PERSPECTIVE
INNER CITY STING
The Root Of Protest At Shaheen Bagh Is Rural Distress
- CHARU SONI
The Root Of Protest At Shaheen Bagh Is Rural Distress



"You can’t enter from here.”

"Why?”

"You can’t. This entrance is meant only for residents of Sharam Nagar.”

"Sharam Nagar?”

A new informal police code — Sharam Nagar or Shame City — has been invented for Shaheen Bagh (lit. Garden of Falcons) the site of anti-CAA, NPR, NRC protest that has galvanized the nation, sprouted multiple protest sites in various Indian states and made international headlines for its democratic spirit of resistance.

Shaheen Bagh, an irregular colony that came up on the Yamuna floodplains 15 years ago, is a stone’s throw from upscale Sarita Vihar and Jasola Vihar housing enclaves. To get there, after the shooting incident at the site during Delhi’s legislative assembly elections on 1 February 2020, you have to take the OKHLA Metro Station iron foot-over bridge. The earlier access from the major arterial road connecting Delhi with Noida has been barricaded, except for a narrow opening created for local residents and manned by policemen sitting at a table with a large register.

"All residents have to write their details, show driver’s licence, voter card or Adhaar card.”

The policeman’s tone is dismissive. The register full of notations.

The OKHLA Metro Station foot-bridge takes you over a nala to Abu Fazal Enclave and Shaheen Bagh one of the many "unauthorised” habitations of Delhi. The nala is a sewer drain that originates in Tughlaqabad and leads to STPs (sewage treatment plants) at the OKHLA headworks.

Tughlaqabad Drain (Sewer) that divides authorised colony of Jasola Vihar from unauthorised basti of Shaheen Bagh


THE TRIGGER

The protest at Shaheen Bagh was triggered by the simultaneous attack on Jamia Milia Islamia University which is situated in the same district and the Aligarh Muslim University, some 130 kilometers away. The women of Shaheen Bagh came out of their homes and sat on the road, connecting Delhi with Noida, to protest the attacks and voice their opposition to the Kala Kanoon, the day after police brutality at the two universities.

The ruling party keen to win the Delhi legislative assembly did not anticipate this development. But it did anticipate that there would be protests, which it thought it could suppress and harvest for political gain. The parallel brutal police action against protesting Muslims in Delhi’s neighbouring areas in the state of Uttar Pradesh— Bijnor, Rampur, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Kanpur and so on — was to galvanize the "India” vs "Pakistan” narrative. Delhi’s majority Hindu population (80% according to 2011 census) it was hoped would see protesting Muslims, so close to Delhi, as "anti-national” or "terrorist” i.e., dangerous to their well-being. It was a Machiavellian plan and to an extent it worked. BJP got 38.5% of Delhi’s vote.
 

Jasola Vihar. To contrast with Shaheen Bagh and the nala that seperates them


BJP lost the elections because Arvind Kejrival’s AAP was able to offer the voters alternative narrative to demonizing Muslims, where, as Aditya Nigam has rightly pointed out AAP won by offering the politics of commons: "…where the battle is being fought to make education and health part of an imagined modern commons rather than utilities to be handed over to private predators.”

Throughout the BJP’s vicious campaigning, Shaheen Bagh calmly faced the vile accusations with stoic calmness and passive resistance. They did not rise to the bait. They voted for AAP candidate, Amanatullah Khan with roots in Kanpur.

THE LARGER PICTURE

The strength of Shaheen Bagh is its women. But the location of the habitation is as important. For one, it is part of Delhi and is situated close to Mathura Road (formerly the Grand Trunk Road). Two, it’s just 12 kilometers from Parliament, i.e., it exists under the nose of the ruling dispensation. Three, it is accessible by public transport, including the Metro, allowing people to gather at the site often and with ease.
 
However, the most important aspect of Shaheen Bagh core protesters are its linkages with Delhi’s neighbourhood.

Make shift library. A bus stop has been converted into a reading room named after Savitri Phule


Those living in the Shaheen Bagh are not people from Mars or Venus, Mumbai or Hyderabad, majority of them have shifted here from Delhi’s centuries old neighbourhoods, especially Uttar Pradesh. Some, but in smaller numbers, are from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even, Bihar. Basically, if you take a pair of compasses (compass drawing tool) and place its tip on OKHLA and the pencil on Agra and draw a circle, all the places falling within it and around it, form the neighbourhood one is talking about.

THE CRUX

Prof Sarah Farooqi writing in The Caravan, has pointed out that the population of Shaheen Bagh increased exponentially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. "Members of the Muslim community, residing until then in mixed localities began to migrate to this area for the sake of security.”

While that may be reason for some of the migration to the area, there are other factors at work that account for the motivations that spur the anti-CAA protests, especially at Shaheen Bagh.

Bilkis Begum, one of the three Dadis, that has been turned into an icon of the Shaheen Bagh protest.

 
Muslima Malik, from Shahpur near Muzaffarnagar, one of the protesters at the site from day one, says she shifted to Shaheen Bagh 15-years ago after her husband found work in the city as a petty businessman. Hailing from a farming community, Malik claims that they "sublet their land (theke par diya) and moved to the city for better opportunities.” Her eldest son aged 18 studies in a college near Nainital and family members, a brother and other relatives, continue to live in Shahpur. Another lady, Shama said she had come to take part in the protest from Meerut, 70 km away from Delhi, as she has relatives staying in Shaheen Bagh.

Though these two examples are anecdotal it would appear that many of the Shaheen Bagh and Abu Fazl Enclave residents have strong linkages with villages, qasbas and towns in Delhi’s neighbourhood. These linkages have deep roots in the changing agricultural landscape, social relations and economic structures of the regions they originate from.

Posters on the footover bridge on the site of the protest in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. Note the poster with Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan juxtaposed with Ambedkar (to the left) and the poster of slogans made popular by Kanhaiya and having deep resonance with protesters: "Azadi from Bhedbhaw, Jativaad, Bhrashtachar, Beorzgari, Bhukmari, Pakshwad (to the right of the frame)


As Prof Farooqi noted in her article, many of the protesters are from artisan-service and labour caste groups such as carpenters, barbers, weavers and washermen.

In his incisive study of Khanpur village near Meerut, anthropologist Satendra Kumar in 2018 published "Badalta Gao, Badalta Dehat” (Changing Village, Changing Ruralscape) points to the breakdown of agrarian relations after 1995 and the changes wrought by the Panchayati Raj Act (73rd Amendment) of 1992. The most critical change of this amendment was the reservation of seats for the SC, ST and women on no less than one-third of the seats and provision of financial powers for the Panchayats. The 73rd Amendment, Kumar notes, was revolutionary for the Khanpur village, which was dominated by Jat, Gujjar and Brahman landowners, who suddenly found themselves marginalised in terms of population strength.

The loss in earnings from agriculture, subdivision of land, and the change in agrarian relations between the landowners and labouring classes and artisan caste groups, meant that more and more people turned to seek employment in other professions and often outside the village, in small towns and big cities, like Delhi, Noida and Gurugram. The 73rd Amendment, caused labourers and artisans to form a common front against the rich, upper caste and/or landowning communities. This included both Hindu and Muslim populations. In 2013, the anthropologist notes, the landowners, used the Muzafarnagar riots to boost their numbers by playing the Hindutva card at the local Panchayat elections at the Khanpur village, which they won with handsome margin.

Ambedkar poster hanging from the footover bridge at the protest site


This polarisation on grounds of religion not only alienated the Muslim but also brought Jatav, Saini, Gariyal and Dalit communities to the landowner’s side of the fence in Khanpur. In this context, the rise of the Chamar leader, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan in Saharanpur, reflects the push back of the labouring classes and dalits against the rise of Hindutva boosted upper crust villainy in the villages and towns. His choice of aligning with Muslims and the Indian Constitution, are two major aspects of this ongoing change.

Shaheen Bagh, where Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan has made an appearance, and where his and Ambedkar’s photographs occupy the pride of place, are indicative of the old rural alliances that are attempting to regroup under the umbrella of a new democratic movement, that anti-CAA, NPR and NRC have provided. This is also the reason why Kanhaiya’s chant of Azadi from bhedbhaw (caste discrimination), jatiwad (ethnic discrimination), bhrashtachar (corruption), berozgari (joblessness), bhukmari (hunger) and pakshwad (taking sides) has found a deep resonance.

"Hum Durga bhi ban sakti hai, aur Ma Kali bhi” (we can be Durga and Kali when needed) Muslima Malik tells me looking straight into my eyes from under the black burkha. I believe her, and hope this protest, takes on the juggernaut of hate, caste politics, patriarchy and obscurantism that the BJP-RSS combine is perpetuating.

But this battle is a long one. And it is one that goes far beyond the constitutional validity of an act. It’s a battle for survival, dignity, rebirth and reinvention, hopefully of a new and more just Hindustan. In the words of Rahat Indori, "Jo aaj saahibe masnad hain kal nahin honge/ Kiraaydaar hain jaati makaan thodi hai” (Those that occupy the throne today, will not be there tomorrow/ They are tenants, this land is not their private property.)
 

 

Charu Soni is a senior journalist and historian.

 

Photographs: Charu Soni

 

 


 


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