Lessons Shaheen Bagh can teach us

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanFeb 09, 2020 | 10:41

Lessons Shaheen Bagh can teach us

The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act ambushed the government and surprised India.

Every society marks a set of sociological categories as liminal, as confused, confusing and ambiguous. These are labelled as both vulnerable and threatening. These are not seen as the categories that create agency. These groups are more acted upon rather than seen as representing agency. But once in a while, these very categories get together to create history and without becoming objects of it. One witnessed such a drama at Shaheen Bagh a few weeks ago.


Eschewing violence

The protests against the Citizen's (Amendment) Act, 2019, or CAA, ambushed the government and surprised India. A majority of these protests were non-violent, sustained and marked a solidarity between four categories that that have rarely synergised together: Women, Muslims, youth and children. In an ordinary sense these four groups are not the stuff of political science and history, but part of the gossip of what we arrogantly and contemptuously refer to as home science.

Yet at Shaheen Bagh, a little urban space, a bit beyond Okhla, they came together to create history. They not only created a historic protest, they brought the categories of the state to a standstill.

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah carried its bullying tactics, suppressing dissent claiming that the protest was both anti-national and anti-constitutional. The major parties were helpless before such a rhetorical onslaught. The Opposition and the sociologists studying it realised that the BJP as a majoritarian myth with electoral power could only be brought down or even countered by an alternative myth.

The myth of patriotism, majoritarianism and the uniformity of the nation-state with all its dominance of a physical power, met its match in the protesting vulnerability of the Muslim women, the youth and the children of Shaheen Bagh.


Through their simple acts of protest they created an alternative vision of democracy as a composite of diversities, where the Constitution was a sacrament, where the poetics of a normative democracy met the brute power of an electoral democracy. They symbolically outmanoeuvered the state and brought it to a standstill. They also demonstrated that their vision of democracy had a greater place for vulnerability for the poetics of non-violence. If the BJP revelled in strength in cadres and propaganda, the women and citizens created a theatre of symbolism and solidarity, a testament of faith around democracy.

Women to the fore

What was particularly powerful, creative and moving was the sustained protest of women and Muslim women who asserted a plural faith in democracy, which revitalised the idea of citizenship as an act of creative solidarity, of a recognition that diversity and vulnerability combine to create the message of citizenship.

Shaheen Bagh has created a new message of hope, enunciating once more what Vaclav Havel once called "the power of the powerless." It is obvious that the BJP has made no attempt to grasp the symbolism of Shaheen Bagh.

PM Modi reads it as antipatriotic. Shah looks at it as an electoral stunt. The shooters respond to it with a sense of patriarchal masculinity. All three readings are panicking the party into an illiteracy of politics.


The message the women spread was nut just a knee-jerk sense of non-violence, but a sense of the rhythms of protest and politics as care, as concern, where citizenship depends not on certification but on the solidarity of the weak, the marginal, the vulnerable. As a protest, it added both to the poetics of citizenship and the political power of gender as dissenting imaginations.One senses the reach of gender justice going beyond the minoritarian preoccupation of Muslims and women weaving it into a wider politics of concern. It is not the patronising claim that minorities and women have found a voice, but a deeper sociological understanding that beyond the rudimentary nature of voice or participation, this protest has acquired the depth of creativity. Here, women's voice is adding to the overall speech of justice, demonstrating that the margin is not just a geography of vulnerability but an anthropology of creative citizenship.

Citizenship in practice

The women's protest showed that Modi's official directive, "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" could do with a greater moral and intellectual imagination. The everyday tenacity of protest in the cold, sustained during rain, created as a three-generational solidarity between grandmother, mothers and children, needs to be celebrated. What makes it even more powerful is the illiteracy of the government's response. Both PM Modi and Shah with their knee-jerk propaganda are out of their depth. The silence of Shaheen Bagh speaks louder than Shah's utterance.

It also reveals the contempt of the regime for the political understanding of the ordinary citizen. It is the protester who demonstrates her understanding of citizenship while sadly the government demonstrates its illiteracy of governance claiming that the protest at Shaheen Bagh blocks traffic, threatens property, reducing it to a law and order problem, oblivious to the concerns of justice. Shaheen Bagh is no temporary moment of news. It will stand out in history like the protest of the Argentinian mothers over the disappearance of their children, or of the Manipuri mothers protesting against the Assam Rifles. As a spectator and storyteller, all one promises is the story stays alive, knowing that as long as the story stays alive, democracy is alive and kicking.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: February 09, 2020 | 10:43
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