“Don’t thank us, thank the Modi and Yogi government. If they hadn’t cracked down so brutally on peaceful protestors, they wouldn’t have had this ‘headache’ to deal with,” said a man on conditions of anonymity at the lane next to Arabia Hotel at Mumbai Central. Here, hundreds of women have occupied 200 meters of space on an unfinished road – many navigating the pits of unfinished roads through their burka – their ambition – to make it Mumbai’s Shaheen Bagh. A note hastily scribbled over cardboard and stuck to a pillar holding Arabia Hotel pronounces ‘Welcome to Mumbai Bagh’.
This Mumbai Bagh is the ‘headache’ this gentleman at the protest site is referring to. A few dozen women, tired of their husbands talking about making a Shaheen Bagh in Mumbai but unable to reach a consensus about the place, decided to take their thermos, a few mat and helped by some men, parked themselves on this unfinished cement lane on the night of the 26th.
I hear this story of the origin of Mumbai Bagh on the afternoon of 28 January. It’s not even been 48 hours since the women have been sitting here. The cops have cordoned off the road on both sides and a few female and male constables loiter at the protest sites while dozens are posted at its ‘borders’. Hundreds of people walk the footpath to reach the main road, taking a peek at the protest. What is most noticeable is the wall in the background. In under 2 days the wall is filled with posters considered seditious, like the ‘sab changasi’ poster with PM Narendra Modi starring at you like Big Brother, his index finger on his lips.
Ali Bhojani who approaches as he sees me filming, says he’s been helping out since 26th night. I ask him who put up the posters and made the designs on the wall. “Honestly I don’t know. People are spontaneously joining the protest, making and leaving the posters behind.”
A five-year-old kid has loitered far from his mother. The worried mother stands up from the group, looks around, sees her boy nestled in the lap of another woman a distance away. This woman smiles and shouts, “Your son has found a new mother.” Reassured, the actual mother sits down.
The shrill sound of two teenage girls standing amidst the crowd, wearing burka, rents the air, “Sarfaroshi ki tammanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna bazue katil mein hai.’ The next time they just have to say the first line and all the women join her in completing it. It is said that the human body grows until the age of 25. I doubt if these thin girls are even 20, their sound still not mature enough. But their politics, it seems to be maturing faster than their moral shells.
There are women with babies, others with happy toddlers playing with the tricolour, some women wearing burkas that cover even their eyes, others with colourful kurtas but wearing hijab. Though a majority of them are Muslim, women from other communities, college girls in groups and random women continuously pour in large and small numbers over time, sit, eat, sing, make posters, perform skits and give performances. Some stay the night, sleepily singing songs, catching a few winks between cups of warm tea.
And the men, where are they? These chaiwallahs – the ones making and passing tea, lunch, dinner, breakfast and snacks, are mostly men – husbands, brothers and fathers of some of these women, some random strangers. These men have become the housewives at the protest site, doing what women in traditional households are supposed to do while the women are braving the street.
This is a moment in the history of Indian women, particularly Indian Muslim women, the likes of which have rarely been seen since independence. Before Independence though, Mahatma Gandhi regularly told his satyagrahis that if they wanted to join him, they have to get their wives as well because freedom was for everyone. But that is a story for another time.
The only other men who come here are those who come to speak to them occasionally, the famous ones and the not so famous ones. Those men who want to stay long and partake of this ‘satsang’ as one Hindu women described this gathering to me have a little corner at the far distance for them.
Gandhi and Ambedkar may have been adversaries in real life, but here their posters are cheek in jowl with each other. And so are their ideologies. “Educate. Organise. Agitate” said Ambedkar. All three are happening right here. “Respond to their violence with collective non-violence and civil disobedience” said Gandhi, that is what the sit ins are doing, not just here or in Shaheen Bagh but in dozens of similar women sit-ins that have come up all over the country, those that no one talks or writes about because they are in small towns, obscure places. What we need is Ambedkars words and Gandhi’s street-smart protest style. Arundhati Roy criticised Gandhian style of agitation as being more theatre, less protest. She’d change her opinion if she visited Mumbai Bagh.
A woman I talked to on the 28th said, “Do you see the condition of this road. It’s been lying like this, left unfinished for a year. Had they finished it, this wouldn’t have happened here.” Though they have occupied only about 200 meters of the same, the unfinished road is over a kilometres long.
Feroze Mithiborwala, one of the core members of Hum Bharat Ke Log that have been at the forefront of organising the many protests in the city, beginning with the iconic one on the 19th December that unexpectedly saw over a lakh protestors says he joked with the authorities, “I told them better finish the road fast or the swelling sea of women will occupy it all the way. And while they are at it, why not better the roads all over the city so they too are not occupied?”
Some activists of Mumbai Bagh say the politicos of the area were not happy that this had come up here, that they feared this would take control off their hands. On the 28th, I walked the kilometre or so of unfinished roads lined with shops that made and sold bags, up onto Jhula Garden. This is the place the cops want the protesting women to go to. It is indeed a nice little triangular open space that can accommodate thousands and is open to the lanes around. But the problem is it is too inside and is a predominantly Muslim locality. Taking it there would make it a protest only by, and thus for Muslims.
I walk to Jhula garden because on that evening Asaduddin Owaisi is supposed to make a visit to the city. The program there that was to start at 6, finally starts at 6.45. This does not seem to be such a politically charged up site. The other anti-CAA, NRC and NPR meetings and rallies I have been to in Mumbai, people have turned up with posters, banners and flags – mostly self-made - all of which are missing as I enter Jhula garden and behold the couple of thousand men and women huddled together, waiting for Owaisi.
But by the time the protest gets over by 10, and Owaisi in his typical rapid-fire oratorical style mesmerises the people into a pin drop silence for his over half an hour speech, distributed flags are fluttering high, though banners and posters are still missing. The end - where Owaisi read the preamble of the constitution in Urdu and the 7000 odd strong audience repeated the words with their mobile torches on - was a mesmerizing sight.
If there was any animosity that these politicians mostly from AIMIM had over the people’s movement, I do not see it. Indeed, the MC asked people to help their sisters at Mumbai Bagh.
But trouble brewed soon after as on the 6th of February, a group of mostly men met the Maharashtra Home Minister and told him that the protests would clear up in 2 days. There was confusion, police pressure on the women to vacate the site in these two days but the women, instead of vacating, sent word out, requesting more women and groups to come join them. As the 48 hours passed, the protest had not only grown, it had solidified itself.
The Nagpada police retaliated by booking 300 women under section 341of IPC. The charge: they have been obstructing the construction of the road. A woman reacted to this by saying, “If it takes BMC a sit-in to do work on a road, perhaps we should go sit on all bad roads of the city.”
This controversy and the pressure from Mumbai police that has been intensifying, actually did the protest site good. Not only did a tiny library of sorts open up from books donated by people, Mumbai Bagh has seen a steady stream of celebrities and activists since. From an Anurag Kashyap to Rajmohan Gandhi, from Medha Patkar and Tushar Gandhi, to Aishe Ghosh and dozens of grassroots workers from all communities across Maharashtra, and often rest of India. Mumbai Bagh has become a festival, a celebration of sorts, a carnival of freedom, democracy and the right to protest peacefully against things one sees wrong.
In less than 20 days of sitting under the sun as the authorities have not given them permission to erect a shed, it has indeed earned the tag of Mumbai’s Shaheen Bagh. Today if you go there, you’ll see a flex banner covering the name of Arabia hotel that proudly declares, ‘Welcome to Mumbai Bagh’. The hastily made cardboard sign declaring the same, continues to be taped on a pillar of Arabia Hotel.
On the multiple occasions I’ve gone there since, I’ve asked many women how long they plan to sit there. “As long as it takes to repeal or modify the black law,” everyone says referring to CAA the Citizenship Amendment Act, NRC and NPR.
‘Tere gusse ko jalayegi wo aag hu, aake dekh mein Mumbai baug hu’, this poster is next to the ‘Sab Changasi’ poster of PM Modi, as if asking the PM to come and see. The PM will never come, to Mumbai Bagh or Shaheen Bagh. But the women in both these places – and in the dozens of such ‘baghs’ i.e. gardens across the country - can rest assured, he definitely gets their message.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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