Text by Arshia Dhar | Photos by Satwik Paul
This winter, the winds have refused to spare anyone in the country, and Kolkata is no exception. The mercury dropped to a record low around a month ago, when in the country’s capital, women gathered under the bitterly cold sky to revolt against a regime seeking to test people’s claims to Indian citizenship. South Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh bloomed with voices, colours, and a steely resolve to uphold human rights almost overnight, with women leading from the front. Back in the east, the ground adjoining a mosque at the seven-point crossing in Kolkata’s Park Circus neighbourhood is swelling with the presence of women, in an electric congregation of mostly first-time protesters. Some leave their homes as early as 6.30 am, with the resounding call of the azaan filling the air even before the first rays of sun hit the ground. A few never leave, camping through the night under black umbrellas that flash the familiar “NO CAA, NO NRC” across them, written in bright, bold letters.
It was on 7 January, a day after the attacks on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University by masked assailants, that Ripon Street’s Asmat Jamil, a 45-year-old homemaker, decided that she had had enough. With some help from fellow members of Az-Zumar, a non-profit organisation she’s associated with, Jamil mobilised people and staged a protest at the Park Circus Maidan. Soon after, the police arrived, instructing the protesting women to vacate the land (the same land that was once occupied by the Congress to hold meetings during the freedom struggle, leading to part of it being christened ‘National Congress Park’). Despite several ailments as she continues to recover from a kidney transplant, Jamil’s grit and subsequent success at obtaining permission to hold a peaceful demonstration sparked a movement in the heart of the metropolis, which has now been named ‘Shadhinota 2.0’ (Freedom movement 2.0).
It has been over a fortnight since she first set foot in the maidan, and the numbers have only swelled by hundreds, sometimes touching thousands in a single day ever since.
There are mothers accompanying daughters, mothers carrying infants, and grandmothers accompanied by their pre-teen grandchildren populating the maidan premises, raising slogans and singing songs of “Azaadi” at the bower in the middle of the ground. With ropes cordoning off the central part of the maidan where women are seated on foam sheets, the men, although assembling in large numbers, are only allowed outside the enclosure, as they monitor the entry of people into the parrock. “You’ll have to take your shoes off, madam,” one of them tells me, as I prepare to join the women inside, huddling together under the setting sun, humming along with a seven-year-old protester singing “Hum honge kaamyaab” on the mic.
A sizeable portion of this female population is hijab-wearing, while another significant fraction — across age-groups, religion, and class — are first-time protesters, and the two often overlap. The nationwide movement veritably signifies a watershed moment in the history of independent India, as is pointed out by 16-year-old Alveena Aafreen. “Imagine, if housewives have come out to protest on the streets, what else they are capable of achieving, and how urgent the situation is,” she tells me, as her father walks past us, informing her in a rush that he will be back in an hour or so. His wife and elder daughter are on their way to the grounds, he adds.
The maidan is a riot of colours and words, with the tricolour and images of freedom fighters festooned on the wires crisscrossing the sky. As volunteers hand out bottles of water, Frooti, and shingara to the crowd, I speak to some of the women present at the protest, and find out what drew them to it in the first place.
Alveena Aafreen, 16
Her school is just around the corner on Beniapukur Road, she tells me, and her class 10 board exams are in less than a week's time. “But what good are these exams, if after a month, we aren’t allowed to be citizens of this country?” she asks, with a piercing gaze. Alveena has been spending most of her days at the sit-in ever since it kicked off, while squeezing in time for revisions and coaching centre classes. “Honestly, most people my age at my school aren’t really bothered about what’s going on. But if I don’t join the protests now, our futures will be destroyed. Whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are doing is based on discriminatory policies,” the 16-year-old says.
Alveena once aspired to be an IPS officer, but not anymore. She realises the futility of wearing a uniform that holds little autonomy as an organ of the state. Instead, she now wishes to pursue a career in politics. “I want to be a politician. If you don’t have honest politicians, what will people working under them even do? I want to lead a party that is honest, has integrity, and makes policies that’s true to the secular nature of India.”
Only moments before agreeing to having this conversation, Alveena was at the mic chanting slogans that echoed through the premises.
According to her, this movement isn’t about Hindus and Muslims anymore — people from every religion, every age, and all walks of life are here. "Honestly, I feel very safe under Mamata Didi. Had she not been here, we wouldn’t have been able to raise our voices so freely. You can do the math, right? It’s only in states where the BJP is present that scuffles are breaking out, like it happened in Jamia Milia University, then JNU," she says, and goes on to ask: "The Prime Minister said that harassers can be identified from their clothes. Then why were those people masked when they entered JNU and beat up students and teachers?”
Soon after, she dashes off to receive her elder sister at the gate.
Sabaahat Aafreen, 21
“I have never done interviews, I am camera-shy,” Sabaahat announces the moment she meets me at a relatively deserted corner in the Park Circus Maidan. “This won’t be a video, don’t worry,” I assure her, and her expression lightens almost immediately. On her way back from her medical entrance coaching classes, Sabaahat decided to join her sister Alveena at the sit-in. “You know, not too long ago, I was barely aware of what’s going on in politics. My sister is the more aware one, she’s a good debater too. We both went to the same school and have a third, younger sister, who’s in fourth standard. But now, everything has changed,” she says.
Their mother is a homemaker, while the father owns a car, which he drives and rents out as a cab. “That’s how he is running the household. It’s not easy. I was in Kota until recently, training for my upcoming MBBS entrance, and my father managed to pay Rs 3 lakh for it. It’s gone to waste now. I’ve had to come back last month, thanks to confusion over the NRC,” she informs.
But Sabaahat refuses to abandon her hopes of becoming a doctor. She carries her books and papers to the maidan every other night, managing her studies while refusing to give up her space at the protest. “This one day, I decided that I won’t come back early and will study here itself. It gets chilly and uncomfortable, but this is important. Often, I wonder how many hospitals and libraries could’ve been built with the amount of money spent in Assam to unsuccessfully implement the NRC,” she muses, whilst estimating the additional number of seats in medicine the said sum could’ve afforded the government.
“Why should we show our papers? Our ancestors chose this country during Partition. We have spent our entire lives here, working and paying taxes to this nation. Does our Prime Minister have his papers in place? The BJP is following the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, but they won’t be successful,” Sabaahat says, anticipating a favourable judgement from the Supreme Court, which is due to hear anti-CAA petitions on 22 January.
“When will people work and study, and go about their lives normally, if the government makes them come out on the streets every other day? But then, if the need arises, the government should know that women will come out in larger numbers to resist divisive politics,” the 21-year-old says, before taking off to join her sister at the sit-in.
A student and an activist, Shirin is most often found at the maidan gazebo, encouraging women to come forward and address the crowd. At other times, she is on the stage herself, sloganeering and managing the crowd. “The question is, why does the current dispensation think a ruling like the NRC, CAA, or NPR is important right now? Is a policy like this more important than the lives of people? Prices of goods are skyrocketing every single day. What will the common man eat?” she asks, while cancelling an incoming phone-call. Shirin points to reports and studies expounding on the failing economic policies of the current regime, mentioning how “riot-mongering and polarising politics” remain the only way out for a government that’s been unable to provide relief to its citizens.
“This doesn’t stop here. Today, the BJP wants to oust Muslims through the NRC. Tomorrow, they’ll come for the Dalits and Adivasis too. Are we going to learn about humanity from the likes of Veer Savarkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee today? Or will we turn to Swami Vivekananda and Ramkrishna for inspiration? You tell me,” she says, dodging another call on her cellphone.
Shirin asserts the choice her ancestors made to stay back in India, emphasising on the ‘secularity’ of the nation that’s prescribed in its Constitution. “The NRC-CAA has become a joke now. I have a valid Aadhar, a passport, a voter ID card, a ration card, and you still don’t believe that I am a citizen. Then what is the criteria on which the NRC is being conducted, really?” she asks, adding that the movement is here to stay for a while now. She likens it to the 200-year-long freedom struggle, and says the fight won’t end until justice has been served to every last person.
“We won’t stop, irrespective of what the Supreme Court says on the 22nd (of January),” she says, before excusing herself and rushing back to the podium. “I’m getting late. I’ll let you know when I can come back for the photo. Sorry.”
Niloofer Sadique, 35
Drawing inspiration from Asmat Jamil, Niloofer Sadique is a school-teacher who now spends her waking hours before and after work at the Park Circus Maidan. “If Asmat, as a patient recovering from a kidney transplant surgery, can show courage to start this movement, why can’t I be a part of it?” she asks, informing that she’s been around since day one. However, despite wanting to stay over at night, she has been unable to do so thus far.
“So many of us have been unable to stay back at night. It gets cold and there are no toilets either. It’s difficult for a woman to stay back under such conditions. We would request the state government to please, please look into the matter, and give us permission to set up proper tents, toilets, and microphones,” she implores, while keeping an eye on the podium, where a group of medical students from Kerala are seen expressing solidarity with the movement.
She pulls me aside to a quieter corner, as a lady breaks into a patriotic Rabindrasangeet on the microphone. “Why are we behaving as if all other issues in the country have been solved, and the only thing left to worry about are these religious issues?” Niloofer says. The 35-year-old teacher, who’s also a mother, expresses shock and a sense of betrayal at the hands of the people in power.
Her eyes visibly tear up when she mentions the idea of having young children fight out ideological battles on the streets, “holding placards at protests, instead of studying”. “We don’t want to see that. We weren’t even expecting that! We truly believe that if children are educated, the society will prosper. Look at us and our sisters. We, the women, are the pilots of our families, and we are out here on the streets, protesting.”
As a group of students from Jadavpur University exit the stage after performing a skit to thunderous applause from the audience, Niloofer joins them, commending their energy. She expresses gratitude for the voluntary contributions made by groups of lawyers, doctors, students and activists to the movement. “This energy is something else, isn’t it?” she asks, watching the next set of speakers take the stage, as street lights come on and illuminate a portion of the gazebo.
Warisha Jamil, 19
With a ‘Volunteer’ card strung around her neck, 19-year-old Warisha Jamil has decided to take up the mantle in the absence of her mother, Asmat, at the Park Circus Maidan. “There’s been complete support from my family,” says the Zoology Honours student of Asutosh College, who also aspires to be a doctor in the future. During our brief chat, Warisha’s eyes constantly shoot across the expanse of the ground, as more people pour in from all sides, blocking the traffic beyond out of view. She has to go back urgently to ensure that the protest continues to run seamlessly.
“My father had told my mother, ke ekbaar soch lo, but she was determined to fight for our rights and freedom. Had she not taken this step, this movement would not have been possible,” Warisha says. The first time she’d come across the term NRC was when she’d read about the horrors of the detention camps set up in Assam and other parts of the country. “This is now an ego battle for the BJP, but we won’t back down either. Hum azaadi leke rahenge,” she says, as she waves at someone entering the grounds.
Over the past week, activists Yogendra Yadav and Umar Khalid, veteran journalist Aveek Sarkar, artiste Mousumi Bhowmik, among several others, have joined the protest in solidarity, thereby providing it additional momentum. “When talks of NRC started, we were a little concerned, wondering if anyone at all will speak up for us. But now we can see how everyone is rallying for us. This is what a democratic, secular India looks like,” Warisha says, adding that people should stop asking students to study instead of joining protests.
“Arrey, it’s because we have educated ourselves on the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong that we are out on the streets to show them that difference!” she signs off with a laugh.
Shafiqua Hassan, 60
“Yeh toh bada hi zyada zulm-o-sitam ho gaya beta. Jab cheeti ke par nikalte hai, tab sabko pata hai uska nateeja kya hota hai,” Shafiqua Hassan tells me the moment I take my seat next to her. She was among the several women who accompanied Asmat Jamil on 7 January to the protest grounds, and has stayed put ever since, only to go home to take toilet breaks. Her son is a doctor at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, living in Shaheen Bagh. “I was there with my son and daughter-in-law till around November, and then I came back. You can see the protests from their balcony. My son has been actively partaking in them,” she says, betraying a hint of pride.
“Our youngsters are our future. How can a society stay quiet when its future is under assault?” she asks. She’s made peace with the possibility of having to spend her last few years inside a detention camp, she says. “That’s why people like me are out here, fighting. If nothing else, we will die fighting for our rights in this very country,” Hassan says, as her voice quivers ever so slightly. “Mamata Didi says she will support us, but we will soon find out if she really will.”
It’s her first time at a protest of this scale, committing hours to something beyond her household, engaging with people she’s never met before. “I never imagined this is how it would be. Governments forget that they’re here only for a while, and we can dethrone them whenever we want to. The BJP realises that, perhaps, which is why they’re in a hurry to cause as much damage as possible while still in power,” she laughs, drawing my attention to the sordid state of affairs across the world.
“My mother died at the age of 100. You think she would’ve believed me if I told her what was happening in the country today? Look at the condition of Burma, Kashmir, and now universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU. They’re destroying everything. There are extremists in China too. Where will we go?”
She says she feels safe in Kolkata “for now”, but news of communal violence from the interiors of Bengal keep her on her toes. “Forget us, we are old. I’m worried about the young ones. If you can’t feel others’ pain, what good is your humanity? What else can I say?” Hassan concludes, before trudging back to her seat inside the shed.
Mustari Begum, 70
Mustari Begum’s sister-in-law Anisha Begum, who’s a few years younger to her, accompanies her to the protests every day. Mustari can barely walk without support, but that hardly deters her from joining the protests every afternoon, in the hope of securing a better tomorrow. She breaks into tears the moment she sees me. “They are asking me for papers? What papers? I was born in my home, so were my seven children. What documents do I have to prove that? Where will we go if they throw us out?” she asks, wrapping her hands tightly around her sister-in-law’s.
Pictured above: Mustari Begum
Residing in the adjacent neighbourhood of Chatu Babu Lane, the septuagenarian struggles to spell her name in any language, much like her sister-in-law. She says she’s afraid to read the namaz, or even eat or sleep at night. “Sometimes the government takes away our money through demonetisation, now they are asking us for our documents. Things are becoming unaffordable every day, and we have to earn our living even today. At my age, I shouldn’t need more than a hundred rupees a day to get by. But even that isn’t enough any more.”
Mustari Begum has only one plea: to be allowed to continue living where she was born. But in the prevailing political atmosphere, she doesn’t hold much hope. “Jo hum logon ka janmastaan hai, wohi hum logon ka kabrastaan hai,” Anisha Begum chimes in, as Mustari says she can’t bear to breathe her last anywhere else but her homeland.
Pictured above: Anisha Begum
“Only Allah can save us now,” Mustari says, as Anisha wraps her arms around her to escort her back to her seat.
Right at the outset, Twinkle refuses to divulge her surname. “I have the right to withhold information about what religion I practice. If I tell you my last name, you’ll immediately judge me and decide whether I should be in a detention camp or not,” she tells me, after completing a round of sloganeering at the podium.
Pursuing her Bachelors’ in Bengali from Calcutta University, the 21-year-old says she was severely disenchanted with the prevailing regime when she recently heard her family talk about the contested policies of the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. “I initially thought it was something good...well, it had to be, right? When it was being championed by the prime minister of billions of people, it had to be in their favour. But when I heard what it was, I wanted to know how the government expected the poor and the destitute to show their papers,” she says.
Twinkle has been a regular at the Park Circus Maidan right from the beginning of the protests, and wishes to continue showing support, even though staying at nights is out of bounds owing to a lack of proper amenities. “My mother always asks me to be at the forefront of every such movement. I like going outside my classroom and interacting with people. But I had never imagined we would have to spend nights in the cold, fighting for a freedom we thought we had won in 1947,” she says.
She goes on to emphasise the importance of holistic education and political awareness, a lack of which, according to her, has led the country to "(aim an) axe at its own foot”. “It’s us who’ve given these people a second shot at running the country, so we are responsible for this. Therefore, it’s up to us now to bring worthy, educated people to power,” she says, adding that the government should focus on spending public money on education and jobs.
“They are under the impression that outsiders or immigrants are eating into the jobs of its citizens. So if the government can get rid of said immigrants, the job crisis will be resolved. But is that really true?” Twinkle asks. “Generate work and give people the job they are qualified to do. If I am qualified to clean toilets, give me that job and let us all live in peace. Please, don’t make us waste our blood, sweat and tears this way.”