Polls & the anatomy of a protest.
New Delhi: Several weeks before Union home minister Amit Shah set in motion a chain of violent reactions with his goading at the January 27 election rally in Delhi — “Press the voting button so hard that the tremors are felt in Shaheen Bagh” — two people had seen it coming.
And when junior finance minister Anurag Thakur followed up Mr Shah’s instructions the next day by inciting people to chant “goli maro gaddaraon ko”, which in turn led 17-year-old Rambhakt Gopal to post “Shaheen Bagh, khel khatam” on his Facebook page before shooting at Jamia Millia Islamia’s anti-CAA protesters, Sharjeel Imam and Aasif Mujtaba, the two IITians who had led the protest at Shaheen Bagh, would have been unnerved. They would have recalled the “exit plan” they had negotiated with the Delhi Police and were ready to implement after the New Year.
If they could, they would have discussed the ominous comment of the police officer on that freezing night of January 1 that led to a chain of events they both had dreaded but couldn’t eventually avoid.
“Tum ko peacefully uthane se mana kar diya hai,” the officer had said to them, relaying instructions received from the Union home ministry.
They would have liked to discuss it, surely, except that Sharjeel was in police custody and Aasif remains besieged by the recurring shooting at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia University.
Sharjeel and Aasif had got a glimpse of how quickly and easily things could go wrong on December 15 itself. At around 4 pm, when a crowd in Jamia Nagar had lifted Sharjeel on their shoulders and asked, “Hamein kya karna chahiye?”, his two-word response, “Chakka Jaam” had led to the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest.
At round 5 pm, both sides of Road No. 13A that links Mathura Road and Kalindi Kunj to Noida, had been blocked with cement slabs, stones and police barricades. Sharjeel and Aasif, encircled by about 300 men, were taking turns to explain why it was important to protest.
“All we can do is disrupt,” said Sharjeel. “That is the only way to be heard. Sitting at Jantar Mantar, even for years, will yield nothing. We were talking of blocking both sides of the highway, of disrupting the water and milk supply to Delhi,” he told me over conversations that began on January 16.
The local AAP MLA, Amanatullah Khan, was not so keen. He said let’s get up now and organise a peaceful march to Amit Shah’s house next Friday.
“I said, ‘Hamein baithna hai, hum baithenge. Jisko jana hai woh jaye’,” Sharjeel said.
“Women had come and gone. At around 8.30 pm, police came and asked us to vacate at least one side of the road. I agreed, though I was not very happy,” Sharjeel said.
As soon as the barricades were removed from one side of the road, a protester, carrying the tricolour, started throwing stones at the passing vehicles.
“It was like a scene from Mumbai locals as people rushed back to the street and many started pelting stones,” Sharjeel recalled. He had a mike in his hand and kept shouting, “Stop the violence, don’t vandalise property”.
“You can’t win over a state by throwing stones,” Aasif said.
Police fired rubber bullets and Sharjeel left after 10 pm for Aasif’s home in Shaheen Bagh. During the night, 10-15 young men blocked both sides of the road again. “I returned, at around 7 am, and a crowd was sitting. I spoke for an hour about why not to pick up stones,” Sharjeel said.
People of Jamia Nagar, Shaheen Bagh, upset since December 11 when Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, were bristling with indignation when, just two days later, police entered Jamia Millia Islamia University and beat up several students.
Shaheen Bagh’s two lakh residents, living about a kilometre away from Jamia, are deeply connected with the university. Either they themselves, someone in their family or a neighbour studied or worked there.
“The December 13 police attack on Jamia students upset them greatly, especially the women... The sense of safety they once felt when their sons and daughters were in college was now gone,” Ehtmam, a law student at Jamia, said.
There was anger, and it had now found an avenue.
By December 16, a mike materialised and a makeshift stage was organised by some local Congress leaders on Road No. 13A.
“People have vested interests, and there was a Congress lobby versus a BJP lobby and we didn’t want to become players in it or its victims — so we formed a committee,” Sharjeel said.
The 12-member Shaheen Bagh Coordination Committee was focused on creating a safe space for people to sit in peaceful protest and use the stage for students, scholars and experts to talk about CAA, NRC, citizen’s rights, the Constitution and the law.
Sharjeel Imam and Aasif Mujtaba, who had met for the first time on December 14, during anti-CAA protests at Jamia, led the charge.
Sharjeel, a BTech and MTech in computer science from IIT Mumbai, is now a student of history pursuing his PhD in JNU. Aasif, a resident of Shaheen Bagh, who did his BTech and MTech in environmental engineering from IIT Delhi, is pursuing his PhD from IIT.
Sharjeel, more than Aasif, was mindful of the threat of violence and the possibility of the Shaheen Bagh protest being politicised and sabotaged.
“There was talk of Delhi elections ke pehle saza de denge, vardaat ho jayegi,” Sharjeel said.
So on the 5th day of the protest, eight CCTV cameras were installed in and around the tent. Footage was relayed to a backend office.
As days progressed and new challenges came up, several sub-committees were formed.
In between the sloganeering, singing and speeches, Sharjeel repeatedly spoke of avoiding cash donations that people were offering.
“We said no cash, give kambal, chai patti, cheeni, but no cash… That could even lead to NSA (National Security Act)… And then one day, a donation box appeared. I sat on the stage and said remove it,” Sharjeel said.
Someone sent biryani, someone brought boiled eggs, and someone sent helmets for protection in case of a police attack.
At one point, Sharjeel recalled, there was a theological discussion over what Prophet Mohammed had said — that “Kisi ka rasta band karna sunnat ke khilaf hai”.
“We said, hum kisika rasta nahin rok rahe, hum sadak band kar rahe hain. People can walk,” Sharjeel said.
Sharjeel Imam’s politics is that of a strident scholar. He nitpicks and is critical of all.
“I hardly spoke against the BJP at Shaheen Bagh,” he said. But in a style that exudes a scholar’s intellectual confidence and an activist’s moral certitude, he routinely dismisses some well-regarded Muslim historians, takes a strong position against not just the Congress and the Left, but also his college mate Kanhaiya Kumar who, he says, is a pointless public attraction that gathers huge crowds but changes nothing.
If they’d listen, Sharjeel’s beliefs would warm the cockles of many saffron hearts. “The Congress has not been secular. Even our Constitution is not secular — only a Hindu can be a dalit as per the 1950 presidential order, not a Muslims or a Christian,” he would say often in his speeches.
“The point was to tell them that the Congress is not your sympathiser… If the Congress was so concerned about the CAA and the NRC, they could have blocked Delhi on their own,” said Sharjeel.
The anti-CAA movement was gaining strength and Shaheen Bagh was turning into its powerful pivot. It was more than just a peaceful dharna — it was a moral force field whose ripples were being felt not just on Raisina Hill, but across the country.
Locally, the dharna was causing inconvenience to a lot of people. Though one side of the barricaded road was being kept free for ambulances and school buses to pass, all other traffic between Kalindi Kunj and Noida was diverted, leading to long, harrowing jams.
Several showrooms on Road No. 13A remained shut. “The shopkeepers were criticising us every day, saying `60-70 lakh ka stock credit pe liya hua hai, staff bhi garib hai. Your blockade has shut our businesses but we have to pay staff salaries, we have to pay rent,” Aasif said.
“The police was also saying, ab tum hato, khali karo, bahut ho gaya — almost every day, till the 1st of January,” Aasif said.
Sharjeel, Aasif and other members of the Shaheen Bagh committee had regular meetings with the police, often at night, near the police barricade, at a distance of about 100 metres from the protest tent. The plan was to keep the protest going for some days, then call off the blockade and carry forward the movement in some other form. Many were leaning towards Hong Kong-style flash mobs blocking roads, when they wanted, where they wanted.
The “exit plan” worked out with at least three senior police officials, including one from the local thana, had been discussed over and over.
“We had been negotiating with the police... We were very clear and had said New Year tak baithnege, New Year ke baad, agar uthana hai, toh kaise uthayenge… Bring lots of women constables and remove the protesting women, open the blockade on both sides of Road No. 13A... The police had agreed,” Sharjeel said.
The Delhi Police forcibly entering a Muslim neighbourhood was not a scenario anyone wanted.
“Since Jamia, the police was on the backfoot. And Shaheen Bagh mein ghusenge toh police walle bhi zaroor mare-jayenge. So the best option was to dislodge the protesters nicely, peacefully… promotion bhi mil jayega,” Sharjeel said.
“On 31st and 1st night there was a huge crowd,” recalled Aasif, suggesting that the sit-in protest had been successful in highlighting the communal, divisive nature of CAA nationally and internationally and it was now time to move out of Shaheen Bagh.
But on the night of January 1, the cops changed their tune. “They said they didn’t have enough female constables,” both Sharjeel and Aasif told me separately.
“It is out of our hands,” the cops said. The matter was now being handled by the Union home ministry and the instructions were “not to intervene”.
“Is mein hamara kya fayeda hoga? Nahin uthana. Jo karna hai karne do,” is what the cops said they had been told.
“Tum ko peacefully uthane se mana kar diya hai… court bhi intervene nahin karega,” Sharjeel recalled a police officer telling him.
He understood, Aasif didn’t.
“Maine kaha, aap peacefully nahin uthayenge toh hum baithe rahenge. Phir directly mujhse hi bola, ‘Main dobara bol raha hoon, ki hum peacefully nahin uthayenge’,” Aasif said.
“Toh peaceful nahin uthane ka matlab hai ki they wanted isko violently uthayen. Aur violently uthane ke liye sabse achcha hai ki isko pura communal colour de dein — Shaheen Bagh ka jo face hai, peaceful protest ka, woh khatam ho jaye,” Aasif said.
“On January 2, I was walking and thinking, if we don’t have an exit plan, hum akele pad jayenge. Elections were about to be announced and polarisation will help the BJP... Anyone can start a scuffle… 10-20 men dressed as Muslims. Then the police will get a chance to enter the mohalla... Bachche uthaye jayenge. If violence happens, we will be held responsible,” said Sharjeel, whose PhD is on Hindu-Muslim riots.
“There was now marginal utility of the protest and the roadblock, and it was further reducing for us. But it was increasing for the BJP,” Sharjeel said.
Sharjeel and Aasif asked the protesters to vacate the protest site. But people, especially women, were in no mood to leave.
Humera, a resident of Shaheen Bagh and a student of zoology, had been managing the stage all these days. When I first texted her on January 14, she couldn’t talk as she had lost her voice anchoring and giving speeches.
I met her a few days later. “There was constant fear of violence — we were conscious of it 24x7. We tried to explain to people that we should move. But they were like ke, ‘Nahin, hum nahin hatenge… We’ve been sitting here for 17-18 days but haven’t got the result we wanted, so why should we leave?’ We could not convince people,” Humera said.
On January 2, Sharjeel put out a statement: “We have taken back the chakka jaam of Shaheen Bagh Road to avoid violence and attempt by goons to politicise the movement. We are afraid that the BJP wants violence by not bringing in the police.” He also wrote of money being used to taint the movement.
From that moment, Sharjeel, “the Gandhi of Shaheen Bagh”, became a “traitor, gaddar,” accused of having taken “`1-2 crore from Amit Shah”.
As Sharjeel and Aasif stepped back and others took charge, the character of the Shaheen Bagh protest changed.
There was an unsaid rule now, about not revealing the organisers, and not putting a face or a name to the movement.
Though the message that Sharjeel, Aasif and others had drilled in — not to trust any political party — stayed, the sound and optics changed.
The Shaheen Bagh protest now sounded less scholarly, more participative. It also looked unapologetically Islamic, organic.
Shaheen Bagh’s moral force kept growing. The longer the women stayed, Shaheen Bagh’s attraction and popularity increased, as did the cooperation and sacrifice of those working behind the scenes, or just quietly supporting the protest.
As temperatures dipped and chai kept brewing night and day, the nearby Warda Hospital kept its bathrooms open for women protesters and visitors. Some homes remained open too, offering beds and washrooms.
The owners of the buildings on the main road, where shops and showrooms had been shut since December 15, decided that no rent will be charged for the duration of the protest.
Artists from across the country came to create protest art. A small 24x7 health camp with doctors came up. Volunteers set up a library for children whose mothers were sitting in protest.
A map of India in circulation on social media shows the sites of at least 40 Shaheen Bagh-like protests that have come up across the country.
Everyone I spoke with, to try and understand how and when had women become the main protesters, gave vague answers. Most put it down to women being more upset by the attack on Jamia students, especially girls. Some said that they were inspired by Ayesha Renna, Ladeeda Farzana and Shaheen Abdullah — the three hijab-clad girls who had shielded a male student from police beating.
But there were several practical reasons behind this brilliant idea.
Men and women sitting together day and night is not an acceptable scenario in any Indian residential colony. There was also concern that men could be removed forcibly and detained at any time, most likely in the dead of night.
Women, on the other hand, can only be arrested by women cops, and never after sunset or before sunrise.
Women leading the protest also posed a dilemma for the BJP government. It is difficult to target mothers, grandmothers and turn them into hate figures.
Attacking women, especially Muslim women after the BJP had made triple talaq a poll plank in Delhi elections, was not going to fly.
On January 6, the Election Commission announced that polling in Delhi will take place on February 8 and votes will be counted on February 11. A day later a survey predicted that the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was all set to sweep back to power in Delhi with 59 of the 70 seats. The BJP, a distant second, was tipped to get eight seats, an embarrassing increase of just five from its 2015 tally. The Congress was not really in play.
The AAP’s best bet was to keep the election campaign, the narrative focussed on local issues — pani, bijli, sadak, health clinics, but the BJP needed a mudda, and for this it needed an enemy with a face.
The women of Shaheen Bagh would not do and that lament was clear in Yogi Adityanath’s comment on January 22. While addressing a pro-citizenship law rally in Kanpur, he asked why the men of Shaheen Bagh were “sleeping under the quilt while women have been pushed forward”.
A man was needed — someone who would naturally fit the anti-national template created by the BJP. Someone who was easy to identify, by his clothes, speech, college.
Sharjeel Imam, from Delhi Public School, Vasant Vihar, who had not just studied but also taught at IIT Mumbai, would not make the cut. Like the Crocs he wore under his kurta-pyjama, the ensemble didn’t gel.
But a JNU scholar with a bushy beard who spoke of cutting off Assam from the rest of the country did.
On January 25, a five-minute clip of Sharjeel’s speech went viral and Assam police filed a case against him. Several other states followed suit. Except Delhi, all were states with BJP governments.
He was accused of sedition, provocation with the intent to cause riots.
Since the first week of December, Sharjeel Imam and many other students of JNU, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia had been actively engaged in educating people about CAA and NRC. They were distributing pamphlets and delivering speeches in which they asked people to organise themselves, to block roads.
Sharjeel’s hour-long speech, delivered on January 16 on the footpath outside AMU, was no different.
He spoke approvingly of constitutional spirit, but said the Constitution is not secular. He discussed the Poona Pact, called Mahatma Gandhi a “fascist”, criticised the Congress, talked of the history of violence of the Left and Right, and said Indian history had been written by pandits. “We have to write our own history.”
While speaking of people’s anger against CAA and NRC, he said students, scholars should take charge and channel it productively, for an outcome. After sensitisation, there must be a plan of action.
“Delhi kyun band karna hai — Delhi band karna hai kyunki awam ko takleef ho,” he says and adds that while protesting, people must guard against violence, sabotage and political takeover.
It’s at about 30 minutes into the speech that we come to the five minutes where he talks of Assam: “If 5 lakh people come together and sit in dharna, they can cut off Assam from the rest of India at least for a month or two. Only then will we, they be heard.”
He mentions the Chicken’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connects the Northeast with the rest of India, being Muslim dominated and says that if 5 lakh Muslims were to mobilise, they could hamper the Army’s movement and supply.
He is talking of a dharna, a chakka jaam. Not an armed rebellion.
The five-minute clip played on a loop on certain TV channels with the hashtag #tukdetukdegang. The Shaheen Bagh protest had been forcibly given a face and attacking it now became easy.
On January 24, Union minister Prakash Javadekar, speaking at an election rally, asked Delhi voters to decide whether they wanted “Jinnah wali azaadi or Jai Mata Di”.
On January 28, Sharjeel was arrested, the same day when, in a video that went viral, Anurag Thakur, Union minister of state for finance, is seen prompting a crowd at an election rally. “Desh ke gaddaron ko...”, he says, to which the crowd responds “...goli maaro sa***n ko”.
On January 29, a news report said the BJP’s fortunes in Delhi Assembly elections are on an upswing, and an internal poll was predicting at least 30-35 of the 70 seats in Delhi.
One of the main reasons for the change, according to two unnamed leaders, was the rising resentment against the sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh.
A week after Yogi Adityanath called for all those chanting the “azaadi” slogan to be charged with sedition, Rambhakt Gopal aimed a gun at anti-CAA protesters in Jamia and said, “Ye lo azaadi.”
Tarannum Begum from Batla House, Okhla, is a widow and mother of three and has been sitting in protest at Shaheen Bagh since December 15. She says she has no choice but to protest, to save herself and her children from discrimination, harassment and being sent to detention centres.
“Maine socha tha ki hamare Wazir-e-Azam hain, awam ke badshah hain, Pradhan Mantri hain, woh hamari takleef samjhenge... Jaise ma-baap apne bachche ki sunte hain, vaise woh hamari sunenge. Woh aaj tak aa kar yeh pooch bhi na sake ki kya pareshani hai?” she said.
“Article 370 par, Kashmir par, Ayodhya judgment par, hum sab ne sarkar ki izzat rakhi… Sarkar kehti hai ki triple talaq se woh Muslim women ko protect karna chahte hai, toh un auraton ko protect karna nahin chahti jo Shaheen Bagh mein baithi hain?”
On a good day, the 17 km-long drive from 7, Lok Kalyan Marg to Shaheen Bagh takes about 37 minutes.
In the Prime Minister’s cavalcade, which moves at 120 km per hour, that distance would take a little over 10 minutes.
If Mr Modi were to come, he will see tirangas painted on faces, fluttering in small hands, on the barricades, on the stage, on every bamboo stick and pole in sight, and he will hear both, a wail and a warning.