There are many ways to demean and demonise protests, but the nature of the targeting of the Shaheen Bagh protests is particularly offensive. The latest round has come with the quite unexpected attack by chief spokesperson and MLA of the Aam Aadmi party, Saurabh Bharadwaj. Reacting to the induction into the BJP of a group of local residents claiming to be leaders of the protest, Bharadwaj declared this showed that the entire Shaheen Bagh protest was engineered by the BJP to communalise the election campaign in Delhi. “Of course, many pro-democracy people also joined in and who went to Shaheen Bagh thinking it was for democracy,” he said at his press conference, “but they were betrayed because it is now clear that the Shaheen Bagh protest was engineered by the BJP.” In trying to attack the undoubted hypocrisy of the BJP, he ended up being on their side against Shaheen Bagh. He should have found out from his MLA colleague from that area who these people are who joined the BJP. If he had, he would surely have been told that they were by no stretch of imagination “leaders” of the Shaheen Bagh protest and were, as residents confirm, hardly even at the periphery of the movement.
Bharadwaj and his colleagues in the AAP, themselves political products of a mass movement, forget the lessons which should be embedded in their political DNA - the spontaneous role of people joining a movement on a slogan which strikes a chord in their own experience. In the case of AAP, it was the anti-corruption movement and the slogan of a Lok Pal Bill which brought thousands of Delhi citizens and those from other parts of India to the indefinite sit-in at Ramlila Maidan. Many who were in the BJP, including the notorious Kapil Mishra, had joined AAP and were given tickets. Could it then be said that the Lok Pal movement was engineered by the BJP to destabilize the Delhi government led at the time by Sheila Dikshit? It is as absurd and insulting to that movement and the birth of AAP to make such a charge as it is to accuse the Shaheen Bagh protesters of being pawns of the BJP.
No, Shaheen Bagh was not engineered by the BJP; far from it. Anyone remotely connected to - or even following - the protest would know that it reflected the deep, legitimate and widespread anxiety of a whole community following the passage of the CAA and subsequently by the Amit Shah-declared chronology of the CAA, NPR and the NRC. The brave women of Shaheen Bagh struck a chord in the hearts of millions with their sit-in. That is why a protest which started as one against the repression in Jamia University (since many families in the area have their wards studying in Jamia), grew into the most sustained women-led protest in decades, one which found resonance all over India. The spontaneous participation of people and especially women was because they understood in a profound way that their own existence as equal citizens was linked to the fate of the constitution of India. The national flag was unfurled at every site, a copy of the constitution was sought after by young people at the site, and discussions on the constitution were listened to with rapt attention. It was a most significant moment in the ebb and flow of movements in independant India that the words “secularism”, “democracy”, “equal citizenship rights” became the most-repeated words in the myriad speeches made every day. There were more than 100 women-led protests across the country drawn from the Shaheen Bagh model.
Another important feature of the protest was that in spite of efforts of fundamentalist forces within the community to hijack the issue and make it a Hindu-Muslim one, the women of Shaheen Bagh and other sites never permitted communally divisive speeches from their stages. At another protest site, I was witness to one such speaker being interrupted by women when he spoke of “mobilizing the community.” The women responded “This is for all Indians, not just for one community.” Since Independence, we have been witness to fundamentalist forces within communities dividing women in the name of religion. We have seen women of the Hindutva right-wing take the lead in spewing hatred which helped them to climb the ladder of political success. We have also seen the exact replica of this in Muslim fundamentalist organisations with women who speak the same hate-filled language. But in contrast, this was an all India protest with Muslim women in the leadership which was secular, democratic and peaceful.
I, along with my colleagues in AIDWA, had been to express solidarity with Shaheen Bagh on several occasions, the first within a few days of the start of the sit-in. We saw the transformation with women of the locality confidently taking centre stage. This is something many in the political spectrum find difficult to believe. The BJP has from the beginning put out the theory that the women were puppets being manipulated by men. Recently, in a court hearing, it was astonishing to hear a Sangh Parivaar petitioner arguing that the women in the anti-CAA protests were like "what is happening in Palestine when women and children are put in front by the men" and other such outrageous and ill-informed statements. In this instance, he got a sharp rebuke from the court, but for patriarchal politics, it is anathema to recognize that women have independant agency. It is unfortunate that the AAP spokesperson echoed such narrow thinking.
The BJP sought to polarize Delhi long before Shaheen Bagh. It is the people of Delhi, including the women and residents of Shaheen Bagh, who prevented the BJP takeover of Delhi. Today, the Delhi police is manufacturing a sequence of events to link the anti-CAA protests with the communal violence in north east Delhi. Shaheen Bagh became the face of the protest. It is not beyond the BJP to manipulate and use those who joined it for whatever reason to become witnesses in its false narrative. In any case, Bharadwaj owes an expression of regret to the women of Shaheen Bagh for the statements he made. There is ample evidence of BJP's communal doublespeak without targeting the Shaheen Bagh protest.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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