The spectre of the Corona virus epidemic is a major challenge to the last 90+ days long Muslim women led protests against the Central government’s intention to implement the NPR and NRC and CAA on a nationwide scale. By early March, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs memo
to the states, the protests which started with Shaheen Bagh in Delhi in mid-December were replicated with minor differences at 291 sites across the nation. In Bengaluru we have our own Bilal Bagh, off Tannery road.
Ever since the protests started three months back the protestors have been under attack by the BJP government and other right-wing Hindutva forces. The primary attacks have been verbal, through public discourse. The protestors have been called anti-national, they have been accused of being sponsored by the opposition parties, they have been vilified in derogatory terms, police action has been threatened, court cases have been filed, even attempts have been made to incite violence.
Yet, throughout the period the women of the many Baghs maintained their calm, displayed remarkable resolve, and did not let these sites become sites of communal or anti-state violence.
Through the protests, the 14.2% Muslim population of India asserted its right to citizenship, found their space in the national narrative.By doing so, they came out of the corner in which the right-wing had relegated them when it came to power.
The protestors found great solidarity from people from other communities, majorly from the student community, activists and concerned citizens.
The protests have helped the Muslims and all the non-Hindutva people of the nation to reclaim the articles of nationhood that had been snatched from them over the last few years: the national flag, the nationalistic slogans, the national anthem. Since December, state after non-BJP state declared they will not conduct the National Population Register exercise. To the right-wing’s horror for the first time in the last seven years since it came to power, it did not control the narrative, it did not dictate the discourse, it took a solid beating.
What has really happened through these protests is that the women of the multiple Baghs have pinned down Hindutva’s slippery tongue. They have pushed the government to be accountable – stand by what you say or retract. Since the government declared its intention to press the citizenship register in early December 2019 and before that in the BJP Manifesto, it has started back-tracking. First, in late December, the Prime Minister said there will be no NRC, ‘there were no plans discussed’. Second,in February, the Home Minister in a Times Now Summit depicted NPR as almost a benign exercise where ‘no papers will be necessary’. Until date, with 10 days left to the beginning of the NPR exercise in BJP-ruled states, the framework has not been notified.
Yet, the government will never openly retract. This is ego, this is supremacy, or at least the display of being all powerful. However, in courts, just three days back, as if from the backdoor, the government has filed an affidavit that ‘NRC is necessary’
. This reveals BJP’s forked tongue. It shows the BJP will never become accountable and answer the women of India’s many Baghs.
In late January and early February, facing imminent defeat during Delhi election campaigns, the BJP tried its best to vilify the protests.
Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs, Anurag Thakur led a chant, ‘desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko’. It was replicated thousands of times through the campaign and after.
Home Minister Amit Shah said, ‘We have to dismantle those thousands of Shaheen Baghs. (Referring to ballot) ‘aisa button dabana, current Shaheen Bagh ko lage
’. It was a plan. BJP understands that the more it targets the Muslims, the greater is its vote gain. It showed in the Delhi election results – a 6% gain in vote share.
When the Delhi elections were over and AAP won, the right-wing leader Kapil Mishra issued a notice to Delhi police to evict the Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh protests in Delhi. He led a pro-CAA protest. Such a protest is a mockery for who protests in favour of a law cleared by the Parliament? This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
The antipathy towards the protests and the vilification of the Muslims resulted in an anti-Muslim pogrom. North East Delhi burnt for over three days. As of now, a total of 53 people (both Hindu and Muslim) died, hundreds were injured, property worth hundreds of crores was burnt and destroyed, no one knows how many have fled. BJP made sure Arvind Kejriwal,the AAP chief minister, stayed silent, did not help the citizens, did not even provide adequate relief. The pogrom established the BJP as the supremoes of Delhi. That is how, through their aggression and apathy, the BJP tried to dust off the Baghs of the nation.
For any protest to succeed, it is important that the protestor and the one against whom the protest is made, occupy the same moral universe. Sadly, that is not the case here. The protestors and the BJP or Hindutva occupy different moral universes. The BJP actually gains a macho image by targeting the Muslims.Its support in a Hindu majority nation increases as evidenced in the Delhi elections. That is why the BJP has no reason to engage with the protestors.
In such a case, it is incumbent upon protestors to snap an economic lifeline. In the case of Shaheen Bagh it was one road on the Noida-Faridabad route. The police had blocked several other roads.The people found it cumbersome to travel. A case was filed in the Supreme Court. The court sent interlocutors, more roads were opened. The protests were no longer affecting the economy, they seemed to weaken.
That is why, though still the many Baghs continue to persist, it has led to an impasse. With an unrelenting government, with NPR still not rolled back though given the threat of the virus it seems impossible to enact it now by April 1st, it is a question of how long to continue the protests? Now with the virus threat, everybody is concerned about an epidemic outbreak. The number of people gathering for protests has waned, so the question is: what should the protestors do?
Naturally, there are many opinions and differences between the protestors and allies on whether to suspend the protests or not. Ramazan is approaching and while the winters were harsh (in north India), long sit-ins will be very hard in summer. The question that comes up in the context of the protest is: to what end? Will the protesters be able to push back the government which remains apathetic? Is the BJP not responding because it is trying to wear out the protestors?
On the other hand, ever since the COVID-19 news, regular media is spinning a story that the protestors are not mindful about the threat, the risk. They are adamant. They are risking lives.
Last evening I went to Bilal Bagh to check how they were holding up. I noticed many more tricolours than last time I was there about 10 days back. Though I was there in the evening, an hour when crowds earlier used to start assembling, I noticed the crowd was much thinner than earlier times. I was greeted with the ritual cleaning of hands with sanitizers, I was suggested to wear a face mask. The protestors themselves make masks now, like they make sanitizers.
One of the organisers told me that mostly only women under 35 years of age are allowed to sit for longer periods.The women sit segregated from each other by more than three feet or one meter. Like earlier, the men stood at a distance, outside the tent, but the change was that this time they maintained a distance between them.
While earlier children were allowed to the protests and there was a running library, now the children have been told not to come. Instead, there is a health clinic where doctors Danish, Almas, Mahmood attend to patients for check-ups. We discussed how the organisers can bring in a bit of symbolism to the protest – empty chairs with placards saying: ‘No to NPR-NRC-CAA’; a row of footwear marking people; and so on. We agreed that what is important is the count of days should not stop. Yesterday, it was the 42nd day in Bengaluru.
Credit: Bilal Bagh
Two days back the PM addressed the nation. His speech was the same old platitudes, the same vacuous jingoism with no substantial sharing of government’s preparedness, action plan, even approach to handle the crises looming large. In comparison, the women of Bilal Bagh are actually taking action and have the welfare of people on mind.
Theatre practitioner and volunteer Nisha Abdulla says, ‘It is important to respect the choice made by those who are at the frontlines. The protestors are aware of the risk and continue the sit-in because they feel quite strongly about both: threat of the virus to life and threat to dignity by NPR-NRC-CAA’
It is true. Let each Bagh around the nation decide what it wants to do. The most important aspect in the last three months is that women have reclaimed public spaces and have set the narrative. The Muslims have come out without being inhibited of their dress and speech and way of being. Bilal Bagh demonstrates that just like the women did not let the protests become communal sites, they will try their best that these sites do not become spaces of virus infestation. Given the increasing threat of the Corona virus spread, even if the women choose to withdraw for now, it would never be a retreat. It would be strategic.
Nisha adds, ‘Why isn't this regime held to the same level of scrutiny that peaceful protestors are held up to? Before you blame protestors for being irresponsible, blame the regime for being blind and deaf to legitimate questions raised by multiple protest sites across the country.’
The women of Bilal Bagh hark at the humanity of the people of this nation. They continue to hope the government will be influenced, it will respond. Though those chances seem remote, when histories are written and the arrogance of the powerful is denounced, it is these protests that will go down to future generations as the voice of the people.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines
Pics: Amandeep Sandhu & Nisha Abdulla.
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