Understanding Shaheen Bagh within the framework of farmer’s protests

By Izza Ahsan and Bilal Ibnu Shahul

Last year, around this time, I was travelling to New Delhi. I had woken up to visuals of my university being completely vandalised and destroyed by men in khaki. These visuals replayed itself in my nightmares. It was December 15th and Jamia Millia Islamia had turned into a war-zone overnight.

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India saw the biggest movement it has witnessed in the recent times when the Indian Parliament passed the Constitutional Amendment Act on December 11, 2019. The protests initially erupted in Assam and West Bengal and later spread itself to minority universities of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The state, through its little brainwashed, khaki puppets, responded in the most barbaric fashion— lathi charging and assault, tear gas shells, gunshots and what not. This brutal crackdown by the Delhi Police on University students further pushed the people of Jamia Nagar to erupt into the biggest movement India had seen since its “Independence”— the rise of Shaheen Bagh, with their women at the forefront.

One year later, on the anniversary of Shaheen Bagh and the Jamia movement, the national capital is witnessing another major protest against the proposed three anti-farmer bills, making it the largest protest in history of mankind, with over 25 million protestors and farmers replicating the Shaheen Bagh model, blocking major highways, bringing the capital city of Delhi into a standstill. These three laws, claimed by the government to be a historic gift for farmers, are aimed at sabotaging their decent livelihoods for the benefit of big corporates. “Just like how the big fish eat the small fish, big businesses will eat us up,” a farmer summed it up in simple words. The scenario of farmers is worsening year by year. The rate of farmers suicides, according to stats from 2017 and 2018, mention an average of 10 cases per day. They have become common in almost all the states but are only addressed by the power houses during convenient electioneering periods. The mass mobilisation of farmers, many of them Sikhs, from north Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, has been one of the most sustained citizen-driven protest movements against the all-powerful Bharatiya Janata Party until now.

During the brutal crackdown on the university students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, not only were they beaten, abused and shot at, but were called “pimp, jihadi, mulla” and the like while being intimidated by the Delhi Police. Over 20 protestors lost their lives, most of them belonging to Uttar Pradesh. Several Muslim students were imprisoned under the draconian UAPA, including Sharjeel Imam, who is spending has spent over 330 days in jail, for having suggested holding a chakka jam at the Siliguri Corridor in order to get the government to listen to Assam. This was the same kind of chakka jam that the farmers are holding today as part of their protests at the border. Mainstream media unsurprisingly portrayed Sharjeel and other imprisoners as terrorists, Islamists and extremists, a behaviour whose genealogy can be traced back to a long time ago when the age-old islamophobia had started to gain momentum in the state. The anti-muslimness that exist in the Indian air can be seen from not just in the police, but also in how the general public respond to these movements or incidents. The protests only erupted from Muslim and other Bahujan ghettos, which were located in the periphery of the cities, and under no circumstances were they allowed (despite numerous attempts to pass through barricades) to spread out into the city. Instead, many “secular” voices made their way to Shaheen Bagh to dictate the language of the protest and to debar slogans like “La Ilaaha Illalah” and other “communal” usages.

Unlike Shaheen Bagh, the farmers protest gained emotional support from the majority of the Indian citizens including pro-BJP members who can be sighted at the protest-site. The protestors are ‘farmers’, a neutral term free from a specific social identity, only related to occupation, an occupation that is evidently “the hands that feed us”. This statement gives the public a “good enough” reason to think from the side of the protestors, as long as they’re reminded that they’re on the consuming end. Otherwise, the legitimacy for a protest or a movement is always questioned by the general public who mostly belong to the upper-caste, upper class crust of society. One can see Punjabi actors, singers, and athletes rallying behind the farmers in the protest. Prominent Punjabi writers like Swarajbir Singh, Jaswinder Singh and a few noted athletes even returned awards and medals they received from the Indian state. Army veterans also intend to return 5000 gallantry medals back to the state in solidarity with the farmers. Bollywood actors like Diljit Dosanjh publicly called out the Modi government on social media platforms. While institutions like the mainstream media, or the judiciary or even the opposition seem unable or unwilling to take on the enormous electoral clout of Modi, the real significance of the farmer’s agitation is that it exists at all.

A “Muslim” is a socially and politically “otherised” category. To be associated with a Muslim or a Muslim movement is difficult for many liberals as it becomes a burden upon them to closely keep an eye on these Muslim protestors. The anxiety of  them crossing that (entirely built upon state-conditioning) line from ‘good muslim’ to ‘bad muslim’ lurks in the air, and they usually wait for a signal to cut of their allyship. Be it the chants of ‘La Ilaha Illallah’ or the wearing of a skull cap or a hijab, or simply a Muslim who is ‘too Muslim’. To undermine and even negate the rights of such a category is not difficult at all. The haunting numbers that rise up on the death stats do not haunt the minds that inherently believe that ‘with Muslimness, comes a certain price’, and choosing to be a part of that very faith will cost them their life. Hence, a collective responsibility that falls on society for a Muslim’s well-being here, comes down to nil. Horrific incidents like the North-East Delhi Pogrom, extra judicial killings, mob lynchings, arrests under UAPA and brutal police crackdowns raised no cries from the mainstream. I remember six years ago when an old Brahmin friend of mine had told me, “but Gujarat 2002 never happened, it was a hoax”. This is Savarna-selective amnesia at it’s best, the same fate which awaited Delhi’s North-East Pogrom of February 2020.

This analysis of both protests does not mean to imply that the farmers here are more privileged than the Muslims, but tries to depict how challenging it will be for the BJP to suppress the current farmers’ movement and not listen to them. Even within the farmers’ protests, there lies internal problems, like the landlessness of Dalit farmers which was never spoken of or discussed before. The invisibility and rigidity of the caste structure, along with the stigma attached to it, makes it all the more difficult to bring it out into the open, thereby leaving them under the shadow term of “farmers protest”. It blurs the problem of an age-old hierarchy of a caste-based power structure that affects, dominates and decides almost every aspect of an individual’s life in the Indian nation-state.

Shaheen Bagh was portrayed as a site funded by anti-India, anti-national forces last year. Similarly, some media houses have already begun to depict the farmers’ agitation as pro-Khalistan. This is simply the continuation of RSS’s efforts to delegitimise every form of dissent as associated with frivolously nonsensical terms like ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’, ‘Urban Naxals’, ‘Pro-Pakistani’ and so on. Yet, the emergence and growth of movements like these remind us that it is not easy to crush the spirit of a billion people with false propaganda and muscle power. The way the farmers protest is gaining momentum, both quantity and quality-wise, is the much needed reminder that a Hindu Rasthra would not be allowed to construct itself on the shoulders of the impoverished and marginalised communities of India.

The authors are students at Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi.