Revisiting a ground report from Delhi's Shaheen Bagh: What it means to live in a city of dissent and under siege
This essay is as much about the making of the iconic protest site of Shaheen Bagh as about emergent forms of life, publics and place-making in a city, and a nation, being reconfigured by the normalisation of barricades.
On 11 February, results day of the Delhi Assembly elections, the road to the protest site in 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 Millia Islamia had been thrashed, abused and detained by the police to prevent them from carrying out a peaceful march to the Parliament.
It had been more than 60 days since the women of Shaheen Bagh had been demonstrating against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens. They had reiterated again and again that no political party backs them, nor do they support any political party. No political party had come forward to have a dialogue with them till date. Was the silence of the protestors on 11 February a technique, a protest or a voice saying that you can’t silence us?
This set of fragments from December 2019 to the present [15 February 2020, when this piece was posted on the site Chiragh Dilli] was our attempt to think through what it means to live in a city of dissent and a city under siege. The essay is as much about the making of the iconic protest site of Shaheen Bagh as about emergent forms of life, publics and place-making in a city, and a nation, being reconfigured by the normalisation of barricades.
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, whose dissent has gone into what? What transformed construction debris into words, a Wikipedia page into a political banner, paper boats into hope, a road into a zone of care and freedom? The Delhi Police faced a similar dilemma when it wanted to speak to the ‘organisers’ of the protest — who are the leaders, who are not, who are the protestors, 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, it’s a women’s space, it’s a library, it’s a metro station we had never been to. It’s a hangout zone, it’s a bus stop, it’s a night market, it’s an outpost. And it’s got parents with children and children with parents, it’s got teenagers and grandmothers. It’s got Sikh farmers from Punjab, it’s got Defence Colony, Mayur Vihar and Amroha. It’s got musicians, moongphali walas, democracy walas and family-outing walas, it’s got the south Delhi walas and the east Delhi walas and the selfie walas. It’s got Musalmans and Hindus, hipsters and dharam walas, secularists and post-secularists, photographers and filmmakers. It’s got feminists and born-agains, sceptics and believers, it’s got Shias and Sunnis, it’s got Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University. Even the Japanese came on some days. It’s got elites and super elites, communists and welders, traders from Seelampuri and poets from Kashmir, 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 a legal electricity connection, a first house, it’s my uncle’s house, it’s an incrementally settled neighbourhood, a power of attorney house deed, a home loan, a political self. It’s erasure; it’s a coming out. It’s Facebook Live, Twitter feeds and Instagram stories, 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, it’s ‘I have never spoken in a public place’, it’s ‘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 wala and an espresso wala. It’s got book nerds, armchair warriors, youth leaders and not-so-youth leaders.
It’s conversations with Babasaheb and Bismil at the detention booth. It’s got angry young men and angrier young women. It’s got gentleness; it’s got shyness. It’s a road, a backyard, a mohalla, a mela, a movement, a metonym, a zenana, a qasba. 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 besuras and the sur walas. It’s a soundscape, a camerascape.
And even when the mic stops working, it’s still shouting out clearly, ‘Azadi’.
In Manto’s story Toba Tek Singh, the madman lies in the no man’s land between two sets of barbed wires, muttering and swearing, ‘Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun,’ reflecting an incoherence that was possibly the only response to the bizarre travesty that the Partition was. The madman laughs at the nonsensical marking of the border, the splitting of a people into two parts, an affliction that did not and will not end suffering in the futures of the split nations. Was the Partition ever completed or did it continue to inhabit our cities, towns and villages in the form of religion- and caste-based neighbourhoods, working-class slums and Muslim ghettos?
— All photographs courtesy the authors.
Sarover Zaidi has studied philosophy, sociology and social anthropology. She has worked extensively on art, architecture and iconography, and currently teaches at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture, Sonipat.
Samprati Pani is a social anthropologist working on weekly bazaars in Delhi through intersections of urban informality, design and spatial practices. She is also a freelance editor and book designer, and is the editor of the blog Chiragh Dilli.
Excerpted from Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality, edited by Seema Mustafa. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
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