The right and wrong lessons of Shaheen Bagh

Narendra Modi’s claim of good governance was shattered yet again by Delhi’s riots last week that took 40 lives and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of overwhelmingly Muslim families.

BJP leader Kapil Mishra had given advance notice of mayhem. He tweeted, “Giving a 3-day ultimatum to Delhi Police to clear the road at Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh of protesters. Don’t try to reason with us after this because we can’t pay heed.” Videos show the police standing idle while violence escalated. High court judge Muralidhar castigated the police for not acting against the BJP perpetrators but was summarily transferred by the Modi government to the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He was due for a transfer, but the timing carries a chilling message.

Alerted, the Muslim community was prepared for the assault and fought back. There was violence on both sides, both condemnable. But clearly the BJP started the riots and the victims were mainly Muslim.

The pluses and minuses of the Shaheen Bagh model are now clear. At Shaheen Bagh in December, 400 local women staged a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and police excesses against agitating students at Jamia Millia Islamia. The women came in rotating batches every few hours, so the protest tent was always occupied. This small agitation would normally have been ignored.

The protesters occupied one side of a major highway with a concrete divider in the middle. This blocked traffic to a major bridge, causing traffic jams and greatly inconveniencing the public.

Normally the police — controlled in Delhi by the BJP — would have ejected the protesters and restored traffic. But Delhi’s elections were imminent and the BJP hoped Shaheen Bagh would alienate voters hit by traffic chaos.

Although the protesters occupied only one side of the highway, the police blocked the other side and several nearby roads and crossings. So says Wajahat Habibullah, an interlocutor appointed by the Supreme Court. His findings suggest strongly that the BJP unnecessarily blocked a huge amount of traffic in order to blame it all on the anti-CAA protest. The BJP won only 8 of 70 seats in the Delhi election, but increased its vote share substantially. Maybe its Shaheen Bagh gambit actually worked.

The BJP pitches itself as defender of the nation against pro-Pakistani traitors (such as Muslims, student agitators and Naxalites). It painted Shaheen Bagh as a den of traitors. UP chief minister Adityanath accused Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal of “feeding biryani to the protesters,” a metaphor for aiding Pakistani terrorists.

Far from being provoked to violence, the Shaheen Bagh protesters stole patriotism from under BJP’s nose. They festooned their dais with the Constitution’s preamble promising equality and freedom, along with photos of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose and other patriots of the independence struggle. They wore headbands saying, “I love India”, waved Indian flags and repeatedly sang the national anthem. They were protesting as loyal Indians for the great freedoms fought for by the independence movement. Far from being unpatriotic, the anti-CAA Muslims proclaimed their loyalty to India, its independence movement and Constitution. No mullahs or Islamic symbols could be seen. Some minor opposition politicians initially came to speak, but soon the Shaheen Bagh movement banned all politicians from speaking — it sought to be non-political.

This model inspired Muslim women throughout India. Hundreds of groups began similar agitations from Kolkata to Delhi. This was a dazzling display of Muslim patriotism, and a clever ploy to puncture Hindutva hate speech. The agitations helped once-cowed Opposition parties to find their voice. Consequently, 11 Opposition-ruled states have now declared they will not implement the CAA, or NRC, or NPR.

One unfortunate fact remains that the women at Shaheen Bagh had occupied a public road, hitting thousands of commuters. They should have shifted their agitation tent to the adjacent Okhla bird sanctuary. That would have sent a signal that, while continuing a just protest, they would also avoid harming commuters.

The success of Shaheen Bagh inspired similar protests at other sites in Delhi. These too blocked major roads, and in one case affected the entrance to a metro station. That was sheer bad policy. It was likely to provoke retaliation at some point, either by the police or BJP goons.

This does not excuse BJP violence. But it does highlight a flaw in the Shaheen Bagh model. From being a shining example of non-violent fealty to the Constitution, the risk is that Shaheen Bagh may now be remembered as much for antagonising commuters and sparking riots in which dozens died. Future protesters must learn from this.

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