Greater Kailash metro station from where I board the train for Shaheen Bagh, is expansive, welcoming and decorated with art. Shaheen Bagh’s is like stations everywhere, bit rundown and cramped, minimalist, artless, like it doesn’t care if you’re there or not.
Yet, at any given time, Shaheen Bagh metro station has exponentially more people than Greater Kailash. You realise why when you walk the areas around both stations.
Greater Kailash, Chittaranjan Park, and the other posh South Delhi neighbourhoods are chock-a-block with standalone bungalows, apartments that look slightly cramped from the outside but are spacious inside, ancient temples with large compounds for gods to frolic in, adults jogging at 11 on a wintery, workday morning and kids playing in expansive, maintained parks surrounded by parked cars that which is the main mode of transportation here, not the metro.
Shaheen Bagh – in contrast – is lined with mechanics, grocers, ramshackle restaurants, tiny apartment blocks, mosques squeezed between flats screaming for space, slum dwellings and perennially hurrying people. The only sign of a park is a smelly strip running parallel to a filthy canal that seems not to have been maintained for months. The only open space kids can play cricket in, is across the canal and under the metro station.
Shaheen Bagh, along with Jamia nearby – we all know – has risen in protest against CAA, NRC, NPR and police brutality. People of Greater Kailash, CR Park, and surrounding South Delhi areas have enough money and clout to leave the country if it becomes even slightly unbearable for them.
There are those calling this battle Shaheen Bagh is waging against one of the most powerful governments – politically, ideologically and militarily - of the world, to be one of Muslims against Hindus. But as I take these walks, I have little doubt that this is a battle between have-mores and have-littles or loose-littles vs. loose-alls. It is a battle between students who dream of an equitable India and students who’ll leave India the first chance they can create. It is a battle that the poor are staking for the very right to exist and hope. Take away hope and all you have is either suicide or resistance. ‘Accept existence or expect resistance,’ read words scribbled under a walkover bridge in Shaheen Bagh.
Inside a posh South Delhi flat, I listen to two women talk about Mrs Chatterjee from their kitty party who supports Aam Aadmi Party and had – in a legendary scream fest in 2014 – shouted down BJP supporters who had screamed ‘Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi’. Mrs Kaur – a Congress supporter – does not trust the two days into his third term Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal though she has voted for him. Mrs Basu recounts the 2014 incident to remind her of the ‘fascism’ that had spread in their kitty party group and which only the AAP supporter had the guts to counter.
The same day in Shaheen Bagh I am sitting with Razia as pesky kids pester her with requests for crayons, pens or books. This would have looked like a scene from a typical school but for the missing walls and roof, and its floor being a saffron tarpaulin over an erstwhile footpath.
Razia, called Razia Sultan by her colleagues in this ‘school’ breaks down as she talks of the kids. One 7-year-old boy does not have a father, another 10-year-old brings his sister every day to study and when she asks him why he tells her, “I have to work hard and earn to take care of my parents.” “Look at the kid’s sensibility,” Razia says, “He has never been to school but understands that education is the key to a better future.”
The Bagh-e-Shaheen school - as a painted cardboard declares - was set up on February 5, a month and a half into the sit-in protest of Shaheen Bagh by June, Kehkasha and Razia among others. The times I go there, only a handful of kids are of women who are protesting. Most kids who come here, live in slums nearby. Many have never been to school yet voluntarily sit from 11 to 4 and write and draw as the teachers' instruct.
Razia gets emotional when she says, “If the protests close down tomorrow, where will these kids go to learn. Can’t the government built at least 1 room classrooms in the slums so they can at least learn the numbers and alphabets?”
I am as amazed by Razia as I am by this school. In her 20s and with a girl child who lives with grandparents in Aligarh, she had been coming to Shaheen Bagh for a month when I met her. Before this ‘exposure’, she had never stepped out of the house on her own errand. She giggles as she recollects how shy she was talking to strangers earlier, a far cry from the free-flowing words and emotions today.
Razia is not the only Sultan in scarf, hijab, dupatta, bangles or shirts and pants. Since December as I have visited multiple protests sites across the country, in Assam, Mumbai, and Delhi, I’ve talked to dozens of women, some – like Razia – have stepped out for the first time, yet demonstrate a political awareness about issues that usually take years to mature.
Shivangi – 21 - a volunteer at Shaheen Bagh, was on a year’s sabbatical from her studies and says she couldn’t have taken it at a better time. The videos of violence in Jamia and JNU inspired her to volunteer at Shaheen Bagh. Creative by nature, she has helped make a fifty-foot-high mural and an India Gate replica at Shaheen Bagh. She devours political content on YouTube and talks about it to others around, inspiring them.
Soft-spoken, reticent June – a colleague of Razia – is a teacher from Bangalore who came to Delhi to take part in Shaheen Bagh. Like Razia, she exults patient compassion as she manages the kids here. When I ask her how long she plans to be here, she smiles, does not say anything but I just have to look at the twinkle in her eyes as she teaches the kids to know that she’s not going away in a hurry.
Farah in Mumbai saddles her physiotherapy work, kids and extended family along with protest in Mumbai Bagh. Another woman in burka I talked to in Mumbai Bagh said she had been to a few protests in the last 6 years – the #notinmyname ones against intolerance and lynching, but saw few from her community in those. Now, she finally feels at home.
Shailee a filmmaker from Mumbai has parked herself in Shaheen Bagh, documenting it daily, hoping to turn it into a documentary against all commercial odds.
The band Jazba-e-Junoon mesmerized the Shaheen Bagh women with their ‘Main Shaheen Bagh Hoon’ song on the evening of the 13th February. The three band members tell me that for five years they have been happy playing covers in events and marriages. But one visit to Shaheen Bagh protest tent late December (they are local boys), and they were charged up politically. With lyrics like ‘julmo-sitam se nikla parinda’ (phoenix born of oppression) in their song, it is hard to believe that their political awareness is recent.
As I walk in South Delhi after alighting at Greater Kailash Metro station, the friend I am staying with points to the bungalows around. One 3 storeyed bungalow with at least 8 rooms, has only an elderly couple, the children all settled in the US. Some have been abandoned, their masters living abroad. Some are in the market for sale but find no buyers in a slowing economy. The conversations I have here, are mostly esoteric, cloudy about the state of the economy, politics in general, etc.
Those I have in Shaheen Bagh and poorer homes across the country seem earthier, grounded, immediate and come from people who are not political by nature but common citizens forced to wake up, to realise the hard way that the personal is political and vice versa.
It is from these personal spaces, that I realise where their politics is operating from. The affluent women and men in South Delhi – surrounded by art in metro stations they rarely visit – can afford to keep street politics out of the horizon of their consciousness. The women and men in Shaheen Bagh and it’s 200 odd replicas across the nation, can’t. These people here are afflicted with the suffering of their fellow beings to such an extent that they remind me of Swami Vivekananda’s definition of patriots, “Feel, my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes? Do you feel that millions are starving today, and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it gone into your blood, coursing through your veins, becoming consonant with your heartbeats? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? Have you done that? That is the first step to become a patriot, the very first step.”
Razia giggles when she tells me – thanking her husband - that there have been times she hasn’t gone home for 2 days, sleeping in the tent among protestors of Shaheen Bagh. She says she did this because she feels for the suffering of the people across the nation via the kids she teaches.
The suffering of his fellow humans led Vivekananda to enlightenment. When I travel the country I see thousands of people walking in Vivekananda’s path, the Razia, June, Shivangi, Kehkasha, Farah’s of this nation. Without reading Vivekananda they seem to be living his ideals. And as I talk to each I also realise that they are determined to live another Vivekananda adage, “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.”
Their goal, Azaadi – freedom not just from this black law of CAA but they are determined to fight to root out every other evil from this nation.
(Names of certain people have been changed to protect identities)
(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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