Shaheen Bagh – A New Kind of Satyagraha, A Culture of Dialogic Protest: Pradip Kumar Datta


Pictures by author

Street art in Shaheen Bagh

Amidst the bustle of talk and announcements on stage, there is a surprise at Shaheen Bagh. A young, slim girl student in ankle length boots, dark pants and shirt is invited to take the podium. She begins her speech by saying that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has put her in a dilemma. She studies in Jharkhand where many of her close friends are Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members. Their opinions matter to her personally. At the same time, when she comes to Shaheen Bagh she is gripped by the dangers and stakes involved in the CAA.

Children painting in the children’s corner

Meanwhile, whether it is because of the doubts that she presents, or because no one can hear her clearly beyond 50 meters or so, the crowd at the back repeatedly break out into “Inquilab Zindabad”. At this point the announcer comes on the mike and tells the sloganeers – whose voices are predominantly male – to be patient. She tells them that the girl – who has by now become tearful – has come to share her conflicts and dilemmas and they must listen to her as to everyone else.

Inside the main pandal

This is the surprise: a protest meeting that allows a young girl to declare her friendships with the “enemy” and then express her dilemma between her personal relationships and her political understanding!

It is enough to make this protest unique in the annals of protest in India. There is a sharing of experience among its participants, even as there are enough voices that exhort and enthuse in the loud grammar of Indian protests. To provide a public platform to air doubts is something that has appeared completely foreign to the commitment that the leadership of any movement feels obliged to reinforce. I had, till now, yet to come to a demonstration or protest that has had the self-confidence to do so.

Shaheen Bagh, after all, is a new kind of satyagraha.

The satyagrahis

There are organisers but no leaders in Shaheen Bagh. The NDTV report today says that this is a reason why police are finding it difficult to get a solution to the right of way crisis for those transiting from Delhi to Noida. There are no leaders to talk to. There is just a mass of hejab or chador clad women with children, at times buzzing with talk and often listening attentively to speakers as they come on – or at other times bursting into impatience with Inquilab Zindabad in the middle of a speech. Facing a podium that has Dr Ambedkar’ portrait very prominently displayed, the women sit one behind the other, separated by a passage that leads to the podium.

There is precision in the way the meeting is conducted with one speaker gives way to another. At the other end volunteers distribute food brought by visitors and request people to give way and avoid congestions. Little children in front of the podium play with one another, waving little national flags. Men folk stand outside the rope that acts as a boundary between the satyagrahis and themselves. They too listen attentively.

The leaderless, self-discipline of the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha is almost unique in our history of dissent and protest. Comparisons with Gandhian movement immediately spring to mind. But Shaheen Bagh has no charismatic leader, nor have its members been given the training in self-discipline that Gandhi enjoined on his satyagrahis. They sit with self-possession and patience, as they approach the two month mark in the ravaging cold of this Delhi winter.

Above all, the women of Shaheen Bagh generate a culture of care in both men and women.

On the side of the road where shops have closed down, the passageways that connect a line of shops have been converted into activity centres. These are lined up in front of the closed shops. There is a library that has books include Amitav Ghosh and George Orwell among many others. A brightly dressed young girl in orange churidar-kurta sits on one side: she is its librarian. Next to it is the art activity centre for children. The kids sit in a row, concentrate on their sketch books, at times conferring with each other. Behind them sketches and posters are strung up. These address the issues of the on-going agitation. And maybe a foot or two – giving enough space for people to walk across – across the activity line is sitting arrangements for those who wish to read and see.

The library and reading space

There are many young people there, unsurprisingly girls and boys from Jamia who are either studying or have passed out. A young man, who is a student, tells us that it’s important for them to understand that they cannot exhaust the movement in the protest. They have to think of the children, many of whom are traumatised. They have concentration building activities for them. Even more, they host empathy generating session for children that can range from the attacks on JNU to wildfires in Australia.

At 6 pm in the evening, a candle lit procession, we are told, starts from Jamia University to come to Shaheen Bagh. This is when the crowds become larger. Indeed, in the evenings, balloon sellers, chat- wallas and many other street peddlers join in, giving to the entire place, the lightness of festivity.

It’s not easy however.

The distance from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia is about a 15 minute ride by the local phat-phat gari. As we wind through narrow streets indistinguishable from people and a variety of vehicles, moving past mounds of garbage and open drainage and lines of shop fronts, we talk to four women and their children travelling on the same phat-phat. They turn out to be satyagrahis who are taking their kids back home. They tell us that their children naturally become impatient and then the women have to bring them back to their homes. Once there, they also finish their housework before returning again to the satyagraha later in the evening or at night.

The focused violence of police attacks at Jamia and AMU and by masked goons in JNU, appears to have produced a correspondingly intense commitment to peace and a self-discipline of the temperament. We see this not only at Shaheen Bagh but also in front of Jamia. Here groups of students and some professors and visitors cluster around a speaker while other groups gather together to break out into “Inquilab Zindabad” or the equally popular, call-and-answer slogan of “Azadi”. Behind them, sitting against the walls of Jamia, are a line of students all of them focused on reading. They are completely still, quiet with large colour banners behind them, simply proclaiming “Read For Revolution” and in smaller letters, “A Protest of its own Kind”. No doubt the intention is clear: it is a protest against the violent sacking of the Jamia Library and bearing up of its readers by the Delhi Police. But what is also significant is that normally, a reading room in an Indian university, is never completely silent. But here, despite the loud protests of the crowd and the passing traffic plying on the free lane, there is a conspicuous concentration on reading. Their very stillness is a scream of outrage.

The broad and rich colours of the murals that had been painted on the road and circulated on Whatsapp, had faded away the night before. It had rained and protesters said that traffic had been allowed to pass over that road which was normally blocked by them. But the creativity lingered in the sketches and posters that were hung over the silent readers.

The future remains uncertain in Okhla. No one can tell if and when the tear gas and lathis and masked faces will descend. This is of course a fate that hangs over the heads of protesters all across the country. But Okhla teaches us that, till then, if such a day is to come, protesters have the present to create new grammars of protest that only self-belief, solidarity and hope can give.

This article was originally published in Business Standard.

Pradip Kumar Datta teaches in the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Thought, JNU.

2 thoughts on “Shaheen Bagh – A New Kind of Satyagraha, A Culture of Dialogic Protest: Pradip Kumar Datta”

  1. The struggle has just started ….there are ‘miles to go’ before final goal is achieved and true freedom and secularism is established


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s