Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Shaheen Bagh Protests

Shaheen Bagh has been in the news for more than a month now.

Ever since protests erupted over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register (NPR) three places have constantly been in the news - Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamila Millia University (JMU) and Shaheen Bagh (SB).

CAA is a new law that gives persecuted minorities (Christians, Sikhs, Hindus) - refugees from three neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) who fled to India before 2014 - a fast-track route to citizenship. The NPR, on the other hand, is an exercise undertaken in the state of Assam to ostensibly protect the state's culture from all migrants (Hindus, Muslims, etc.).

Thanks to an ill-timed announcement by the Home Minister in the Parliament promising to extend the use of the CAA-NPR combo to all states in India, especially to isolate illegal migrants (read muslims), a wave of protests was triggered at JNU and JMU. Driven by rumours and a fear psychosis fanned on the social media, the protests turned violent in many places with the police responding in kind. Buses were stoned and burnt, and the police responded with batons, tear-gas and arrests.

Amongst the three main sites - JNU, JMU and SH only the last one is spearheaded by women. A large group has been squatting on one of the main roads connecting Delhi to its suburbs seeking the withdrawal of CAA. For more than a month now this group has been feted and egged on by a section of the media while the rest of the citizens are forced to seek alternate routes to cross the river.  Every day lakhs of vehicles have been crawling through traffic jams on the remaining bridges connecting Delhi to Uttar Pradesh.

What exactly is happening in Shaheen Bagh?

I decided to walk through the area today to find out for myself. Starting from the Okhla Vihar metro station I walked through Zakir Nagar, past the SB metro station, skirted the barricades on the main road and entered the main 'protest zone' through the by-lanes of a residential colony.

What struck me at the scene was the festive, disconnected chaos amidst a total disruption of trade and commerce in the area. All the shops and eateries along the main road were shuttered. In an area that is usually packed with vehicles and shoppers there was a large tent right in the middle of the road occupied by about 200 women, and an assorted bunch of busybodies making all sorts of speeches. As I passed by, a hack from Rajasthan was mocking Modi and Trump(!). An announcement was being made for a "special" press briefing at 5:30pm with a plea that the stage be cleared for the invited journalists.

Further down this road an over-bridge was festooned with banners and slogans.  A large map of India proclaimed eternal opposition to CAA and NPR, while a battalion of street vendors did brisk business selling chai, grilled sweet potatoes, fruit-chat and other assorted snacks.

And the police? They were nowhere to be seen. A handful stood at the far end of the barricades, bored and listless, discouraging vehicles from getting through.

As I walked past the Kalindi Kunj metro station, across the murky, frothy, polluted waters of the Yamuna towards Noida, I wondered if the protesters had an end game in mind. What did they expect to get from blocking a main road that prevents lakhs of people from reaching schools, hospitals and  workplaces in time?

It is election season in Delhi and yet none of the main political parties is willing to take up the cause of the protesters. As long as the protesters are 'peaceful' the police seems happy to sit back and let the protestors carry on like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, stewing in their own rhetoric.

A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court yesterday, seeking relief from the protests and claiming, among other things, that businessmen has been suffering huge losses as shops in the vicinity of the protest site are “bound or compelled” to remain closed due to the protests.

And so, while everybody plays passing-the-parcel, the protesters let off steam with their fiery promises of an imminent revolution where "Every one is a leader"!


The CAA Act - http://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2019/214646.pdf

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