Of dreams and hope: Remembering Shaheen Bagh

By Sharjeel Usmani, TwoCircles.net

Last year, around this time, Amir Aziz recited his poem that soon became an anthem for the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters – Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega or Will Remember Everything. The poem is an important subject for me for two very particular reasons – one that it was a Muslim youth who through his rebellious poetry was challenging the state and two, because he wasn’t just challenging, he was in fact warning the state. In doing so, Amir has made us realise the importance of remembrance. It is important to remember, but, why exactly? Because remembrance comes with an obligation to act on it, for a better future. This is my bit to remember the historic Shaheen Bagh.

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Shaheen Bagh is a past. Few books, numerous research papers and countless articles have already been written on it. Some tried to remember it with fondness, others with despair; some analysed it critically through a privileged lens, others romanticised it with their wokeness. I am merely trying, through this essay, to write an obituary of Shaheen Bagh, that it rightly deserves. For the sake of convenience of writing, Shaheen Bagh to me is not just the sit-in protest in Delhi’s most crowded Muslim ghettos, or the sit-in protests in other significantly large Muslim ghettos, suburbs and towns of India. It is neither those one day events of ‘Azadi’ in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan or Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, nor those make-shift centers of resistance at Jamia Millia Islamia’s gate number 07 or Aligarh Muslim University’s Bab e Syed. It is all of that, and more than that. It is the less remembered Raushan Bagh of Allahabad in Yogi’s Prayagraj; the post-Juma march towards District collectorate in Mau, the roadside pandal opposite to police headquarters in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone, the chaos outside Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama’s principal’s office after the principal barred the students from attending the protest, the airport blockade in Kerala’s Kozhikode, the martyrdom of Jaleel Kudroli, Nausheen Bengre, and many others. Shaheen Bagh in my memory is also Sharjeel Imam who started it, and Nani Bilkis and her many friends who ensured it. It is also the 22-year old Muhammad Shehroz, who was killed in a police firing, and her mother, who continued to protest with the memory of her dead son, because she believed this writer and his friends whom she hadn’t met before were also her children.

It is the remembrance of this Shaheen Bagh that is important – for it is not an event that can be appropriated or called-off. It was a chaotic, scattered and yet an immensly powerful act of collective resistance by the Muslim community against a power that didn’t recognise them as equals. It was nothing close to a revolution as this writer’s excited social media friends would want you to believe but it was more than merely a protest as mainstream elite Indian media wants you to remember as. In this immediate reality, Shaheen Bagh is a movement that is very much alive.

Shaheen Bagh’s most remarkable achievement, as many have already noted, was placing Muslim women ahead in accessing independant, community-driven agency to lead. Never before did we see Hijab clad, educated Muslim women not just leading from the front, but also inspiring Muslim men to rally behind them. Muslims of Rajasthan found a leader in erstwhile unknown burkha-clad Heba Kulsoom who hosted this writer at the sit-in protest she was leading, and managing. Thousands of Muslim men and women – seated on the carpet on floor, would wait for Heba to arrive with her elder brother every morning for two long months. She would sit on one of the total two stages, one for women and the other for men – adjacent to each other, signal the man to switch on the mic and would officially start the day’s event with her sparking speech. Her brother would usually leave the protest site to open his kirana shop only to return late at night to take her sister back home. She was the authority who negotiated, on behalf of the protestors, with the police, and other district officials. She is one of the many inspiring women leaders this writer met in different cities during the course of the movement. In Kerala’s Kannur, a middle-aged man would walk to the writer after his speech and proudly introduce himself as Ladeeda’s father. Had there been no Shaheen Bagh – as a movement, the leader in Heba and countless other Muslim women wouldn’t have been realised.

Amidst these realisations, the Muslim community also realised the true meaning of community. It became a diverse, yet singular bloc who empathised with each other’s sufferings, fought side-by-side, holding hands and having each other’s back. Safoora Zargar’s arrest became the community’s priority issue in a true sense. Muslim households would fast and Masjids would regularly hold prayers for the well being of a Muslim girl they had never met; and later for other Muslims who had been detained. This sense of belonging with the community would later play the most significant role in rehabilitating the survivors of Delhi pogrom. This whole process of building the small network of resistance in different cities, towns and lanes had created a new civil society space. During the reverse migration of labourers and wagers from megacities after the spontaneous announcement of country-wide lockdown, this network proactively participated in the relief work. Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student leader, had a pass issued from the local police station so as to get freedom to travel and deliver free ration to those who urgently needed it. A few weeks later, Asif was arrested, later charged with the draconian UAPA, and sent to Tihar jail where he is currently imprisoned. Amir Mintoee, another prominent anti-CAA activist in his city was arrested while he was distributing free food in the local government hospital.

Before this happened, when coronavirus was not an official threat in India, most sit-in protests had been successfully appropriated, becoming a festival. The over-romanticisation of these sit-in sites as revolution let the fear of impending genocide slip from the imagination of protesting masses. Thousands of people – performing dance, chanting slogans of ‘Freedom’, singing Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, celebrating the victory they hadn’t yet achieved forgot the real idea of these sit-in sites. The original sit-in site, as started by Sharjeel Imam, was an act of road blockade or Chakka Jam. Other sit-in sites only romanticised about sitting, and overlooked the necessary Chakka Jam part. As a result we had these numerous protest sites on locations allotted by police, with thousands of people just sitting and listening to performances. Later, coronavirus would be officially announced as a growing threat in India. The genocidal project of the Indian government to start the NPR came to a halt. With that, the movement too paused, and with it, all the other sit-in sites. With that, started the series of arbitrary arrests, and the dehumanization of Muslims, more particularly Tablighi Jamat members, as corona bombs. It seemed like India had launched a guerilla war against its Muslim citizens. Anti-CAA protestors were harassed and jailed. Their properties were sealed, businesses were fined.

The sudden halt, brought by the pandemic, gave time to heal and to introspect. The course of the movement was defined instantly, by people with more legitimacy and political currency over others. Several, including this writer, were narrowing the movement to a more specific, blunt agenda – of reviving the self respect and dignity of Muslims as an ‘equal’ community in India. This was a risky idea, which threatened and disillusioned the other non Muslim allies, as it allegedly involved focusing on Muslims alone, rather than the entire canvas, India. The majority of the protestors, however, were more inclined towards making this movement, what to them was, ‘more inclusive’. This, quite naturally, created an internal drift of ideas within the movement. Two separate factions, radicals and real protestors, tried placing their idea on the movement’s face. The movement, nonetheless, was owned by Muslim masses who sided with the real protestors. In the process, they disowned Sharjeel Imam, thereby allowing the state to virtually hunt him, and allowing the media to create a monster out of him. In a few days, Sharjeel Imam became India’s latest enemy-number-one, his name appearing in random FIRs, irrelevant television debates and Home Minister’s address in Parliament. Eventually, conversations about Sharjeel’s imprisonment were carefully silenced at protest sites, his speeches were forcefully forgotten amidst the glamour of the festivities.

When the festivals, celebrations, lightings of revolution ended, the roads were cleared, walls were whitewashed; slowly bringing back its owners to immediate realities – Sharjeel’s image remained. With him, remained the sufferings of a pogrom, and the series of arrests. The state did not differentiate between Sharjeel and those who disowned him. It somehow forced the community to introspect, allowed them time to reflect, and come with a more meaningful response to the arrests. He is a lively image of a community, learning and unlearning the language of resistance. Many have realised that India’s secularism, a never-ending quest to construct the best platform for people of diverse religious backgrounds, more particularly it’s two largest majorities – the Hindus and the Muslims, is far beyond irrelevance. Any attempts of saving it, at the cost of disowning and sacrificing its own people, is a futile exercise. Those who sacrificed their lives are much more than numbers in the list of dead. Those who are jailed are much more than victims of state witchhunt. All of them, dead and alive, are fighters, and they deserve to be remembered as such. The community is learning these lessons.

As for India, it has changed, if not matured, since last December. When the protests first started, it was merely an emotional outburst of a few who felt threatened and alienated. If not, it was at least treated like one by those who were supposedly extending their solidarities. In due course, it became something more. Something that was different than emotional outburst, in will and resolution. It taught the privileged how to behave like an ally. If not, it has successfully warned them how not to be an ally. For the community, Shaheen Bagh was an awakening. It gave us hope of a better tomorrow – not because it achieved what it wanted, but because its owners learned how to fight. Whatever the analysts say, Muslim community was fighting to gain the access to their dreams of a better tomorrow. They were fighting against their hopelessness of an uncertain, more dreadful tomorrow. Shaheen bagh is a materialisation of that dream, against that hopelessness, and it shall be remembered as such in history of the future.


Sharjeel Usmani is an activist associated with Fraternity Movement of India.