Now that Bilkis Bano, the “Dadi of Shaheen Bagh” is among 100 most influential people of Time Magazine in 2020, Shaheen Bagh: From A Protest To A Movement co-authored by Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf becomes a compulsively important read.
Ziya Us Salam, an old friend, a prolific writer and a senior journalist associated with The Hindu group for over two decades, told me in the first week of February that he had been to Shaheen Bagh and other anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest sites in Delhi multiple times. Knowing Ziya for so long, I told myself he would come up with a book on the movement. He lived up to that expectation. He didn’t disappoint me.
A good journalist that he is, the book that he wrote with so much passion is a racy read. Why recording the Shaheen Bagh protests for the posterity was so important? It was important because future historians will refer to it when they sit down to write about one law that sapped the spirit of secularism from India’s Constitution.
For CAA is the biggest blow on our constitutional guarantee of equal citizenship. It is an unprecedented assault on the idea of India.
Ziya and Uzma evidently kept their eyes peered while the anti-CAA-NPR-NRC protests unfolded. The December 15, 2019 incident inside Delhi’s Jamia Millia Campus shook the conscience of all law-abiding citizens. Though the Delhi Police claimed they never beat up peaceful students, videos and photographs from the depredations done on students studying at the library at Jamia campus nailed the lie.
The authors meticulously record the genesis of a protest that mutated into a movement. What began as half a dozen women sitting at a dharna in solidarity with Jamia students at Shaheen Bagh, part of the road that connects Noida with New Delhi, turned out to be a huge protest site to assert and uphold the constitutional rights. It was different from Jantar Mantar the designated protest zone in the capital in the sense that it attracted diverse set of people though essentially it was a women-led protest. Authors, filmmakers, student leaders, poets, maulvis, granthis from Gurudwaras, Christian priests, all came to give it a collective effort to save the Constitution.
It spawned dozens of Shaheen Baghs in the country with cities like Patna, Mumbai, Bhopal, Chennai, Lucknow having their own Shaheen Baghs. Ziya and Uzma rightly record that the movement freed Muslim women of fear and apprehension that had locked many of them inside their cells. Physically and mentally. Most women who braved the freezing cold of North India to sit at protests sites, with the national flag in hand and slogans of azaadi (from ignorance and discrimination) on their lips, didn’t imagine that they were creating history.
National and international media swooped down on Shaheen Bagh. Well, a number of Indian news channels, toeing the narrative set by their masters in the power corridors, painted it as a protest by misguided women. Several attempts were made to sabotage the peaceful protests where nobody made or was allowed to make or raise any anti-national speech or slogans.
The dadis (grannies) grabbed maximum eyeballs. Their wizened faces epitomizing rebellion, they were featured by newspapers and magazines and were on Prime Time Television too. They challenged those who questioned their patriotism to prove if they could quote, like they did, the names of their ancestors “chronologically”.
I happened to be at a Shaheen Bagh protest site in Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. It was heartening to see burqa-clad and hijab-wearing women coming out of their homes in droves to oppose what they felt was unjust and undemocratic. Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy. Citizens have right to oppose government policies. Opposing government policies or an unjust law is not being anti-national. And man-made laws are open to amendment, change and abolition.
Women at Shaheen Bagh used protest poems of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to underscore the urgency and desperation which had brought them to occupy parts of thoroughfare in Delhi and elsewhere.
The book heavily relies on press reports and commentaries of some thinking Indians. An advantage to a journalist is that he knows how to put things in perspective. Ziya uses this trait to great use. In racy, lucid prose. If you want to know what went into the minds of the likes of Bilkis Bano, this is the book to consult.
Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.