On the night of 2 February, around 11.45 pm, as I sit on GD Birla Road, recording and editing videos of the Shaheen Bagh protest, a boy tells me shots have been fired at Jamia again. I don’t tweet about it yet but wait, and continue working.

There are whispers amongst the youngsters; everyone else carries on with the events in the tent. Activists had earlier initiated a #GoliNahiPhool day in response to shooting gun-wielding ‘visitors’ Shaheen Bagh is receiving. The women sitting in, keep sitting in. The ladies making announcements make announcements. It is Umar Khalid’s turn to go up next. He makes a passionate speech invoking everyone from Bhagat Singh to Bismil to Babasaheb Ambedkar, claiming pre-existing citizenship, completely bamboozling anyone with preconceived notions about the political positions of Kashmiri Muslims.

Hijabi women and children are sitting-in with aunties, punk chicks, students, daadis, YouTubers and media waale.

From the stage they have received various metaphors: Jhansi Ki Rani, Fatima, Durga Mata, Kali Ma, Bharat Mata. With applause, they welcome all. Kahaan hai kattharpanti Islamism yahaan? I’m more conservative than the hijabis. The idea of being co-opted into a patriarchal nationalistic narrative that is used by casteist, communal Brahmin supremacist bigots to further their agenda rankles me to eternity.

But here is a stage where everyone from Brahmins to Pasmandas are able to have their say. Umar Khalid looks like a not-too-tall regular boy for his stature, I think. A 10-year-old comes and tells me to be alert: Umar needs to be protected. I just look confused and nod.

It gets colder. Wow, I never made it India Art Fair; wasted my hard-earned money purchasing that ticket. But after they “banned” any solidarity, it didn’t seem worth it.

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Above image: Shaheen Bagh | Goli Nahi Phool | 2 February 2020 | Photo by Priyadarshini Ohol

***

BJP leaders have been calling for the people here to be shot.

Since then, at least three armed men have arrived, and the women still sit here. On 28 January, volunteers tackled a group of infiltrators, one of whom brandished a gun. On 30 January, a youth fired at the protestors in Jamia, injuring Shadab, a student from Kashmir. That same day, the Hindu Sena called on “Hinduwaadi brothers” from all over the country to mobilise on 2 February, to “clear the road” of the Shaheen Bagh protest if the government didn’t by 4 pm that evening.

On 1 February, a man identifying himself as Kapil Gurjar fired three shots at Shaheen Bagh. Most media outlets reported it as shots fired in the air. I went to Shaheen Bagh in the evening to talk to people and took a beautiful picture of a man in sajdah in front of the site of the firing, where the shell casings fell. I was introduced to the boys who faced Gurjar; they told me he didn’t shoot in the air — he shot towards them.

***

The morning news on 2 February reported that a mob of a few hundred was pushed back by the police on the first barricade under the bridge. When I get there, there are only a few hangers on, police, some news crews. They ask for my ID to allow me to pass through, ask “which channel?”. I say I’m an independent artist. They still want to see a media pass or something. I show them my youth hostel I-card and go in.

In between the first and second barricades, a larger than normal CRPF deployment is visible. So much of the force is present with guns that I wonder if it is an Army battalion. I naively ask which battalion it is. CRPF, they respond. There is tension in the air. I ask if they have any orders to storm or break up [the crowd]. One fellow tells me, “Force has been deployed so let’s see.”

An intimidating looking Sikh officer eyes me suspiciously. I attempt a conversation, asking if there’s any danger or alert. Someone replies laconically, ‘Why would we be in danger in our own country?’ After a bit of reluctant banter (they aren't allowed to talk and my camera makes me look like a mediawaali) the other men call the officer ‘Baba’ and crack jokes. I capture them as I pass along: lined up on the sides, another 360-degree shot of them scattered over the other side of the divider.

It must look strange to them. All this capturing I do in various ways with the intention of making video art. They are trying to place who and what I am. I say “Bye, Babaji” as I leave. Everyone cracks up. They too are human after all.

At the second barricade, police and CRPF personnel walk over to take stock. I use the camera from various angles. They look at me and diffuse. You’d better use this footage for something Piu! No sitting on it because editing is boring!

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(Above photo: JNU former student and social activist Umar Khalid speaks at Shaheen Bagh during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC. Getty Images)

***

There is a lot of tension here.

I capture footage over their shoulder. I go to the barricade and take more pictures. A cop comes and tries to chat me up. I ask what’s the situation. He says they ask for ID cards of anyone who wants to come in and don’t allow those they don’t trust. I knew that. I ask if there has been any violence or trouble from that side. He says no. I tell him I already showed my ID at the previous barricade. I make my way further into the protest.

Someone asks where I’m going. I tell them. The cop who was chatting with me is at my side. Apparently the DCP is at the barricade and wants to know my credentials. I refuse to walk back, but I turn and look. There are two men. One looks shorter and much tenser than the other. I can’t make out which one is the DCP. I give my youth hostel I-card, take it back and walk off. I guess that card just confuses people. There is a lot of tension out here. Perhaps something might happen today.

I go in. The volunteers lead me through multiple checks. In Shaheen Bagh, the people waiting at check points tell me that they are ready to face violence and remain non-violent. People are alert. There is a larger than usual crowd. Still, everything is sort of normal. A young boy asks me if my hair is real and compliments me. I think he’s cute and suddenly there is network, so I do a live with him on Twitter and chat. It freaks some people out. A dadaji asks me if I’m going to be there if they take him away from his mother. I'm interested in the humanity across us all. But there is a real fear of lives being changed forever in punishing ways. I delete the video.

People are doing normal things, only at a protest on a road. They are sitting in. People are giving speeches. There is an innocence here. If there was to be a storm-in, the women would just bear it on their bodies.

***

In the evening, there are media reports that the DCP South East has been transferred. I remember the tense face. This man resisted a lot of pressure today and paid for it.

Umar comes to the point where he mentions that shots have been fired in Jamia. I had waited for one other person to confirm the rumours before tweeting about it. He gets the crowd singing chants of azaadi from NRC, CAA, NPR. When he gets off the stage, it’s hard to see him surrounded by other people. Diminutive.

I sit with the women for some time. Some are sleeping. One guides me to a washroom. It’s 3 am. I call a cab. A youngster drops me off till the pick-up point.

I hear female voices and look out the window. Many young women are walking at night, sloganeering “nahi darenge, nahi darenge”.

Further on, chants of azaadi are in the air at the sit-in protest at Jamia. It’s thrilling.

I check Twitter. There is an official statement from the Jamia Coordination Committee:

“Firing has been done at Gate No.5 of Jamia Millia Islamia right now by two unidentified persons. As per report, one of them was wearing Red Jacket and driving a Red Scooty having Vehicle no. 1532. No injury as far now [sic].” #JamiaShooting

There are still some days to go until the elections in Delhi.

(Banner photo: People take part in the protest against the CAA and NRC at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on 1 February 2020. Getty Images)

Priyadarshini Ohol is a contemporary artist. She can be reached on ohol.priya@gmail.com

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