By Aviral Anand
A tribute to the women of Shaheen Bagh
As I get off the metro at the Jasola Vihar Shaheen Bagh station, I am uncertain how to get to the Shaheen Bagh camp. I think there might be some signs from the metro station itself since the encampment had suddenly shot in the news. But none seemed apparent. So I look hopefully for a metro exit towards Shaheen Bagh, and sure enough, Gate number 3 leads in that direction. A further sign, “Follow foot overbridge to Shaheen Bagh,” directs me thenceward. But from that distance I cannot spot any encampment. I am a little apprehensive.
I decide to press on in the general direction of Shaheen Bagh, thinking I will ask someone on the bridge. I pass some children in school-uniforms and some women, – I cannot bring myself to pose my question to any one of them. I pass one young man in a kurta-pyjama and a skull cap. I instinctively think to myself, “Ah, if anyone, he must know.” I turn back to him and ask him if he knows where the camp is. He is not very sure, to my slight disappointment – and rude awakening at my unconscious assumption. But, still, he tells me to turn right at the bottom of the foot bridge.
The bridge is a solid steel structure spanning the Okhla canal, now a fetid and garbage-choked affair. I descend a flight of steps to come to the level of the street in what is Shaheen Bagh. I turn right as advised. I think of confirming the exact location of the camp but instead keep walking. To my left are shops of various kinds, several car-repair shops among them. A lot of cars, undergoing repairs or body-work are lined beside the road to my right. Every now and then the shops give way to lanes that shoot into the innards of the locality.
The road I am walking on – and the galis as far as I could see – have a tangle of all kinds of low-hanging wires. It is busy with e-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws and private cars who all keep narrowly missing each other. Small buses crammed with children in school-uniforms also weave in and out. As I look up to one of the signs above a shuttered shop-window, I notice it is the local office of the now under-suspicion Popular Front of India. In the address below the name of the organization, I spot what is probably the name of the street I am walking on. Allama Shibli Nomani Avenue.
I rack my brains for more details on the name I am sure I have heard several times but I cannot not recall the associations immediately. I know this much that Nomani had been an important Islamic scholar. Nothing else suggests itself to me. I could look it up on my phone, but I want to recall the information buried in my head. That is always so much more satisfying.
As I continue walking, I pass the councilors office, a Mohalla clinic of the Delhi government, and another homeopathy clinic next to it – and the office of a lawyers’ collective after that. There are signs for a Toad International School, Infertility Clinics and exam tutorial classes plastered on walls.
At what seems to be the end of the road, I see police barricades. I think that I might have reached the right vicinity.
I squeeze past the barricades and turn left into what seems like a deserted plaza – or is it the highway? I can immediately see a large tent in the distance. However, there is no passage across the plaza-like space as it is blocked off by more barricades further on.
Someone points to a lane on the left that evidently provides a back-road to the encampment. I proceed towards the lane pointed to and almost immediately spot someone I would call a stalwart in the Delhi activism scene, someone who strikes out on his own if needed against injustice, handing out pamphlets on the street regarding the recent clampdown in Kashmir, for instance. I shake his hands. I know I am heading in the right direction. I see advertisements for Haj and Umrah trips, some posters rejecting CAA and NRC, and a sign for a Unani Hakim. Everything seems of a piece.
As I emerge from the gali, I see the largish shamiana right in front of me. This is it – the Shaheen Bagh camp-out, the Shaheen Bagh Occupy, an association I make naturally and respectfully.
Several women and children sit at the far end of the tent, which would be stage right, as a speaker is standing on the raised stage and is speaking into the mike. He addresses the gathering a little jauntily, rattling off all manner of ills with the current government: demonetisation, the sliding GDP numbers, attack on elite educational institutions etc – his speech is a jumble of all he can recall and blurt out. It is a screed, but in such times even disjointed critiques are signs of solidarity and of a comrade-in-arms. But I cannot help but wonder if the women on the ground need such a catalogue of disparate issues.
Groups of women keep walking towards the tent, some just milling outside, many of them in niqabs, abayas or with just a headscarf. The speaker on the stage is interrupted by someone who declares that she has traveled a certain distance (from Faridabad) to be in solidarity. She mentions she is a Pandit, by caste. There is general applause for such a show of support from what would be considered the upper Hindu castes. The speaker resumes after the lady departs.
I walk a little past the tent and there are vendors selling guavas, sweet potatoes, pineapples and groundnuts. I cannot spot a tea stall.
I have not come here to listen to the cliched speech the gentleman on the stage is offering. He seems like someone who is used to giving speeches to empty rooms too; nothing would faze him. I decide to look around a little more, to see what other imprints of the momentous event this place has registered.
I spot some artwork and posters on the walls outside shuttered shops, one level above where I am standing on the ground. I take the flight of steps leading to that level. Here I find a variety of drawings and other images, some by schoolchildren, some photographs of people like Abul Kalam Azad, Aruna Asaf Ali, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. On posters there are snippets from Faiz’s poem, Hum Dekhenge, several slogans and bits of poetry:
“Jab jab zulmi zulm karega
satta me hathiyaaron se,
tab chappa chappa goonj uthega
inquilab ke naaron se”
Whenever the oppressor in power uses weapons to oppress,
in every street there will echo calls of revolution
“Kisi ne shahar jalaye kisi ne mulk
Hamare haath me kya tha charag
Someone set cities ablaze someone the country
What was in my hand but a lamp
I let it burn.
“Nasamajh hai! Modi meri baat nahin
Meri jagah nahi hai. Isliye mere
Halaat nahin samjhega.”
Modi is insensitive my story he will not
He is not in my place. So, my situation
He will not understand.
This is already more exhilarating than the talking-to happening under the tent. Suddenly a little girl walks up. “Woh tasveer maine banayi hai,” she says, pointing to an anti-CAA poster on the wall. She is all of 11 years and is mighty proud of what she has achieved. She has been told as much by several others who have encountered her art. “Tum kewal gyarah saal ki ho lekin kitna achcha kaam kiya hai,” she says people keep telling her. She has also been to the stage and has been felicitated for her artwork. She has a younger brother too, maybe 5 or 6 years old, who has tagged along. He too points to a color-pencil drawing that he claims he has done. He mumbles something about Amit Shah. I smile.
“Aapka school nahin hai?” I ask the little girl, not exactly prepared to ask ideological questions yet. Nahin, 16th ko khulenge. Aap kidhar school jaati ho? Idhar hi. Government school me. Badi hokar main shayad Art karungi.
Aapke mummy-papa aate hain idhar? Haan mummy shaam ko aati hain. Didi bhi aati hai. Shaam ko bahut log aate hain.
I look down to the tent and at the space around it. People are constantly moving about, many of them women. How is this place able to be such a source of strength and resistance? Is there one source to this Nile of revolutionary ferment? Or are there rivers and rivulets coming down from endless founts inside Shaheen Bagh, all joining up under the tent below?
I have seen many such neighborhoods in Delhi. In the Jama Masjid area, in Munirka right by JNU, Humayunpur in the Green Park area, Khirkee Extension in Malviya Nagar. All such “colonies,” are often cheek-by-jowl with spectacularly more upscale areas. Colonies where your inner V.S. Naipaul wants to come out and employ a supercilious tone in describing the place: A warren of narrow lanes; Loose hanging overhead tangle of power cables; Murderously zipping two wheelers as you flatten yourself against a wall; Dripping water from somewhere overhead.
From a forge such as this, however nondescript and unremarkable, Shaheen Bagh has wrought a seemingly indomitable phalanx of warriors. Lipstick – and an Iron Will – beneath my burqa.
I say goodbye to my brave little interlocutor, thank her for sharing her story and proceed back to the tent. I get closer to the periphery. Inside I spot some people who seem like journalists. They have their cameras – some have their smartphones on tripods – and fancy backpacks. Some of them are engaging the women who are sitting on the ground, earnestly asking them questions.
Why do I suddenly feel that such journalistic forays are intrusions? Why do I feel like telling these journalists, aliens amongst the locals, to just leave the women alone? To just take in the atmosphere, the energy and the wisdom of the site instead and not cause a disturbance with their trite questions.
The answers are staring them in the face. The women and children embody are all the answers they could seek. Why am I being reminded of those famous lines from William Wordsworth’s poem Solitary Reaper: Stop here, / Or gently pass.
Before I head home, I decide to visit the book fair in Pragati Maidan. In the cavernous Hall 12, where the regional language publishers are displaying their publications, I spot an interesting book at a Hindi stall. It is a book by famous Hindi author and short story writer, Kamleshwar, titled Kitne Pakistan. As I flip through it, I realize Shibli Nomani is one of the characters in it, but he seems to have been portrayed in an unfavorable light for his support for the idea of Partition. I later read elsewhere that Kamleshwar had acknowledged to Asghar Ali Engineer that his portrayal was probably unfair and he would correct it.
The Allama Shibli Nomani Avenue I was on earlier leads to a sense of wholeness today. It leads to exuberant and loud signs proclaiming, I Love My India. What else could a nationalist want? Not only are the women of Shaheen Bagh redeeming Nomani, they are also redeeming the entire Indian Resistance. I don’t think they need mikes thrust in their faces by famous by big-name and not-so-big-name journalists to elicit their deepest whys and wherefores. The call to seek justice was probably like a sacred call, like the call to prayer. How can that be explained?
For Shaheen Bagh is at once many things – and not, also.
It is about a stake in the ground and it is about immovability – of purpose and also, physical. Like the Chipko movement, it is about holding on to something with one’s body, to offer resistance. It is a dharna, a satyagraha, an Occupy. It is about ordinary people, it is about people like you and me. It is about a steely resolve that has deep springs. It is about transcending the elements while transcending one’s own doubts and limitations. It is about breaking cliches and stereotypes. It is about the final frontier. It is physicality, immovability – by those whom you-can-tell-by-their-dress. It is about a much-reviled covering, a dress item, which, however, does not obscure the soul and resolve.
It is not about ideological noise, not about the tired old lefty slogans of samantvad and fasivad. It is not about the elite and the upper-crust. It is not about a sit-in at Jantar Mantar. It is not about leaders and journalists. It is not about any one protester’s renown. It is not about any one protester.
It is about the ordinary and yet the extraordinary. It is about the real power of the people.
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! The people united will never be defeated!