Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: In conversation with the Editor and an Author

Shaheen Bagh – The Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books, is an anthology of essays that deep-dives into the acts, consequences, the whys and wherefores of the wave of protests against the The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, that emerged in Delhi, primarily led by Muslim women, the spirit of which travelled from the capital to crucial corners of the Indian Union. 

The tripartite book, with its first part constituting ground reports that dissect the happenstance and aftermath of the brutal attacks on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University, the book over the course of its secondary part through a timeline with a sequential order, garlands together the events as they unfolded – with essays that contrast the framework of the political history of India with the present. 

As juxtaposed to its fiery and poised prior counterparts, the third and final part of the book, with a rather solemn overtone and provoking ground-reports, attempts to establish that the violence that erupted in early 2020 post Delhi elections in the capital were in-fact ‘pre-mediated anti-Muslim pogroms’ and that the involvement of the police and Hindu neighbours was ‘complicit’. 

In a conversation with Free Press Kashmir, journalist and author Seema Mustafa – the editor of the anthology, and one of its contributing authors – Zeyad Masroor Khan answer questions about participation of Muslim women in India’s politics, new emerging trends in voices of dissent and its future, the potential legacy of Shaheen Bagh post-COVID, and much more. 


Free Press Kashmir: Many would argue that the phenomena of Shaheen Bagh in India’s contemporary history and polity, would constitute for a crucial benchmark in the active participation of a Muslim woman, especially proletariat Muslim woman – even so chiefly older, amidst the patriarchal establishment that is religion. How do you analyse this sudden upsurge and the prior lack of space/representation? 

Seema Mustafa: It’s a good question, makes me almost want to republish the introduction to the book. It is difficult to answer in a few words. It is a crucial benchmark in the history of movements, and it is precisely what attracted me as a journalist to the protests.

The en-masse participation of Muslim women with the Constitution and the Indian flag in hand is something I had never witnessed before in living memory. I had covered protests with Muslim women often taking regressive stands as dictated by patriarchy but this was different. The upsurge came clearly from the attack on their menfolk over the months, and on students. It is when the woman feels that the last bastion as it were has fallen and her household itself is in danger that she takes to the streets (anywhere in the world) and this is what happened.

Zeyad Masroor Khan: I think this participation is as much driven by the groundwork prepared Muslim feminists as much as it is driven by exceptional circumstances – Muslim male politicians wouldn’t have ceded this space to women if there was any other possibility.

In the current scenario, however, speaking directly against the state as a Muslim male is akin to inviting trouble or even harassment by cops. It’s not as though there aren’t risks faced by women, but if it was men sitting blocking the road, it would have been removed violently within days. It was patriarchy, which is part and parcel of every society and religious structure, which was slowing this transformation. I now see women, especially Muslim women, leading political movements all over the globe.


FPK: In the present scenario where civil liberties are curtailed and an active onslaught on free speech is imposed, how does one hold power to account, while keeping the discourse healthy? And do you think Shaheen Bagh has been exemplary in this regard, in whichever capacity?

Seema Mustafa: Exemplary is a word I am averse to. As it denotes judgement and that as a journalist I do not make. I’ve been taught not to make. I report, I record, all the more so when momentous events like Shaheen Bagh take place. And momentous it was, recognised by all even those who did not want to give it space in democracy.

It is always important to hold power to account, it is always imperative to protect and nurture dissent and free speech in democracy (and even in non-democracies which have faced outbursts of peoples power), and this is a task that journalism is committed to. By reporting faithfully what happens. If we do just this, we will change the course of histories and keep nations from being derailed.

Zeyad Masroor Khan: It’s difficult, but I think one has to be very tactical and aware of ground realities before talking to the state in such a scenario. In the age of social media, it is important to make a lot of noise to be heard, while safeguarding yourself. Blocking of the roads wouldn’t have been possible with safety at many other places. Shaheen Bagh was exemplary in this regard. They were very careful that nobody says anything incendiary from the podium. If anybody said anything which had a slight chance to be misrepresented by mainstream media, they communiacted it to the speaker. That is where Shaheen Bagh was magical.

As I said in my essay, “at every point Shaheen Bagh knew what to say, how to say it and to whom to say to what they feel.” Being visible and maintaining a positive tone made it last that long.


FPK: With a malicious media campaign that vilified and packaged the struggle erupted from Shaheen Bagh uni-dimensionally and in a few years as some might allege – addingly tainted the general ‘secular mindset’ of the country; what do you think has made it successful for their voices of dissent to reach far corners of India and them finding solidarity, apart from the precept of mutual amity?

Zeyad Masroor Khan: Though it might look there is no political opposition, there are many people who are witnessing what is happening and are silent. In the age of materialism and individualism, very few people would speak against the mainstream version that might invite them trouble. I won’t say they are the majority but they are sizeable. The Dadis of Shaheen Bagh became that emotional catalyst which forced many silent to come out of this slumber. Most people can’t look through the media manipulation but some can. I think international media, social media and citizen initiatives took the message everywhere. Even among mainstream Indian media, there were journalists not demonising it. Many people came to know about it after Ravish Kumar from NDTV covered the protests. Many Hindu friends, who were unaware what was happening there, said they cried after watching that show. Also, Shaheen Bagh knew how to use the media and women were better speakers than most politicians I see on TV debates.

Seema Mustafa: The courage and the honesty have ensured that the voices were heard, despite the pressure and the media vilification. The protestors were bold, and they had not sold their souls to any political leader or party. They were spontaneous, forthright, and in the simplicity of their language and their cause they triggered the imagination of India; and convinced even those who rarely ever move out of their homes to visit a protest site.


FPK: In a religiously/ethnically diverse and often unequal country like India, how do you view the participation of majoritarian Hindu, or even the minority non-Muslim voices as allies to be at the forefront of the present resistance against the Sangh regime when they aren’t at the direct receiving end of it? If yes, to what extent should their presence be, so the healthy lines between appropriation of voices and amplification/standing in solidarity don’t get blurred and the inevitable saviour complex doesn’t seep in?

Zeyad Masroor Khan: I don’t think they should be at the forefront, but they should be visible. In fact, most successful civil movements in the world have been the ones which were populated by a diverse people. In India, the political reality is such that Muslim protesters are easily painted as ‘anti-national’ and can face arrests. Until and unless, young upper caste Hindu men and women get beaten by the police lathis, nobody notices anything in India. This is why the Nirbhaya movement got so big. I think who remains at the forefront should decide.

In my experience, there were mostly residents of Shaheen Bagh. Who or who shouldn’t be at the forefront can only be decided by the protestors internally and democratically. People like you and me shouldn’t have a say.

I am personally not that much against appropriation. I think it’s one of the signs of a successful campaign that everyone wants to join the bandwagon. Though appropriation dilutes the message, it takes the message to a wider audience. ‘Pure movements’ never go that far. Capitalism has been appropriating feminism through ads, films and Netflix shows, but it has only made the movement stronger. I think movements for social justice should move away from a few elitist activists, politicians and media and become people’s movements. You can just further your sub-cause and don’t have to undermine if somebody is trying to understand it in their own way.

If you look at the history of movements, its language and influence is only furthered when it is not censored what few elite people think as ‘right’. Many people didn’t know about Che Guevara’s and his politics until his photo was printed by capitalists on t-shirts. It was only after that his autobiography and writings began selling a large number of copies. I would love to see Shaheen Bagh on T-shirts worn by Whites and Upper Caste Hindus.


FPK: What, according to you, is the key factor which has abled the women of Shaheen Bagh to perpetuate harmony and communal love with their protests despite an eternal dissemination of hatred and vilification about them prevailing?

Seema Mustafa: Their own nature – simple, warm, hospitable, apolitical and naturally courageous. They did not fall into the diatribe of hate, because they didn’t how to. They just sat and did what they had come out to do, protest, and refused to be drawn into the raging politics around them.

Not just of those were opposing them, but also of those supporting them. In the process they gave strength to those around, and became the nucleus for all regardless of gender, religion, caste, profession, age.

Zeyad Masroor Khan: I think what differentiated Shaheen Bagh from many other movements was its acceptance towards everyone. It was a place where a bindi-sporting Hindu woman sat alongside a Muslim woman who flaunted her hijab; where a Muslim man with a long, flowing beard rubbed shoulders with a clean-shaven left-wing student; where women who worked as managers in corporate offices in Noida and Gurgaon raised the same slogans as men who worked as workers in the galis of Batla House.

This magical solidarity and defiance with messages of love was what made Shaheen Bagh iconic.


FPK: The claim by some liberal bastions of India that the Muslim fight against the citizenship initiatives must be based on a single identity as Indians is what some might term hypocritical. Do you think it’s feasible to safeguard a Constitution that speaks for religious freedom while discarding others’?

Zeyad Masroor Khan: I think anyone should have the freedom to protest with whatever identity they want to: Muslim identity, Indian identity or for that matter even Hindu, Sikh or Christian identity. It’s more an issue among elites furthering their politics, than people who were actually protesting at the ground. As mentioned in my essay, I did see people raising Muslim and Hindu religious slogans together. To censor who protests in what way will only be counterproductive.


FPK: While the Covid-19 pandemic has halted the protests, atleast for now, how do you gauge potential legacy of Shaheen Bagh? Do you think it will play a role in shaping the politics of dissent in India for years to come, having set a benchmark for a new brand of Satyagraha?

Seema Mustafa: As a chronicler of immediate history I have often found looking back, that nothing momentous fades away without leaving a mark, or generating a change that we might not be aware of at the time but realise in its full potential later. It is difficult at times to predict, but every event, every incident impacts on our future.

The BJP did not come into power without the Congress, and only the foolish will delink the two. BJPs movement had a direct impact on the formation of governments, on the socialists movement, that further impacted on state governments over the years. Bhindrawale’s movement, Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination seemed like individual events at the time but all share a woven history of politics, intrigue, conspiracies. Shaheen Bagh will feed into the future, in what form we have to wait and see.


FPK: Throughout the book, there’s an incessant emphasis on what some might term, the romantic idea of India, with an evident overtone of romanticization of protests too. Is it necessary for struggles to be viewed in rosy tints, especially when a community – which might not have been experienced the said romantic idea of India in person but only in books – is at a higher receiving end?

Zeyad Masroor Khan: It is the writer’s perspective in what way they want to see a movement and it would vary. I am a Muslim who grew up in a religious ghetto in Aligarh amid communal riots in the 1990s. I am writing a book about it. Even amid fights, I saw people existing mutually. I don’t see it as a romantic idea, but a real one. Anybody who spent considerable time at Shaheen Bagh would know it was as beautiful and joyful as it was gritty and sombre.

It was more of a celebration than mourning. The ones who don’t see this haven’t been there enough or are motivated by their politics.

Seema Mustafa: But it’s a good thing to be a romantic, no?


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