If on a winter’s night, azadi...
Sarover Zaidi and Samprati Pani offer an illustration of the Shaheen Bagh protest
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad, they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row (1965)
© 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music
On 11 February 2020, results day of the Delhi Assembly elections, the road to Shaheen Bagh was filled with protestors with black bands around their faces and placards saying “Aaj maun dharna hai. Hum kisi party ko support nahi karte hain” (Today is a silent demonstration. We don’t support any political party). The day before, students from Jamia had been thrashed, abused, and detained by the police to prevent them from carrying out a peaceful march to the Parliament.
For more than sixty days, the women of Shaheen Bagh had been demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.1 They had reiterated again and again that no political party backed them, nor did they support any political party. No political party had come forward to have a dialogue with them to date. Was the silence of the protestors on 11 February a technique, a protest, or a voice saying “you can’t silence us”?
The following set of fragments from December 2019 to mid-February 2020 is our attempt to think through what it means to live in a city of dissent and a city under siege. This essay is as much about the making of the iconic protest site of Shaheen Bagh as it is about emergent forms of life, publics, and placemaking in a city—and a nation—being reconfigured by the normalization of barricades.
The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) was enacted on 11 December 2019 as an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 to provide citizenship to certain types of illegal immigrants. The Act allows for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who had illegally migrated to India from three countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—to be eligible for Indian citizenship. The rationale provided by the Union government for extending the provision to only these six religions and only to people coming from these three countries was that people of these religions faced persecution in these Muslim majority countries. Yet, the term ‘persecution’ is nowhere mentioned in the Act, making it discriminatory against Muslim immigrants as well as immigrants from other religions and countries. The enactment of CAA sparked widespread protests across the country on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and against India’s secular ethos. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is meant to enumerate legal citizens of India on the basis of documentary proof. Read along with the CAA, protestors expressed apprehension that it would discriminate against Muslims and other vulnerable sections of the population, deem them as illegal, and put them in the detention camps being set up by the Indian state. The women of Shaheen Bagh were protesting against the CAA and NRC, among other issues, as well as the police brutality that took place on 15 December 2019 against students of Jamia Millia Islamia who were protesting against the Act. ↩
A friend from far away writes to me to find out the names of the artists who have made the posters, installations, and other artworks at Shaheen Bagh. I tell her that there are so many of them and yet no one person in particular. Everyone is doing something—painting, drawing, welding, writing, making. Whose idea, whose imagination, whose materials, whose labour, and whose dissent has gone into what? What transformed construction debris into words, a Wikipedia page into a political banner, paper boats into hope, or a road into a zone of care and freedom? The Delhi Police faced a similar dilemma when it wanted to speak to the “organizers” of the protest—who are the leaders and who are not, who are the protestors and who are not, who are the supporters and who are the spectators. Where does the protest begin and where does it end? Does it begin from across the Yamuna in Delhi and end in Mumbra in Maharashtra? How many worlds does it create in its mimesis and alterity?
Shaheen Bagh is a sit-in, it’s a candlelight march, a women’s space, a library, and a metro station we had never been to. It’s a hangout zone, a bus stop, a night market, and an outpost. And it’s got parents with children and children with parents, teenagers and grandmothers, and Sikh farmers from Punjab. It’s got Defence Colony, Mayur Vihar, and Amroha. It’s got musicians, moongphali wallas,1 democracy wallas, and family-outing wallas. It’s got the South Delhi wallas, the East Delhi wallas, and the selfie wallas. It’s got Muslims and Hindus, hipsters and dharam wallas,2 secularists and post-secularists, photographers and filmmakers. It’s got feminists and born-agains, sceptics and believers, Shias and Sunnis, and Jamia and AMU. Even the Japanese came to Shaheen Bagh on some days. It’s got elites and super elites, communists and welders, traders from Seelampur and poets from Kashmir, and actors and dancers. It’s got working women, school teachers, beauticians, and historians. It’s got Ambedkar and Gandhi speaking from the same dais.
It’s a cold winter night and another cold winter night, it’s many cold winter nights. It’s erasure; it’s a coming out. It’s Facebook Live, Twitter feeds, and Instagram stories that are recording, archiving, and circulating history as it is being made. It’s a home, a daily routine of sending kids to school, cooking, and taking turns for household tasks. It’s a women’s protest, it’s shyness and anger—“I have never spoken in a public place,” “I have always been a housewife, but I am here.”
It’s got lovers, ex-lovers, future beloveds, young first dates, and old couples making their way through and becoming the protest. It’s got songs, candlelight, mobile phone torchlights, and flags, and more and more flags. It now has a nihari walla1 and an espresso walla. It’s got book nerds, armchair warriors, youth leaders, and not-so-youth leaders. It’s got conversations with Babasaheb and Bismil at the detention booth. It’s got angry young men and angrier young women. It’s got gentleness and shyness. It’s a road, a backyard, a mohalla,2 a mela,3 a movement, a metonym, a zenana,4 a qasba.5 It’s a city. It’s a public square. It’s a circle of friends. It’s two boys in the gully cursing the young wannabe poets. It’s the besuras6 and the sur wallas.7 It’s a soundscape, a camerascape.
And even when the mike stops working, it’s still shouting out clearly, “Azadi.”8
In Manto’s story “Toba Tek Singh,” the madman lies in the no man’s land between two sets of barbed wire, muttering and swearing, “Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di dal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun” (The inattention of the annex of the rumbling upstairs of the dal of moong of the Pakistan and India of the go to bloody hell)—an incoherence that was perhaps the only response to the bizarre travesty that was the partition. The madman laughs at the nonsensical marking of the border and the splitting of a people into two parts, an affliction that did not and will not end suffering in the futures of the divided nations. Was the partition ever completed or does it continue to inhabit our cities, towns, and villages in the form of religion and caste-based neighbourhoods, working-class slums, and Muslim ghettos?
Was the nation cast in these continuously repeating barbwires, barricades, and walls?
The madman outside Irwin hospital is explaining to no one his own histories of the city and of the police breaking peoples’ heads. He raises his hand up toward the sky and says, “They did this in the Emergency, then they did it in 1984, and now… they have done it again.” His immediate reference is to the police brutality that has taken place this very evening at Turkman Gate, Daryaganj, and Dilli Gate to curb the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. He’s moving between past state brutalities and the current one, imaginary speeches by dead politicians and the foretelling of futures, which he ascribes to the film star Rajesh Khanna: ”Rajesh Khanna ne bola tha… yeh hoga” (Rajesh Khanna had said this would happen), turning the current moment in Delhi to a predicted one. A few days later, he walks up to me and says, “I know what you’re looking for… if you ever need to buy life insurance, contact my uncle in Kanpur…“ This incoherence, truth telling, and dark future is evocative of our movement into the singularity of the madman. With no form of insurance left on our identities, we are caught in a fixed code, where we cannot be anything else, except the enumerated self of our names, our parents’ birthplaces, and our religious identity.
Can we be anything but singular madmen and madwomen of the new partitions of the present and the future?
We’re walking from Jamia to Shaheen Bagh, with candles and songs, and friends and strangers. The wind is very cold on our faces—the wind has been colder this year—but everyone is walking, coming out, standing in protest. A protest that has finally broken down class barriers, gated communities, ghettos, and maybe even our fears. Maybe this is a fold in the ordinary; maybe this is the only apparatus we have. People are handing out candles, managing traffic, walking, singing, and drifting apart and together at the same time. But hundreds are here, and thousands elsewhere, each doing what they can do, each turning up where they can. A group of young men pull out a long flag of India—we’re walking under it, holding it up. It feels like a wedding, it feels like a funeral. Teenage boys chant “Azadi,” and the older women walking with them also join in. We’re all friends, strangers, insiders, and outsiders, but we are all we have and each is the apparatus of the protest.
We’re on our way to Shaheen Bagh and have gotten off the cab somewhere near a row of shops, but are not sure which route to take to the protest area. It’s around 10 o’clock at night. There are some men milling around a food joint so we ask one of them the way to the protest, just as we would ask the way to the address of a house or a shop. The man and others we stop to ask as we make our way into the alleys of the neighbourhood give us directions to the protest. When we return from the protest, way past midnight, we in turn give directions to people on foot, in electric rickshaws, and in cars and cabs to reach the protest site.
It’s a way we are all seeking.
As I’m walking around the protest site, both inside the enclosure reserved for women protestors and around it, strangers strike up conversations with me, asking me where I’ve come from, thanking me for being there when they realize I’m not from any of the neighbouring localities, bringing me tea and biscuits, and asking me if I’ve eaten dinner and at what time I ate. It’s heart-warming; it’s disorienting.
It’s like I am home.
We’re looking for a friend who’s also looking for us. We borrow a flag mounted on a crooked wooden pole from a little boy and we wave it hysterically, while screaming over the din of songs, chants, and speeches, asking our friend on the other side of the phone to look out for the flag. The little boy insists on coming here every night, his father tells us. It is him who has put together the flag. Our friend finds us and we return the flag to the boy, thanking him.
It’s about finding friends in the city.
I’m standing with friends, old and new, on the chalees futa road (forty feet road), sipping tea and talking of politics and protests, despair and hope, but also of mundane matters like struggling with writing deadlines, what to cook for dinner, and when this winter will end. All the while my eyes are trying to keep up with the buzz around me, the brisk business of restaurants, dhabas,1 chai shops, and even a few kirana2 shops in the middle of the night, the kids selling colourful polka-dot balloons, and the continuous stream of tiny processions: young boys moving on bikes with tricolour faces and flags in their hands, middle-aged men walking quietly in a line holding up posters, girls chanting “hum kya chahte… azadi” (what do we want… freedom) slogans, fathers walking with daughters, and a couple walking holding hands. The forever smiling chai walla is keeping track of the endless orders for tea, the dhaba worker’s arms are moving swiftly as he kneads atta,3 the strains of a song are coming from somewhere close, mixing up with the laughter and chatter around me. It’s familiar; it’s new. I know I’ve been here before. I know I’ve been here before, elsewhere. I know I’ve been here in a different time.
It’s a folding in of numerous chai ka tapris4 across the city that I’ve haunted with friends. It’s a folding in of nights of freedom spent with friends and strangers in JNU in the 2000s, even as I was studying in DU by day. It’s a folding in of numerous protests, past and present, ragtag and massive, of citizens taking to the street.
It’s a folding in of the fantasy city where no place or time or idea is out of bounds.
It’s the end of January and the roads around my house are exploding with police in riot gear. The police buses came on 18 December 2019 and haven’t left since. Their numbers have only swollen, as have the number of barricades. Barricades don’t allow any protest march to extend out from the two exits of the road outside Jamia into the city. The ghetto and its protestors are not to contaminate the city. Each time there is an attempt to move a march toward the Parliament or Gandhi Smriti, thousands of police prevent it from moving beyond this area. The daily presence of the police, with different kinds of weapons—guns, rifles, lathis, and tear gas—that they are quick to use again and again, has become the new normal. In the police attack on protestors on 10 February 2020, many students claimed that the police had released a chemical that was not tear gas, causing nausea and fainting. The state has normalized its apparatus of control through the rampant imposition of Section 144, the clamping of Internet services, lathi-charges and beatings, large-scale detentions of protestors, denial of legal and medical aid to detained protestors, and the permission for goons to beat, maim, and shoot at students. This is the ordinary city, here and now, and not the place that can’t be named.
Are we to accept the barricades, the busloads of gun-toting police, and the use of excessive force as the new ordinary? Does the folding in of the protest into the ordinary through repeated marches, banners, and sit-ins make the protest lose its impact as the analysts claim? Perhaps the protests have run their course in providing material for television debates, academic papers, artist projects, and hate speeches.
Has difference finally set itself in a quiet repetition? Has the apparatus of the state figured out how to enumerate these differences? Are we fighting for elections for schools and not for the rights of the protesting students? Is protest the only apparatus left that can occupy the street, create the street, and hold together democracy? Do we exist because we’re alive or because we hold a piece of paper or a flag in our hands? Is repeating the chant of freedom our beauty, our bravery, or our naiveté?