We’ll Return After Corona Pandemic Ends, Say Shaheen Bagh Protesters

After the Delhi Police removed Shaheen Bagh protesters on Tuesday after 101 days of round the clock sit-in, the agitators said they would return once the coronavirus threat comes to an end. They said no virus can weaken their resolve to fight till the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is rolled back and the decision to prepare the National Population Register (NPR), which will ultimately be used for the National Register of Indian Citizen (NRIC), is withdrawn.

The protesters, led by women, said the police arbitrary arrested their fellow agitators even when they maintained restraint and did not indulge in any kind of violence. “The police were so hostile that they could not tolerate mild verbal exchanges, which was a very natural reaction. They picked up men and women. We had already evicted the place in the wake of the pandemic. We are aware and never intended to put others’ life in danger. Therefore, some of the locals even helped the police remove the tent and other structures. It was just a symbolic protest, with four-five women sitting maintaining gaps between them. The number had swelled last night when the local police misbehaved and threatened us with assault,” said a woman demonstrator.

She said when the women were leaving the protest site, many of them were picked up without any provocation and violence.

The police have detained or arrested nine people. “There is complete lockdown in Delhi. Section 144 is imposed in view of the unprecedented health emergency because of the spread of coronavirus. People have medical emergencies and they should have unhindered access to hospitals. This is the main link road (Road No. 13A) between Noida and Delhi and it needed to be cleared without further delay. We requested people to leave the road, but they did not budge. Then, we decided to remove them. We took in custody those who resisted. We will deal with them as per the law,” Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) told RP Meena Newsclick.

He, too, acknowledged that the police got cooperation from locals. “Only 40-50 people were present on the protest site when we came here for eviction. Majority of people of the locality are staying indoors, which is praiseworthy. When we were clearing the road, they did not come out and register their protest. Rather, they appreciated our efforts and thanked us,” he added.

After the road was cleared, members of the Shaheen Bagh Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) even garlanded the DCP and offered him and other officers roses.

Another woman, while leaving the protest site, said the protestors would return after the pandemic is over. “We are not scared. When we had hit the road to protect our Constitution and register our peaceful protest against the black law (the CAA), we were ready for brutal crackdown and police cases. If the government does not roll back the CAA and withdraw the NPR and the NRC (National Register of Citizens), we will once again come on the road when the corona cases are controlled and over,” she asserted.

The woman said the protest continued unfazed in a peaceful manner despite a “sustained vilification campaign”. “We believe that religion cannot be a test for granting citizenship in secular India and we will continue to fight against it. In the past 100 days, we defied bigotry, patriarchy and fascism. No virus can diminish this achievement,” she stressed.

The police dismantled all art installations, removed banners and posters and whitewashed the slogans and graffiti at the protest sites at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia — where another round the clock night vigil was being held by women.

“We removed everything that was obstructing the road,” said the DCP denying the painting over the graffiti and slogans, claiming that it would have been done by civic authorities.

‘Who will kill hatred, the deadliest virus?’

But the move drew criticism of Jamia residents, even of those who had stopped supporting the protests given the danger of pandemic looming large.

“Kamal ki priorities hain police aur sarkar ki (the priorities of the government and the police are strange). It’s fair that you evicted the protestors amid high risk of infection and community transmission of the deadly virus. But what was the need to dismantle replicas of India Gate and huge iron map of the country erected at Shaheen Bagh and hide graffiti and slogans at the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia? Is this the way the government and the police is addressing coronavirus? Hatred is the deadliest virus, which cannot be killed,” a medical doctor, who lives at Abul Fazal Enclave in Jamia Nagar locality, told Newsclick.

Asad Ashraf, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia, said instead of utilising resources to fight COVID-19, the Delhi Police and the government are white-washing the anti-CAA graffiti on the walls in Jamia. “Probably they are more afraid of these images than corona. Corona will go, resistance will continue to haunt those who are drowned in power,” he said.

Praising the women who continued their protests for such a long time, he said, “Shaheen Bagh is much more than a protest. It was a wake-up call for the conscience of the nation. It awoke crores of us out of a deep slumber. It brought us together, it gave us hope against all odds. It reaffirmed that people who stand up for their constitutional rights can not only fight for themselves but for others too. Shaheen Bagh is a call to democratic values and principles at a time when democracy is in peril. Shaheen Bagh is an idea, an idea to fight back and reclaim lost spaces, an idea against hate, a message of love. An idea cannot be killed.”

The efforts to pursuade protestors to go back home and clear the road was going on for a long time, with the police holding several round of talks with agitators who were adamant and not ready to move till their demands are met. They were seeking a dialogue with government’s representatives, not the police, but it never happened. The government never sent its emissary to initiate talks with them.

The Supreme Court, after two petitions were filed against the protest, had appointed two interlocutors (senior advocates Sanjay Hegde and Sadhana Ramachandran) to find a way to clearance of the road. Several rounds of talks between them and the protestors failed, as the latter kept insisting that they had blocked a small patch of around 150 metre on the Sarita Vihar-Kalindi Kunj road and the rest alternate routes had been blocked by the police.

The police initially did not come clean on the allegation but later accepted the same in response to queries filed under the Right to Information Act by one Saket Gokhale.

Playing politics over Shaheen Bagh

The Shaheen Bagh protest, a women-led spontaneous agitation that erupted soon after the amendment in India’s citizenship law was passed by Parliament, had dominated the Delhi Assembly elections wherein the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ruling the Centre, had faced a humiliating defeat by securing eight seats in the 70-member Assembly. The rest was won by the Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Union Home Minister Amit Shah while addressing an election rally in the city had said that people should press the EVM (electronic voting machine) button on February 8 (the election day) with such anger that the protesters in Shaheen Bagh “feel the current”.

“When you press the button (of EVM) on February 8, do so with such anger that its current (poll result) is felt at Shaheen Bagh,” he had said with an aim to polarise the election and that worked to an extent and his party increased his tally from three to eight.

He had further told the electorates, “Your vote to BJP candidate will make Delhi and the country safe and prevent thousands of incidents like Shaheen Bagh.”

BJP star campaigner and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath had blamed Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal for supporting Shaheen Bagh protesters and “feeding them biryani”. He did not stop there. Asking voters to elect a BJP government in the city, he had added where “boli” (words) don’t work, “goli” (bullet) does.

Anurag Thakur, the minister of state for finance, was banned by the Election Commission after he incited the crowd at an election rally to shout “shoot the traitors” while railing against those at Shaheen Bagh. He defended his comments by saying he was merely reflecting the “mood of Delhi”.

Parvesh Varma, another minister in the Narendra Modi government in the Centre, had sworn the protesters would be evicted within hours of a BJP victory, adding that if left unchecked, they would “rape and kill”.

Kapil Mishra, another BJP leader who is accused of inciting communal violence in North-East Delhi, had called the election a battle between “India and Pakistan”.

The protesters at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia were attacked as well at different occasions. A young man Kapil Bainsla aka Kapil Gurjar had opened fire in the air near Shaheen Bagh protest site. He was caught by locals and handed over to the police but later released by a court recently.

Recently, a petrol bomb was hurled at the agitation venue by an unknown man.

Another boy, who was later found to be a juvenile, too had opened fire on students of Jamia Millia Islamia when they were taking out a march to Raj Ghat. A student of the varsity’s Mass Communication and Research Centre had suffered an injury in the incident. The protest was later attacked twice when live bullets were fired but no one suffered injuries.

First published in NewsClick.