Till a month ago, and despite having lived in the National Capital for decades, I had no idea where Shaheen Bagh was. Even now I have only the haziest of idea where it is situated. Yet, legend has it that Shaheen Bagh is the epicentre of a mass revolt that will unseat Narendra Modi, banish Amit Shah to Ahmedabad and restore the “idea of India” to its Nehruvian purity. Shaheen Bagh, it is claimed, is the Indian version of Tahrir Square.
The activists are totally mesmerised by the blockade. Some spent Christmas in the outdoor cold, others ushered in the New Year singing the national anthem and yet others have identified their favourite verandah overlooking the dharna where radical tourists can observe the slow death of Hindu India. Protest always generated poetry; at Shaheen Bagh it is generating shayari and the accompanying wah, wah.
The protests are ostensibly against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the clause in invisible ink that says Muslims will be disenfranchised and even turfed out of Hindu India. The protestors have convinced themselves that Amit Shah is hell bent on creating an apartheid regime in India and that Muslims have no alternative but to protest and, if needed, die fighting for their citizenship. As the days have rolled by, the language has become increasingly inflammatory. It started off as a protest against a legislation approved by Parliament; it soon escalated into chants of azadi from an overbearing police; by New Year, the K-word had begun to creep in surreptitiously; and today there is an invocation of Intifada. At this rate, the J-word is not far behind.
Shaheen Bagh has had its cheerleaders. They have come in three categories.
First, there are the activist journalists who believe (sometimes even with hysterical sincerity) that media freedom went into ICU sometime in May 2014 and that it is their divine mission to put life into this living corpse. Their reports are gushy enough to put Mills & Boon to shame and they feel they are ushering in the Inquilab that so eluded Urdu scriptwriters.
Second, there are the quasi-academics and professional agitators who have finally recovered from the depression of May 2019 when they firmly believed that Modi would meet his end at the hands of the Indian voter. They are the publicists for Shaheen Bagh, portraying it as a people’s uprising against an authoritarian regime. The dress of the protestors from the TV footage may tell its own story but the publicists don’t believe that there is any percentage in dissecting the crowds any further. People must be left to think that it is pure coincidence that the protests are happening in the heart of ghettos, where police action would lead to reinforcements and violent retaliation. People must be left to think that it is a people’s protest and not a Muslim protest. They must be charmed into thinking that it is a democratic protest against an iniquitous law rather than a motivated assault on a government that has stolen a potent weapon from the Muslim community—its political veto. Shaheen Bagh is about trying to reclaim political relevance with women being thrust in the frontline because they are more acceptable and deserving of sympathy than bearded mullahs in their role as community leaders.
Finally there are the radically motivated students playing the role of a self-appointed vanguard of a revolution aimed at ousting an elected government. Their revolutionary zeal is understandable, as is their appreciation of song and poetry. Their choice of partners in struggle—ranging from discredited politicians and professional student leaders to upholders of medievalist dogma—can also be condoned as their coalition dharma. However, what is absolutely unpardonable is the lengths the student agitators have gone to make universities high voltage zones of intellectual intolerance. This isn’t a phenomenon that prevails in all the institutions of higher education. The centres of excellence specialising in the sciences, engineering, technology, medicine and management have coupled their understandable interest in political controversies with an open mind. This is not the case with the ‘elite’ universities that also have a liberal arts focus. These have become isolated outposts of a mindset that most of India cannot identify with. Left unchecked, it may even provoke a town-gown schism that isn’t good for either society or education.
By the way, an incidental outcome of this stir is that Aligarh Muslim University, which at the centre of the movement for Pakistan in the 1940s, has now chosen to redeem itself by aggressively flaunting its commitment to an expansive Indian-ness. The shift should be welcomed and made non-negotiable. The national flag must fly at all times at AMU and the national anthem should be made obligatory.
As of this week the stir at Shaheen Bagh is at a crossroads. The empowered women participants want to go on until CAA is repealed or the police takes action and invite global outrage. However, the politicised activists who have ridden piggyback on the Shaheen Bagh protests feel that a backlash is brewing and that this could have a small bearing on the Delhi Assembly elections which they want Arvind Kejriwal to win handsomely. I think the government should do nothing draconian, just allow the protests to peter out. The Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh were pawns in a bigger political game and it is best that game is played out at the appropriate level. The mythology of glorious dissent will be deflated in the natural course.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.