The women of Shaheen Bagh gathered for a peaceful sit-in. (WNV/Mehk Chakraborty)
  • Feature

Women protesting India’s anti-Muslim citizenship law are undeterred by violence

Despite facing deadly violence, Muslim women leading the sit-in that inspired a nationwide movement against India's new discriminatory bill refuse to leave.
The women of Shaheen Bagh gathered for a peaceful sit-in. (WNV/Mehk Chakraborty)

Starting in the early morning of Feb. 24, sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out in several neighborhoods in northeast New Delhi — all while Donald Trump was on a visit to India. Videos emerged on social media of Hindus chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Hail Lord Ram,” pelting Muslims with stones, attacking them with bricks and bats, destroying mosques, and setting homes and shops on fire. Over 100 have been reported dead so far and several hundreds were injured.

The violence was sparked when protesters staging a sit-in protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act were confronted by government supporters, who had gathered there after a call to action by Kapil Mishra, a local leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Allegations over the complicity of the state and anger over police inaction remains, but protests have not stopped around the country.

Situated in the southwest part of New Delhi, a peaceful, indefinite sit-in driven by the women of the Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh first caught the country’s attention in December. It has since become a new front of resistance against India’s increasingly authoritative government. Chants for freedom, passionate speeches calling on leaders to uphold the Indian Constitution and sloganeering on the rights of the marginalized — as well as poetry and music — can be heard throughout the day at this protest site, which is strategically located on a busy highway between Delhi and the nearby city of Noida.

Women can be seen carrying posters calling for safeguarding the Indian constitution at Shaheen Bagh. (WNV/Mehk Chakraborty)

The protest comes in the face of the recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, a law dealing with citizenship provisions for refugees in India from neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The law would grant citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Jain, Christian and Buddhist minorities, who migrated to India by the end of 2014. It has been criticized for its deliberate exclusion of persecuted Muslim refugees. At the same time, many people perceive it as violating India’s constitutionally safeguarded Fundamental Right to Equality, which guarantees equality to all persons before the law, irrespective of factors such as religion.

What’s more, the CAA is linked to two other processes — the creation of the National Population Register, or NPR, and consequently the National Registry of Citizens, or NRC. The NPR is meant to compile data regarding the population inhabiting the country, and the NRC is supposed to be a list of bonafide citizens of the country, building on data from the NPR as well as the collecting of documents. Those not included in the NRC have a chance to fight their case before a Foreigner’s Tribunal, which is where the CAA would provide immunity to the specified communities.

The NRC has already proven dangerous for minorities and marginalized communities in the state of Assam, where over 1.9 million people were excluded when it was first implemented. It is quite commonplace in India for people of a lower economic background to not have the necessary documents to prove their citizenship. There have also been other glaring examples of people not included in the NRC — from government officials and military veterans to even family members of a former president of India — showcasing how arbitrary the registry has been in practice.

This protest began in mid-December after the then-proposed CAA began to be discussed widely across the country. Police brutality against students at a protest at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a prominent university in New Delhi, served as the ultimate trigger. Anti-CAA protests were ongoing for several days at the university and on Dec. 15, during a massive peaceful protest, the Delhi police blocked entry and exit gates to the campus, fired teargas shells, beat up students with lathis (batons) and went through the library, bathrooms and the mosque on campus to clear out students. Several students were injured and over 50 were detained for participating in these protests.

“Several legal changes and judgements in India, which have been clearly xenophobic, were passed and we made peace with it,” said a woman in her 50s, who referred to herself as a grandmother of Shaheen Bagh. “But, with this kaala kanoon [or black law], and some of our own children being beaten up for merely raising their voices, we have been forced to speak up.”

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The women who are present at the protest every single day have served as an inspiration for similar protests throughout the country. Sit-ins led by Muslim women can be seen in several major cities, including Mumbai, as well as smaller cities like Kanpur. Since December, when the law was initially proposed, protests have intensified with hundreds of strikes, sit-ins, gatherings and marches taking place across the country. The CAA, however, has been opposed by only a handful of political figures.

The state response to the ongoing protests has also exacerbated people’s concerns surrounding the law and its implications, with violence by law enforcement and inflammatory speeches by politicians affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party becoming the standard response. Measures employed to suppress the protests have ranged from shutting off the internet, mass arrests and police brutality to charging protesters with rioting and sedition. Even with protests continuing for over two months, the government has shown no inclination to revisit or reshape the law, let alone have meaningful dialogue over legitimate concerns.

Muslim women as the new voice

Women are increasingly becoming visible in the movements across India’s deeply patriarchal landscape, but in the case of Shaheen Bagh, the fact that Muslim women have taken the lead has been both revolutionary and inspirational. Saba, a homemaker from Shaheen Bagh, has been attending the protests since the beginning and says that there were initially 10-15 women who would gather together and stay the night. All they had was a makeshift plastic roof with mattresses and blankets spread out at night to sleep on. But the numbers began to swell as women were encouraged by their neighbors to join. “And now here we are creating a buzz, staying out through the night!” she gleefully said. “I wouldn’t have imagined doing this in any context!”

The women of Shaheen Bagh have not only been inspiring each other though. Prerona Sanyal, a 29-year-old volunteer at Shaheen Bagh, says the image of Muslim women organizing is enough to rattle a lot of people, and admits to being personally very affected by this fact. “As someone from an urban, privileged background, seeing these women fearlessly speak up has shaken me and given me the courage to participate in the protest.” On average, there are now hundreds of women at the main sit-in site during the day, surrounded by supporters around the area, with numbers swelling to thousands on some occasions.

Cutting across class and caste

As the protests go on, the women of Shaheen Bagh have been subject to endless accusations by the ruling right-wing government. Sometimes they are accused of being paid to protest. In others they are labeled as “anti-national” and “Pakistani sympathizers.” The women of Shaheen Bagh, however, have pushed back against these attacks.

“We urge everyone to not be influenced by conflicting narratives of any single individual being the ‘mastermind’ of Shaheen Bagh or any claims made of representing this non-partisan citizen’s movement,” the women said in an official statement. “[We] establish yet again that there is no organizing committee at Shaheen Bagh, no leader, not any one particular organizer.”

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Sanyal, who has been spending most of her evenings at the main protest site since mid-December, confirmed the accuracy of this statement. “The permanent volunteer base has about 20 people who have been present regularly since the beginning, with two to three elders coordinating speakers and events. But it would be grossly incorrect to call them a core committee,” she explained.

The pluralistic nature of the protest is evident through its participants, who cut across class barriers and, in several instances even caste. Farmers from neighboring states, activists from urban spaces, prominent musicians and even filmmakers have come in to extend their support. This has led to their message being carried far and wide.

“I don’t think this movement would have sustained itself unless the women of the area had remained as resolute as they are in this stance,” Saba said. “The momentum has definitely been built up because of the variety of supporters and allies.”

The road ahead

Even though the CAA triggered this wave of protests, it’s clear that the general discontent and anger towards India’s increasingly authoritative government has kept the fire going, with many inspired by calls to defend the country’s tradition of multiculturalism.

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To evoke a sense of patriotic duty among Indians, people don tricolor caps, children paint the national flag on their faces, artwork is created rejecting divisive and hateful statements by political leaders, and it is common to hear direct references made to the Indian constitution and historical leaders like B.R. Ambedkar. The protesters have identified safeguarding secularism and democracy as central to the political identity of the country — or the ideal of it, at the very least.

“Our path is completely opposite to the regime’s close affiliation to the Hindutva ideology, which is trying to define an Indian identity based on hatred and exclusion,” the grandmother of Shaheen Bagh said.

While a legal proceeding to shift protesters from the site is ongoing, the women of Shaheen Bagh are committed to staying put. Despite the biased media coverage and even physical threats from a right-wing shooter, protesters at the site — and those who are in solidarity with them around the country — are clear that their struggle will continue until the government rolls back the law.

The strong resistance from the government and its supporters is only drawing more people into the movement. The women are aware that their fight is not merely for them, but for future generations, which only furthers their resolve.

“For us, the CAA has brought forth an existential threat — so we will oppose it even if it means police repression, arrest, or in the worst instance, death,” said one homemaker in her 40s, who has been attending the sit-in protest since the beginning. “We are not moving. This is our home, and we have nowhere else to go. We will not be kicked out of where we rightfully belong.”

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