Letter from Delhi

It’s a gray winter afternoon, the light accentuating the ash-and-dust dullness of Delhi. I am riding a shiny steel metro train of the magenta line, sweeping past satellite TV dishes, squat water tanks of plastic, and strung-out washing atop irregular buildings. I am on my way to Shaheen Bagh, epicenter of the protests against the federal government’s new citizenship law and registration procedures. It is the 67th day of the protests. I am thinking of fear and distrust, on both sides—the government, led by the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the minorities, especially Muslims, who feel unsafe, discriminated against, and subjected to random violence under the regime of prime minister Narendra Modi, now in its sixth year.

At Shaheen Bagh, hundreds of Muslim women—and others—have been protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The CAA in essence fast-tracks citizenship for refugees of Indian origin from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is seen as discriminatory because it specifically mentions refugees of all religions except Islam. Muslims, and those who believe in a secular India, see this law that marks out people on the basis of religion as the thin edge of the wedge: if it goes unopposed, the BJP regime, they fear, could pervert the secular character of the state, enshrined in the constitution.

The registration procedures, which the government says have been put on hold, put the onus of proving citizenship on individuals. In a country with multiply defined citizenship criteria based on birth, parentage, and cut-off dates, this can cause a lot of difficulties, especially to the poor or those born in underdeveloped areas, who may not have birth certificates, for instance. Poor Muslims fear that a generally unsympathetic and prejudiced administration will make them stateless. Exaggerated fears, perhaps, but the government has so far not given Muslims any reason to feel reassured. Ruling party leaders and sundry Hindu religious leaders often demonize Muslims. They allege that the demonstrations are organised by opposition parties and suggest the protesters are fed, funded, and schooled by Islamist hardliners.

So a wariness, a touch of careful management even, informs the protests at Shaheen Bagh. Frequently labelled as terrorists and anti-nationals, Muslims have to ensure they are seen as patriotic, their protest in harmony with the spirit of India. Right from the yellow police barriers about 500 meters on either side of the protest site, the saffron, white, and green national flag is seen in abundance. Every day, the protest begins with the singing of the national anthem, followed by the pan-Indian protest slogan “Inqlaab zindabad,” or “long live the revolution.” The protesters take pains to convey it is not a fight of Muslims alone.

There are about a hundred women, many of them in hijabs and veils, some with infants, one or two breast-feeding babies, sitting under a pandal of pink, yellow, and blue plastic sheets. A rope separates them. In front of the pandal is an area for the media and a makeshift podium. Besides the tricolour, it has posters of freedom fighters: Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh.

I speak to Bilqis, 82, and Sarwari, in her 70s, who have become the poster girls of the protest. Bilqis has a creased face, sunken cheeks, eyes that speak of a sharp beauty in her youth. “We will not move an inch,” she says, “till the prime minister withdraws CAA. He has embraced everyone, so why doesn’t he embrace Muslims? Aren’t we his sisters?” Like many others here, they say this is a battle to save the Constitution from a government that has no qualms about beating up Muslim youths, framing them under sedition and anti-terror laws, splitting their heads when then take to the streets in peaceful protest.  

To one side is a lectern with Savers of Constitution painted on it. Manning it are Prakash Devi, a Hindu woman who says she’s been coming here daily, travelling about 20 km from Karol Bagh, and Ruby, her hair and face covered with a gray leopard-print scarf. They introduce speakers on the podium, cautioning them not to say anything provocative, anything that can be seen as anti-national. On stage, Joginder Singh, a Sikh who has come from Chandigarh, some 250 km away from Delhi, is screaming for human rights organisations from across the world to take note of the discriminatory law. When I meet him later, he tells me he’s a farmer. Feeling disturbed by the CAA, he has joined the protest, and has been visiting Shaheen Bagh off and on.

As if not to disappoint my curiosity about Christian presence, Alexander Fleming arrives, holding up a bright red Bible emblazoned with a large white cross. I know his name because he has a sheet of laminated paper hanging from his neck, saying: Hanuman bhakt, Alexander Fleming, Catholic Christian. He wears an “I Support Shaheen Bagh” badge. He has a gentle face and lank hair, with white streaks where the dye has faded. He poses for TV and mobile cameras alike. “I have studied the scriptures of Hinduism and Islam. And I know the Bible well because I am a catechist and Bible teacher,” he tells me. Invoking calendar art depictions of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman tearing open his chest to reveal Lord Ram and Sita in his heart, he says, “I am a devotee of Hanuman because, through him, I am able to see Lord Ram and Sita. I’m as much of a Hindu as I am a Christian. But I’m an Indian, and believe in its Constitution too, so I cannot support the CAA and the population registers.” He has been at the protest site from Day One, and says he will not budge till the government withdraws the CAA and allied registers.

Sikhism couldn’t have been better represented than in the imposing figure of Jabbar Jung Singh, a Nihang, in the flowing blue robes and tall turban of Sikh warriors. He’s of medium height, lithe and compact, with wrists thick as the hilt of the sword hanging by his side. He has a short spear in one hand and smells faintly of sandalwood. He tells me he’s from Talwandi Sabo village near Bathinda, some 350 km from Delhi, in Punjab. “We are warriors and it’s my job to protect my nation,” he says. “I think this is a time the nation needs to be protected from politicians who have cheated the people.”

If this coming together of communities in a protest against a government is spontaneous and in the cause of secular ideals in India, it is indeed great. Even under extreme provocation, including a Hindu opening fire here, Shaheen Bagh has kept the peace. The skeptic in me, though, keeps wondering, keeps doubting the near perfection of the “optics,”to use a term fashionable with opinion writers in India. I find no clear answers.

But I cannot leave without meeting Nazia, 24, who lost her four-month-old boy from exposure to the cold while she was protesting here. She lives with her husband Arshad, who drives an e-rickshaw for a living, her mother Nasreen, and two children, aged five and two, in a rented hovel squeezed between two buildings in the Batla House area, another Muslim neighbourhood, a couple of kilometres away. It has an uneven floor of dirt and brick, a low roof of bamboo poles covered with a plastic sheet. Boxes covered with mattresses and a maroon blanket make for a bed. In one corner is a gas stove for cooking. In another a fridge that does not work. Its door comes off when pulled, but they use it to keep stuff safe from rats.

By their own description, Arshad and Nazia are barely literate. But when it comes to the CAA, they are vocal, even articulate in a simple way. “It’s a battle of the poor,” says Nazia, “of people like me and my family, who don’t have any documents as proof that we were born here.” As to a Supreme Court judge’s sharp statement about babies being taken to protest sites, she says, “I can’t leave a child I’m nursing at home, can I? Where was the court when innocent Muslim protesters were beaten up by police?”

I ask them how they know the details of the CAA and the registry procedures when they can’t read too well. “The cellphone,” says Arshad. “We get all the information from TV news, YouTube posts, forwarded videos, and so on.”

Despite the loss, they insist they will keep protesting. “We were born here and will die here,” says Nazia. “Yes, I lost my baby because I kept going there to protest. I will continue to do so. It’s a fight not just for us, but also for our children.”

—S. B. Easwaran

Postscript: On February 23, the day US President Donald Trump set off from the US for India and three days after I met protesters at Shaheen Bagh, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in northeast Delhi. More than 40 people have died, some, including a policeman, of gunshot wounds. A 60-year-old Muslim man was beaten to death. The media reported innocents, Hindu and Muslim, being beaten senseless by mobs. At the time of closing this letter, the violence continues. Police speak of provocative speeches by BJP leaders, gun-running criminals, and outsiders starting and sustaining the violence, considered the worst in three decades. I am wondering again about “optics.”