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Shaheen shut down? Not from collective memory

Books inspired by movement come out during lockdown that ended the protest
The protest at Shaheen Bagh on February 20, a little over a month before the lockdown was imposed and police  removed the protesters

Pheroze L. Vincent   |   New Delhi   |   Published 15.07.20, 02:39 AM

The Shaheen Bagh movement has inspired two books during the lockdown, which abruptly halted the spontaneous protest led by women against the new citizenship matrix in the heart of the capital.

Journalist couple Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf’s Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement is a bestseller in the pre-order stage on Amazon for over a month now. A collection of interviews, essays, reports and photographs titled Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, edited by veteran journalist Seema Mustafa, is due for release on Wednesday.

Just before the lockdown, Bhopal-based activist Ishrat Khan’s Shaheen Bagh Hoon Main — a Hindi primer on the changes in laws and the background of the longest-running street protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act — was released at the protest site.

Police evicted the women on March 24, after the Supreme Court’s mediation had failed to move them. The women had stayed put for more than three months since December 15, when they came out of their homes and simply sat down on the street after the police went on the rampage at Jamia Millia Islamia where students were protesting against the citizenship matrix.

Even after the peak had subsided by February, several people who were not organisers would still come and spend their day in the sun listening to the poetry, speeches and slogans. The community formed around the protest thrives now on social media.

The books take a supportive view of the protests that inspired several such gatherings across the country, all led by largely Muslim women.

Salam told The Telegraph: “We saw women who would not be deterred by slander — allegations by the BJP’s Amit Malviya that they were there for Rs 500 and some biryani. They were not browbeaten by attacks (firing by a fanatic, and attempted arson). They stayed there through the Delhi winter…. My wife and I spent time there and often stayed the night. This book is the result.”

Salam, a journalist in the capital for three decades who is now with Frontline, found the protest remarkable because the women stayed the course in large numbers and without turning violent.

“These were women who came out in protest for the first time. They had never turned out against the triple talaq, the Babri demolition or even when the court gave the (Ayodhya) land to the Hindus. They weren’t there for a Muslim cause. They held the Tricolour and the Constitution in either hand, not the Quran or the Shariat,” he said.

The book also talks about the prominent non-Muslim organisers, like Upasana Sharma, D.S. Bindra and the Sikh peasants from Punjab who fed protesters.

“The place became a metaphor of resistance with people naming protest sites across India as Shaheen Bagh…. It will not die simply due to a lockdown.”

Mustafa’s book includes essays by author Nayantara Sahgal, activists Harsh Mander and Subhashini Ali, lawyer Nandita Haksar, political scientist Zoya Hasan and several others.

“The book was done at the time of the protest, and we had finished work on it by the time the Delhi (communal) violence had ended (in late February). The release was delayed due to the lockdown…. The movement was an assertion of democracy and a common thread running through these essays is the Idea of India — of peace and communal harmony,” Mustafa said.

She explained that in her professional memory of covering social movements in India since the 1980s, Shaheen Bagh stands out for its nationwide appeal, peaceful nature and the strident expression of constitutionalism.

“If we were working on the book today, we could draw parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement…. In fact, in our history there have been several movements, be that of Dalits, or the movement against the CAA where we see such parallels. As a journalist, our job is not to dismiss them but understand them,” she said.

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