s Road 13A.

A year ago, when Road Number 13A in Shaheen Bagh, which connects Noida to Delhi, was blocked by locals protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, it took Delhi Police by surprise.

BSF personnel patrol Shaheen Bagh on Wednesday, a year after the anti-CAA protests began(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
BSF personnel patrol Shaheen Bagh on Wednesday, a year after the anti-CAA protests began(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

What started as a sit-in protest by a group of around 100 residents snowballed into one of the largest and most prominent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the country. For 101 days the road, blocked by hundreds of anti-CAA protesters, became a symbol of resistance to the government’s new law. It was cleared on the morning of March 24, 2020, the day before the national lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease.

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This year, as another protest -- this time over three farm laws that aim to liberalise the farm economy -- continues to rage with thousands of farmers on a similar sit-in protest at several of the Capital’s entry points, police are ensuring that nobody starts a protest within the city -- including in Shaheen Bagh’s Road 13A. At Batla House, about 5km away from Shaheen Bagh, when a group of protesters gathered on Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of the violence outside Jamia Millia Islamia, they were quickly forced to disperse.

And sometime last week, as the number of protesting farmers swelled at two entry points into Delhi (from Haryana), Singhu and Tikri, police brought personnel from the Border Security Force to guard the streets of Shaheen Bagh.

“No government wants a repeat of what happened last year. Until last week, there were some 5-6 local police personnel who would patrol the market during the day but not at night. But now armed commandos are guarding this place, round-the-clock. They don’t want this road to serve as a spot for the farmers’ protest,” said Kuki Solanki, 40, who runs a garment shop in the local market at Shaheen Bagh.

On Wednesday, when HT visited the market, a busload of armed BSF personnel were alighting, and starting to march across the market. The officers declined to speak.

“You know why we are here -- why state the obvious?” a BSF subinspector, who asked not to be named, said.

Sporting AK-47 rifles , the BSF personnel patrolled the lanes along the market, which leads to the residential areas of Shaheen Bagh. A police quick reaction team (QRT) vehicle, along with police commandos and local police officers, was also on the roads. The officers walked the streets looking for potential threats -- those with banners against CAA , or the farm laws.

Their anxiety is understandable. When the protest first started, no one outside the national capital, and not many residents of the Capital, knew of Shaheen Bagh, a small colony in the more famous Jamia Nagar neighbourhood of southeast Delhi.

But as the protest grew, people from across the city made their way to Shaheen Bagh. They came to see the replicas of the India Gate monument where names of those who died in the anti-CAA protests across the country were etched. They came to hear revolutionary poems being read out by passionate young men and women. And they came to spend time with the grand old women of Shaheen Bagh, the Dadis or grandmothers. In September, 82-year-old Bilkis,one of the women, was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2020 by Time magazine.

The 101-day long protest had its share of critics, including thousands of commuters who used road 13A to commute between Delhi and Noida daily.

For 101 days as the protesters blocked the important Delhi-Noida link and there were massive traffic jams across the city. Police had to divert traffic on to the Delhi-Noida Mathura road leading to serpentine traffic jams in the morning and evening peak hours. Multiple petitions were filed in courts urging them to intervene and ask protesters to vacate the road. The Supreme Court appointed two interlocutors to speak to the protesters and ensure that the road was cleared. The talks did not make any headway.

Much later, in September, after the pandemic achieved what the courts or police could not, the Supreme Court observed that the right to protest in public places should be balanced with the right of the general public to move freely without hindrance.

“The Covid pandemic came in the middle of our fight against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The voices have drowned in the noise of this pandemic, but they are not dead. They will rise again. The protesting farmers also learnt about the way to protest from the Shaheen Bagh protesters. The residents will come back until justice is done,” said a member of the Shaheen Bagh residents welfare association.

CAA, which was passed on December 12, 2019, replaced the Citizenship Act, 1955, to fast-track the grant of Indian citizenship to members of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities from the Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The exclusion of Muslims triggered widespread protests across the country as did the linking of citizenship with religion.

Several residents in the area -- most did not want to be named -- said they believe Shaheen Bagh was the most successful sit-in protest, particularly because there was no violence right till the end.

But traders said the “successful protest” came at a cost. At least 15 shops in the roughly 200-shop market have shut permanently in one year -- not just because of Covid, although this served as a double whammy for shops that had been put of business for three-and-a-half months by the protest.

When lockdown norms were relaxed in May, one shopkeeper said the fear of the virus had kept the shoppers away. About 60 other shops have not reopened yet.

“People think it is risky to start a business here. The police are constantly on guard. What happened last year has led people to believe that this place is under the radar of government agencies and can be shut down in case of the simplest law and order problem. Maybe they are right too. They will start a shop in Batla House or Sarita Vihar nearby but not here,” said Ishrafat, 24, who works at a garment store.

Nasir Hussain, president of the Shaheen Bagh market welfare association said: “Many shopkeepers did not return. They suffered heavy losses first during the blockade and later because of the lockdown.”

Most traders said they do not expect a “spontaneous” gathering of locals again, at least not in Shaheen Bagh. “Delhi is known for protests but a protest like that will not happen here again. It was a spontaneous gathering of women, children and those who dared to speak truth to power. Maybe in other parts of the city but not here. The place is under constant surveillance,” said Mustafa K, 45, a resident.

Delhi Police, however, have a different take on the Shaheen Bagh protest.

They have alleged that the protest was not a spontaneous gathering of Shaheen Bagh residents but one planned and funded by those who were later involved in the 2020 Delhi riots, which left 53 dead and over 400 injured.

The residents and others involved in the protest deny this contention.

Professor Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies said“ It would be wrong to say that the Shaheen Bagh protest created a template for sit-in protests such as the current one by the farmers. Shaheen Bagh was one of the longest ones and will be remembered in history. The fact that women, children and families came together for a cause was unique. It was an example of how protests can be undertaken if people are committed. But it may not be remembered best for what many would have liked to remember it. It did not achieve anything. The pandemic and social distancing norms cut short the protest. It ended in a dramatic manner. The Mandal agitation achieved results. Even the anti-corruption movement resulted in something...”

On Wednesday, as police teams continued to patrol the market, a team of officers of the crime branch and special cell were still at work, investigating the riots and connecting dots to prove how the sit-in protest site at Shaheen Bagh was used to fuel the anger and orchestrate the Delhi riots, one of the worst in three decades.

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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