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.
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!