Shaheen Bagh reclaims land, birth and death

Farida Akhter | Published: 00:00, Mar 08,2020


In this photo taken on January 6, Muslim protesters listen to a speaker during a sit-in protest in Shaheen Bagh area blocked off by demonstrators for almost four weeks to protest against India’s new citizenship law, near the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. — Agence France-Presse/Prakash Singh

THOUSANDS of women have been protesting since December 15, 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, India. Instantly, it triggered similar protests, demonstrations and strikes all over India constituting a major national phenomenon. Despite its local reference in a national context, the movement of Saheen Bagh quickly obtained a global character, raising a major global question related to state and statelessness: can the modern state render people stateless by enacting exclusionary law? Are not people prior to the formation and existence of a state? Worse still, should state divide people along religious line and violate international human rights ethics and norms?


A spectacular protest

SHAHEEN Bagh protest is striking and spectacular because of its collective feminine strength and participation and leadership character that is led by women who are known as dadi (grandmother). Some are over 80 years, one is over 90. But they are bold and uncompromising. They are women with wisdom and experience. They have been sitting on the Shaheen Bagh street in very cold Delhi winter; in fact coldest in last 118 years. On December 30, New Delhi recorded its coldest day in more than a century with the temperature dropping to 3 degrees. But nothing could stop them from sitting outside their homes continuously for more than 55 days. Dadis have drawn the attention of both the Indian and international media. They have a very simple message to convey: we are Muslims and we are Indian. So, Indians, irrespective of their religion, language or other identities joined them and spoke in a single voice, we all are Indians. In the protest ‘Indianness’ is being redefined, challenging the Hindutva discourse — a discourse determined to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra. As a result, Saheen Bagh has become a global symbol of protest against pathological forms of both religious and secular bigotry.

Shaheen Bagh’s claim of Muslim identity opens up new horizon to think about community and polity. Its reclaiming of Muslim identity is not to project Muslim as distinct and separate political community, but to reclaim India as a unity of diverse religions, language and culture, in order to transcend the divisive Hindutta politics to consolidate people’s unity on a deeper plane of history. We are witnessing a notion of belonging that does not split people by religious and secular partition, but reclaiming the rights of each and everyone belonging to Indian land to be born, live and die. Shaheen Bagh has crossed all religious boundaries to break the wall to include all and thus defeating national chauvinism and modern religious nationalism such as Hindutva. Redefining Indianness is mighty powerful now, that is beyond the grasp of Modi and Amit Shah. Hence, Dadis are not only fighting for their ‘democratic’ rights as citizens but their rights as human beings that are prior to the formation of the nation states.

Shaheen Bagh is located on the road (NH 24 that connects Delhi to Noida in Uttar Pradesh), a Muslim locality in Okhla’s Jamia Nagar. This road is very crucial for connecting various parts of Delhi. Muslim women, who hardly come out of their homes, are on the street to protest against the discriminatory laws. Most of them never participated in any protests in their lives. Now they are angry because their right to citizenship has been called into question. For the first time they are realising that they can be discriminated as Muslims and, therefore, are suspected to be citizens or not. It is beyond their imagination why they need to prove to the state if they are Indians or not. It is rather the state that must prove if it belongs to the peoples of India or not.

Three Dadis Asma (90), Bilkis (82) and Sarvari (75) started the movement in Shaheen Bagh. They do not have formal education but that did not stop them from understanding why Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register are against the interest of the common people, particularly those who are poor, in India. They understand the pains of the people who will need to submit papers to prove their citizenship.

The Dadis burst out in anger when more than 100 students holding anti-citizenship law protests in Jamia Millia Islamia University were injured after baton-wielding police charged and fired tear gas at them. It was known that the police stormed the JMI University and fired tear gas into some classrooms. Indian media reports said students praying at a mosque were also attacked. Nearly 100 students were detained following the violence in fabricated cases of torching vehicles. These Dadis, though never attended university, could not accept this police brutality as they understand what students mean for a country. Many of the women protesters at Shaheen Bagh did not hear about CAA/NRC before, but after JMI demonstration and the police atrocities on students, Dadis found out the problem to be theirs too.

While the general protest against CAA, NRC is pointing out the discrimination against Muslims and that it is violating the secular principles of the constitution; the Dadis are straight forward. They said, ‘We are all born here and we would want to die here, from all religions’. This is a powerful statement that defines identity in terms of peoples’ historical relation to land and religion. By asserting their identity as Muslims, they are equally asserting their integral bond with the land, entangled with birth and death in their land. As a result they are equally voracious in defending the rights of all religious communities including those who are alive and those who are dead, all are sons and daughters of the land, breaking the barriers often raised by a form of secular imagining that undermines our relation to land, life, death and religion. Religion is integral to the bonds determined by birth and affirmed by death, a sense of deeper belonging to a country that cannot be reduced into a piece of citizenship law.

The nationwide register of citizens would require showing papers, ID cards to prove their connection to India. Many families already have such required papers, but Shaheen Bagh protest is not about proving their citizenship through submission of some written papers, it is about proving through their existence and support to each other. While some may have the documents, most poor people would hardly be able to produce such papers. So the general slogan became ‘Kagaz nahin dikhayenge’ (will not show the papers).The protesters raised slogans, through reciting poetry, ‘Kagaz nahin dikhayenge’ and ‘Tum kaun ho, bey? (who are you?)’.

Shaheen Bagh definitely represents the Muslim working-class neighbourhood; therefore their response against CAA/NRC could be tagged as protest of Muslims against the new citizenship law. The grand imagination of Shaheen Bagh inspires all as from the beginning it is made very clear that this is not a fight for the Muslims alone, it is a fight for everyone. On the contrary, to grasp the meaning of the movement, one must avoid the old religion versus secular binary. Shaheen Bagh goes beyond our conventional mindset of secularity. It could only spring from a deeper spiritual sense of a community belonging where everybody is included — all belongs together, with their unique difference and diversity, they exist in unity to constitute a collective that goes beyond the politics of secular modern state. This is why it is joined by the Dalits, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, atheists, secular and others.

The protesters are supported with snacks, biryani, bananas and bottled water distributed by young men, while the tea is provided at cold nights by the small tea shop owners. They made a make-shift stage where they sing songs, recite poetry, have solidarity speeches. Cheap mattresses are provided for them to sleep during their 24/7 protests. Even there is medical care for the protesters.

Could Shaheen Bagh protest make any impact on the government’s strong stand on the Citizenship Amendment Act? The answer is, ‘Yes.’ The CAA, which seeks to expedite procedure for naturalisation of non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Shaheen Bagh protest has visibly put the BJP-led NDA on the back-foot. The messages of Shaheen Bagh are not only depicted in the speeches, poems, drawings, but also in the posters hanging on the walls, over-bridges, shops — everywhere. These are very interesting messages. Some of them (in English) says ‘stop police brutality’, ‘save India from blood bath’, ‘CAB is divisive, stop dividing India’. The leadership is still in the hands of women — the dadis. Younger women as mothers over 40 years of age are joining in the leadership position. It is self-grown in the protest. Everyone has one’s own reason to be part of the protest. The younger leaderships are declaring ‘Until they take back their [policies], this will go on.’ Banners read, ‘When injustice becomes a law, resistance becomes a duty’.

Women’s fundamental questions of rights have become prominent in these protests. A widow said, ‘I don’t have a husband, and us ladies don’t even get property papers. Everything is in the name of the husband, so how will a woman prove [citizenship] through her papers?’ On the other hand, the poor men have no papers to prove their citizenship status.


An example from Bangladesh

IN BANGLADESH also, women’s protests over their land and rights defined by birth and death have also been very strong, but remained unnoticed till now. Most of these are ignored as they happen in remote areas and outside the capital city. Here I want to give the example of the Tea Garden Workers movement for land rights in Sylhet over the government plan of setting up of the Special Economic Zone. It was in Chandpur Tea Estate in Chunarughat Upazilla, Habiganj. In 2014, tea garden workers found out that the 512 acres of land in Chandpur Tea Estate which they were using for farming was in the list of setting up of the Special Economic Zones. For the workers, this land was their bare means of survival. The workers were getting very low wage from the tea garden, Tk 102 a day, which is much less than what they need to survive. They have been using the land to grow food to supplement their low wage. In 2015, when authorities came to inaugurate the SEZ, thousands of tea garden workers, could not greet them, but appeared with all kinds of traditional symbolic weapons such as the bow and arrow, demanding that the authorities leave their land. The workers held daily protests by suspending work inside the tea gardens. Some 16,000 families stand to be affected if the government takes away the farm land. This movement was also led by women, especially by older women. One of them was Satyabati Bakti, 95, a blind retired tea-worker of Chandpur Tea Estate. She was ready to take a bullet to protect her farmland.

Satyabati Bakti said, ‘If I could see, and had the energy, I would stand in front of my paddy field and tell them to shoot me before taking the land’. She was referring to her 15-decimal land, situated inside the Chandpur Tea Estate. Satyabati and her tea-labourer family rely on the land for their yearly supply of food. The protests were held during the chilly and foggy months of December 2015 through January 2016, but nothing stopped them from protesting day and night. This land is not just a supplementary income to their families, it is their identity. These tea garden workers were brought from different parts of India as bonded labour by the British over 200 years ago. They were allowed to cultivate the fallow land within the tea gardens. The owners of the tea garden deduct certain percentage of the workers’ daily ration for the use of each decimal of land. The deduction is almost like a payment of land tax. The housing and the cropland are passed down to the next generation along with the tea-labourer’s job. They are, however, not given any legal entitlement to the land. So having access to this land is part of their identity as tea garden workers of this particular estate.

The use of the land for Special Economic Zone was a brutal act on them; taking away their identity over the land to be passed on to the next generation. The workers protested and this movement became strong and uncompromising. For months, they guarded their rice farms and held demonstration and rallies, but the government remained firm in its decision. Fearing imminent eviction, the Chandpur Tea Estate workers have started a one-hour daily strike protesting the establishment of SEZ in their cropland since December 7, 2019.

When the rulers take away people’s basic rights, you do not need big leaders or organisations to lead the protest. People take any risk of their lives against the injustice. And of course, the strength of protest comes from women; the courage is built with women and in their collective actions.

The message of Shaheen Bagh is loud and clear. It does not matter if they are successful in the end, but they have already entered into the history of citizenship movement in India. Similarly in any movement, when it is led by common people, such as the tea garden workers in Bangladesh, they have sent the message loud enough to reach Dhaka. And whatever the government does after such protest, it will be seen as inhuman, immoral and perhaps ‘illegal’.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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