Why Shaheen Bagh protests are an important moment in India’s history

Why Shaheen Bagh protests are an important moment in India's history

“You have to go to Shaheen Bagh,” I was told at a party on Christmas night in India‘s capital, New Delhi. “You can’t cover the protests without going there. The atmosphere is amazing. It’s like a block party.”

For more than 50 days, people in Shaheen Bagh – a Muslim working-class neighbourhood – have been protesting against a new citizenship law that activists have dubbed “anti-Muslim”.

Legal experts say the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which makes faith the basis for acquiring Indian nationality goes against the country’s secular constitution. The law is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Similar protests have broken out across the country after India’s Hindu-nationalist government passed the amendment to the 1955 citizenship law on December 11 last year.

The government’s plan to implement a nationwide counting of citizens has particularly spooked Muslims amid fears millions could be rendered stateless. A similar exercise in the northeastern Indian state of Assam excluded nearly two million people from the citizenship list (National Register of Citizens or NRC) last year.

‘An act of kindness’

Marching alongside the protesters, with no pomp or waving banners, is an army of people providing them with food and beverages.

At New Delhi’s India Gate – the iconic World War I memorial – on a windy December evening, the mercury dropped to a chilly 13 degrees Celsius. But that did not deter 44-year-old Mohammad Fuaad from leaning on a yellow police barricade and calling out to passers-by, holding out a rectangular packet.

“Biryani le leejiye, Sir, veg biryani (Please have biryani, Sir, it’s vegetarian biryani),” he called out, assuring people that the rice had been cooked with potatoes instead of meat, to avoid any trouble at a time when meat and the eating of it has become deeply polarised in light of rising Hindu nationalism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Fuaad was not trying to sell his biryani, he was offering it for free. In a space barricaded before the British-era monument, thousands of protesters were reading the preamble to the Indian constitution on a loop.

“You know, a dark law has been brought in to threaten India’s unity and integrity, and students from across the universities are standing up against it,” said Kamran Khan, Fuaad’s colleague from Khidmat Foundation, a social welfare collective.

“We have come here to support them in this mission,” Khan, who lived in the older part of the Indian capital, told Al Jazeera.

At approximately 8pm, when police asked the protesters to wrap up, Khidmat’s 80 kilogrammes (176 pounds) of biryani were almost finished. Its fiery aroma lingered and met that of a winter comfort few metres away: “Chai langar” or tea offering by members of Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity organisation.

“At a protest like this where people are there regardless [of their identities], I saw this as an act of kindness,” said 26-year-old Manpreet Kaur, who works as a travel agent.

Community bonds

Amarpreet Singh, Khalsa Aid’s managing director in the Asia Pacific region, told Al Jazeera it was the brutal police violence at two predominantly Muslim institutions – New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university (JMI) and Uttar Pradesh state’s Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) – that caused them to step in.

In near-simultaneous attacks on the evening of December 15, police stormed the two campuses 130km (80 miles) apart, firing tear gas and live ammunition, attacking students with batons, and vandalising property.

More than 100 students were wounded in the attacks, one losing an eye and another a limb. Students at both universities had been protesting against CAA.

Ishita Dey, food anthropologist and assistant professor of sociology at New Delhi’s South Asian University, told Al Jazeera that food is one of the oldest forms showing solidarity across communities.

“From natural disasters to conflict situations, the first thing you distribute is food,” she said.

In India, Dey said there is “resistance to partaking of food” between different communities because of the “rules of inter-dining, specifically prohibitions around exchange of water and cooked food”.

But the anti-CAA protesters are subverting such ideas, thereby challenging the divisive rhetoric of Prime Minister Modi.

‘Protest is a tiring thing’

Ghazala Meer is a 26-year-old woman from the Ladakh region (it was carved out of Indian-administered Kashmir in August) participating in protests across New Delhi.

Meer said the availability of food at such protests brings a sense of comfort and togetherness. “It isn’t just for a certain group of people, but for everybody,” said Meer.

Activist Umar Khalid, who is frequently seen demonstrating, said it is not unusual for people to offer food to protesters, but the scale of support in the ongoing protests is unprecedented.

“Because the attack is on the very citizenship of every citizen of this country, everyone wants to contribute,” he told Al Jazeera.

At Shaheen Bagh, hundreds of female protesters are shaking up India’s traditional domestic makeup as they brave New Delhi’s coldest winter in a century, standing at the front of resistance while men support from the sidelines, cooking and caring for them.

A dozen men in their early 20s are watching over a huge pot bubbling with “secular chai (tea)”. A banner hangs over their spot: ‘Secular Chai – Made in India’.

The 23-year-old man running the stall said their branding of the tea is a protest against Modi, who had based his 2014 election campaign on the claim that he worked as a tea-seller in his childhood.

“Chaiwaley, teri chai unsecular hai (Tea-seller, your tea is unsecular),” he said, requesting anonymity.

Hesitant to claim credit

However, many of those offering food and beverages are hesitant to claim credit.

Khidmat’s Kamran Khan said about his support: “It would be like getting a finger sliced and being counted as a martyr,” suggesting that his was a modest contribution to the movement.

On December 19 at New Delhi’s iconic protest site, Jantar Mantar, 28-year-old artist Daamini K was offered bottled water and bananas by a man in his 30s.

“I asked who is it by and he said, ‘it is by all of us’,” she told Al Jazeera.

The same day, Mumbai-based writer-photographer Anagh Mukherjee was offered water by a middle-aged man when he was marching with tens of thousands of people.

“I was really moved by the gesture because they were doing it to keep everyone charged,” Mukherjee said.

In West Bengal state’s North 24 Parganas district, anti-CAA protesters made food their mode of protest by blocking off a section of the highway and cooking biryani on an industrial scale.

Not all gestures are that large, 36-year old researcher Anusha Pandey (name changed upon her request) carried biscuits with her to a protest, anticipating detention by police in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad city. She did end up being detained, along with 200 others.

“I ate and distributed them [biscuits] among the fellow detainees – just two, three packets, nothing very large scale,” Pandey said.

The recipe for protest food

Protest food involves money; the logistics of preparing, sourcing and transporting food; and its distribution. Individuals, collectives, and strangers banding together are the spine of this protest infrastructure.

For nearly a month now, Mohamad Anas, a former student at Jamia Millia Islamia, has not gone to work at his disability rights advocacy organisation. He spends nearly 4,000 rupees daily to supply 30 litres (8 gallons) of tea at the protest outside one of the university’s gates.

Anas has a locomotor disability and utilises his specialised four-wheeled scooter to hold the large steel containers in which he fetches tea from sellers in nearby Sukhdev Vihar. His friends help too.

“I do whatever my financial condition allows to ensure that students here can protest peacefully and with ease,” Anas told Al Jazeera. He also offers tea to more than 150 police and paramilitary personnel stationed there.

Abdul Rahman, a 42-year-old baker, is funding his food drive through Nawa-e-Haque, a social welfare organisation he is part of. Neighbours contribute in kind for the protest food he prepares at his bakery.

“I come here [to the Jamia protest] around 4pm every day since I saw the kids injured and hungry at the hospitals on the night of December 15,” said Rahman, his voice cracking and tears streaming down his face. He gestured to say he could not speak any more.

His colleague’s 17-year-old son Saadiq Ghazi takes over. Ghazi has taken time off his grade 12 exam preparations to help with the protests.

“Between my father’s five friends and their sons, we’re a team of 10-15 people on any day,” he said.

Others like Bushra Khan run crowdfunding efforts. A shoebox acts as a donation box, with a jagged slot cut into the cardboard; it sits on the table she serves tea and snacks from at the Jamia gate.

Back at Shaheen Bagh, where a round-the-clock protest by women has become emblematic of the anti-CAA and NRC movement, area residents have come together.

When 45-year-old Hussain Khan, who reserves his food support for specific groups – women, children, the elderly, artists, and journalists – realises that his biscuit carton has lightened, he waves to 18-year-old Amaan Saifi to go buy another carton.

At India Gate, as Fuaad packs off his empty biryani containers, he reveals his reason for charity and solidarity with the protesting students.

“When they are in positions of power in future, I believe they will be more involved with humanitarian causes.”

Why Shaheen Bagh protests are an important moment in India’s history


To read more Click Here.