The following article was published in the December 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.
by Niloufer Bhagwat
Abstract: On 11 December 2019 one of the largest peaceful Civil Disobedience Movements in India after Indian Independence in defence of the Constitution and Constitutional rights ,
began under the leadership of Indian Muslim women in Delhi. It was supported by millions of people of all religious denominations who opposed religious criteria as a basis of citizenship .This movement had many similarities to Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movements. Braving the bitter cold days and nights the movement was united and, supported by students of leading universities. It lasted for four months until it was dispersed by the government.
Indian women revive non-violent civil disobedience movements against the extinguishment of citizenship rights
Winter nights are long and dark in northern India. The political darkness was unrelieved by any determined movement to roll back an authoritarian state, which had merged with Indian corporate and global financial and transnational interests. In this situation, even the days of 2019 seemed unusually long.
After the euphoria of the parliamentary election in 2019, on which 60 billion was expended, and for which electronic voting machines were used though discarded in a many parts of the world due to vulnerability to hacking, and prohibited from electoral use even by the German Constitutional Court; once again a paralysis of mainstream opposition political parties set in.
The political and civic space in India for over three decades was increasingly taken over by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), generously funded by corporate foundations and financial institutions. Representatives of NGOs were high profile, promoted by the corporate print and television media, even as political parties were reined in by the same corporate donors, to project that that there was no alternative to neo-liberal economic policies. The role assigned to Non-Governmental Organizations by corporate foundations with few exceptions, was to divert public attention from the political, economic and social crisis at the heart of the democratic and republican constitutional system, the direct consequence of the merger of corporate and state power resulting in a collapse of democratic institutions, by deliberate fragmenting of issues, to prevent an understanding of this problem at the heart of the political system.
In 2013 and 2014, NGOs in India established in different spheres, were bank rolled by corporate foundations and other agencies in collaboration with ‘Deep State’ players, to influence the electorate, using an anti-corruption movement, ‘India Against Corruption’, promoted by the corporate media to install a government wholly controlled by Indian corporate interests and global capital. The strategic plan was to place the entire assets, revenues and resources of India, at the service of leading high profile Indian Companies, transnational corporations and the financial centres of global capital facing a severe systemic debt crisis and collapse. Thereafter, every public sector undertaking in India, was targeted by the government for privatization, including public sector banks. Taxes such as GST to be shared by the Union of India with diverse states of the Indian union, by centralizing collection, were also to be diverted. Capital flight was organized to global financial centres, in particular the UK, through bank frauds and non-performing assets of banks, that is bank loans not returned, primarily by the major corporate and financial sector. Simultaneously tributes were paid to arms corporations of the world, in the form of massive import of arms, with substantial benefits to Indian Oligarchs, the middle men in some of these transactions, to ensure continued support to the government of these powerful Companies among others.
The political diversion for this ‘genocidal’, economic and financial project, imposing widespread unemployment, hunger and distress, as a consequence of the seizure of bank savings, revenues and financial liquidity of the country, and of middle income citizens, working classes and the peasantry; was an orchestrated hate campaign against minorities, historically useful to all fascist dispensations, to fragment the unity of citizens, successfully used at the time of the earlier ‘Great Depression’ by fascist parties and movements, including in Europe.
Since India has a federal constitutional system, with revenues shared between the Union and the states, that is the provincial governments; it was necessary for the Bharatiya Janata party, which is the ruling party at the national level, to politically and consequently financially control every province in the country, if it was to effectively carry out the agenda entrusted to it.
It was in these circumstances that political diversions were necessary, to divert attention from the core financial and economic agenda. A diversionary move and major controversy was created by the BJP – RSS, the leading political party in the NDA ruling alliance in the central government, relating to the National Register of Citizens in the province of Assam, in the sensitive North-East of India, which has a historical backdrop. In 1985 a separate National Register of Citizens for the province of Assam was wrongly conceded by the Congress Government, though it was done with a bona fide objective to end the violence against the hapless Bengali linguistic minority, Hindus and Muslims, internal migrants from the Indian province of Bengal, victims of the murderous attacks by a chauvinist and violent movement, launched by the All Assam Students Union, one of the front organizations, of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, the umbrella organization, to rid the provincial state of Assam of its internal migrants from India; primarily from the Indian state of Bengal, from a few other provinces of India and from Nepal. Hundreds of Bengalis in Assam and non-Assamese citizens of India, were brutally killed in these attacks, including a few officials of the government of India.
The Bengalis in Assam were attacked by the Assamese, as they were the linguistic and cultural minority in the State of Assam, regarded as rivals for jobs, land and political office. The Assamese violent chauvinist movements, desired to oust the Bengalis from Assam, though they were Indian citizens, on the pretext that they were ‘foreigners’ or ‘ Bangladeshis’ from Bangladesh. This chauvinist appeal was also useful for electoral purposes, to capture power at the provincial level. This propaganda was continued by the Asom Gana Parishad formed after the Assam Accord of 1985, and by the BJP- RSS party, to incite feelings of hostility against alleged ‘ Bangladeshi’ infiltration, as a political diversion from vital economic and social issues, to consolidate its ‘Hindutva’ base.
The Indian Bengali speaking people of Assam, both Hindus and Muslims, targeted as’ foreigners’, were in fact internal migrants from other parts of India, brought to Assam by the British East India Company in the 18 and 19 centuries, to work on plantations, in the railways, on mines, in prospecting for gas and oil, among other projects, and for administrative purposes, from the adjacent then united province of Bengal, where the East India Company first established a political and military foothold. The province of Assam at that time was sparsely populated. Later the integration of a whole district from Bengal into the province of Assam, during the British partition of Bengal, added to the increase in the Bengali speaking population of the province of Assam.
The Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) in government at the national level in India since 2014, and earlier when in power in 1998 as part of the NDA alliance, allied with the chauvinist movement of the Asom Gana Parishad, and supported its chauvinist platform primarily as an instrument of political ‘ Divide and Rule’. The Bharatiya Janata party is the political front of the, Rashtriya Sevak Sangh( RSS) and its front organizations. The RSS was established in 1925, with members recruited primarily from those sections of the upper castes, serving financial interests of British capital, commercial interests of Indian Companies, and interests of the caste and class of financiers opposed to the Mahatma Gandhi’s program of social emancipation of the deprived and discriminated against castes, then categorized by orthodox society as lower castes/classes. The RSS acknowledged that their militant movement was inspired by the fascist models of Mussolini and the Nazi party. From its inception the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha advanced the two nation theory, propagating that only Hindus by culture and religion are entitled to citizenship in India. The Muslim League and the Jamiat-e-Islami and their front organizations, which also belonged to the upper classes of those Muslims serving British capital, supported the creation of a Muslim State of Pakistan, on the basis of the same theory as the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, that Muslims are a separate nation. These parties served British Imperialism and were its instruments for the partition of India into two states; uniting to form provincial governments and voting jointly for partition in the Bengal and Sind assemblies. The Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi among other prominent leaders, including the Indian Pakhtoon Muslim leader Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, known as the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ from the then North Western Frontier Province of British ruled India (now Pakhtun-Khwa in Pakistan); Maulana Azad who had also been elected President of the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle, and regional leaders like Sheikh Abdullah of the province of Jammu and Kashmir, were committed to a united egalitarian and secular India, and had the support of all religious groups and diverse castes and communities in India. Consequently, at the end of a long Indian ‘Freedom struggle’ with enormous sacrifices made, the Constitution of India was enacted, which ensured equality to all, with no discrimination constitutionally permissible on the basis of religion, caste, race or gender and guaranteed reservations in parliament, legislatures, in state educational institutions, and in government and public employment, for those castes/classes socially and economically discriminated against in India for centuries. The people of India rejected the theory that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.
Despite the provisions of the Constitution of India, the BJP-RSS ruling party from 2014, with the intention of forming a government in the province of Assam, in alliance with two regional chauvinist organizations, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland Peoples Front, once again resorted to communal and sectarian propaganda in respect of the National Register of Assam, propagating that Bengalis in Assam were ‘Bangladeshi’, by implication Muslim infiltrators into India, referred to as ‘termites’, required to be thrown out; while assuring the majority population of India, that they would ensure that no Bengali Hindu would be declared a foreigner; and that a National Register of Citizens and a National Population Register, on the lines of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, would be extended to the whole of India, with the mandatory requirement of documentary proof of the date of birth and place of birth of both parents, as evidence required for registration as a citizen in the Register, to weed out alleged ‘foreigners’. This was followed in January 2019, by a ‘ Model Detention Manual’ sent to all the provinces, that called for the setting up of ‘one detention centre’ in the city or district where new immigration check posts were to be located.
This propaganda disturbed the entire country, as birth and death records had been regularized in India only in the last five decades. Before that records were not meticulously maintained, in particular in rural India, and lost or damaged, as people changed their residences or were affected by natural disasters. Since the national census conducted a population survey from time to time, and Indian citizens were duly registered on electoral rolls, issued ‘Aadhar’ electronic identification numbers, implemented by both the Congress and BJP parties; with the biometric data and finger imprints of all citizens electronically recorded, a financially profitable exercise, outsourced to Nandan Nilekani of the Infosys Indian Tech Company advised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; this exercise was seen as prima facie superfluous and unnecessary. The colossal financial outlay required, with the Indian economy in a fragile state, was also prohibitive. The real objective of the government was to create another diversion, increase insecurity and create a divide, to camouflage the economic and financial policies pauperizing Indian citizens. This policy was seen by people as a strategy to divest scores of citizens of their citizenship, to deliberately abandon citizens to the whims and fancies of lower level bureaucrats, with scope for endless and unaffordable expensive litigation, in the eventuality of exclusion of citizens on technical grounds, from this National Register of Citizens.
In the province of Assam itself, though the Assam Accord has been signed on 15th August 1985, ‘ to detect, delete and deport’ foreigners, for more than 25 years thereafter there was no serious move to declare Bengali internal migrants in Assam, as ‘foreigners’, though a few foreigners Tribunals had been established to carry out the exercise, and from time to time, some internal migrants from Bengal were declared foreigners; however on appeal these decisions were set aside. The intelligentsia in Assam, and the two provincial governments formed by the Asom Gana Parishad were aware that most of the Bengali migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, were Indian citizens from the adjacent Indian province of Bengal, along with some internal migrants from Nepal and from other provinces of the Indian Union, majority of whom had lived in Assam for more than a century, even before Indian independence and the partition of India.
Events took a different turn in 2013, when a Bench of the Supreme Court, with the Senior Judge of the Bench from the province of Assam, politically ambitious, later Chief Justice of India, directed the Union of India and the State of Assam to expeditiously update the National Register of Citizens of Assam, involving the cases of millions of mainly Indian Bengali and other internal migrants, pending for determination before the ad hoc foreigners Tribunals established in Assam under the Illegal Migrants( Determination of) Tribunal Act, 1983. Several orders were passed by this Bench of the Supreme Court, in two writ petitions filed directly to the Supreme Court, by an organisation of Assamese employees, the Asom Public Works and by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangh. The Petitions curiously were placed only before this Bench of the Supreme Court from time to time, to expedite the process of declaring the internal migrants from India, as ‘foreigners’. The formation of the BJP government at the centre in 2014, assisted the entire process of rendering stateless hundreds of thousands of Indian Bengalis in Assam and other internal migrants in India and Nepal, who had migrated to Assam from other provinces in India.
The Supreme Court overlooked, that the so called ‘Foreigners Tribunals’ set up in Assam, were not courts or statutory quasi-judicial bodies with a fixed tenure. The so called ad hoc foreigners Tribunals of Assam were manned by lawyers of a few years standing, arbitrarily and indiscriminately recruited, without a fixed judicial tenure, and the necessary judicial training and experience to determine as serious an issue as citizenship. The procedures followed by the ad hoc Tribunals in Assam were irregular and seriously flawed.
Finally on the directions of the Supreme Court of India, approximately 40 lakhs, that is 4 million Indian Bengali and other internal migrants into Assam, from other states of the Indian Union, and some from Nepal, who along with their ancestors had lived for over a century in Assam, were placed on a draft list of ‘foreigners’ in 2018, directed to be disenfranchised, removed from electoral rolls and debarred from holding political and public office, with their property rights in jeopardy. The decision was subject to appeal, with a statutory period of limitation period of 120 days given for filing appeal. Many of those declared ‘foreigners’, were already exhausted by the terror of the illegal procedures of the Tribunals, the endless hunt for documents and the harassment of poorer Bengalis by corrupt elements in the Assam Border Police Force
By August 2019 the list of approximately 40 lakhs of those earlier declared ‘foreigners’, that is approximately 4 million mainly Bengali migrants, Hindus and Muslims, was reduced to 1,36,149 migrants, finally declared ‘foreigners’ and placed in a final special list subject to appeal. Sixty percent of those declared ‘foreigners’ were women as they were the most disadvantaged without access to documents.
The class background of the internal migrants illegally declared ‘foreigners’, largely agricultural labor, poor peasantry, working class, lower middle class and a few from middle income groups, with restricted financial resources for the endless rounds of litigation, heightened their insecurity and abandonment by the Indian state. Their plight at first concealed by the corporate media, became widely known in the country through the alternative electronic media, increasing the resentment against the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, announced by the Home Minister for the whole of India.
There was an even grimmer aspect to the tragedy of Indian internal migrants into the Indian province of Assam. The Supreme Court also monitored the process which had illegally begun by the provincial government of Assam, to imprison those internal migrants categorized as ‘ foreigners’ by ad hoc Tribunals. A former civil servant, appointed by the Indian Human Rights Commission to assist the Commission on this issue, submitted in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, that the prisons for the migrants declared ‘foreigners’ in Assam, were little better than concentration camps, where they were held incommunicado, not permitted any contact with their relatives to obtain assistance, and that the Supreme Court should intervene and direct the Union of India and the state of Assam to release those imprisoned.
The arbitrariness of the entire procedure adopted was exposed, when a decorated veteran of India’s Armed Forces from Assam, was interned in a detention centre for foreigners, and a few members of the family of a former President of India, an Assamese Muslim, and relatives of a few legislators of Assam, also found themselves on the list. There were increasingly suicides of those who had been illegally declared as ‘foreigners’, merely due to technical discrepancies in their documents, such as incorrect spelling of names and surnames.
Five Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council, the Vice Chair of the working group on arbitrary detention, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, the Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, who were monitoring the situation in Assam, addressed a communication to Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs in the Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Modi, communicating that the disenfranchisement of Bengali and other Indian citizens, by irregularly categorizing them as ‘foreigners’, was in violation of the International Human Rights Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Racism. This communication called on the Government of India to end statelessness and the practices and policies that render people stateless.
In an attempt to overcome the political chaos and anarchy in Assam, arising from the declaration of hundreds of thousands of Indian Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims as ‘foreigners’, unjustly rendered stateless; in particular the large number of ‘Bengali Hindus’ in the list of ‘foreigners’, which is reported to have been even more than the list of Bengali Muslims declared ‘foreigners’; the BJP –RSS led NDA alliance government, hastily enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, to grant Hindu Bengalis rights to citizenship, while denying the Indian Muslim Bengali the same rights and privileges by a subterfuge, declaring that all the Hindu Bengali migrants declared ‘foreigners’, had sought asylum in India due to religious persecution in Bangladesh. The reality was that these were Indian Bengalis and not Bangladeshis.
This amendment act was passed with the support of both Houses of Parliament, though the BJP at the relevant time did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of parliament. The Constitution Amendment Act, 2019, provides, that any person belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist or Parsi ( Zoroastrian) faith, who has faced religious persecution or has apprehension of religious persecution, in countries of origin such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, is eligible to apply for citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, if the internal migration into India has taken place before December 31, 2014. For these applicants for Indian citizenship, the statutory waiting period for citizenship was halved. The Constitution of India and the Citizenship Amendment Act 1955, before the 2019 amendment, did not confer citizenship on the basis of religion.
Muslims were excluded from the ambit of the Citizenship Amendment Act, despite the political history of South Asia of the last several decades, with Muslims fleeing from military dictatorships and theocratic fascist regimes from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, seeking asylum and refuge in India, including members of the family of President Sheikh Mujibur Rehman assassinated in Bangladesh and the family of former President Najibullah of Afghanistan, killed in the UN premises at Kabul after he had stepped down under a UN sponsored agreement; along with hundreds of their followers and members of their political parties. Significantly in no other region of the world have as many heads of states or former heads of States been assassinated as frequently as in South Asia, including in India, the former ‘Jewel’ in the British crown, evidence of subversion of the penetration of the National Security establishments and internal and foreign Intelligence Agencies of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, by Imperial powers, for control of the resources, markets, revenues of former colonies, and the drug trade of Afghanistan for laundering into International financial institutions and banks
Three days after the Constitution Amendment Act,2019, was passed by Parliament, on December 11, 2019, at noon, an unusual and spontaneous non-violent civil disobedience movement began, a protest against the Constitution Amendment Act,2019, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. This movement in some respects was similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s famous civil disobedience movements, which would begin with a few selected volunteers, and then spread across the country with hundreds of thousands volunteering and thereafter millions, leading to national liberation.
At first, a group of approximately 10 to 15 women gathered, in an attempt to blockade a road on the six lane highway bordering a Muslim dominated neighborhood in South East Delhi, known as ‘Shaheen Bagh’. The word spread. Within a few days there were hundreds at the site, which increased to hundreds of thousands visiting the site in solidarity. Within a few weeks there were hundreds of ‘ Shaheen Baghs’ all over the country, from North to South, from the Western to the Eastern provinces of India, with hundreds of thousands of women supported by students of major universities and other citizens joining in the non-violent and peaceful demonstrations, opposing the Constitution Amendment Act,2019, the National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register on roads, in public places and public squares all over the country, totaling millions. The protest was no longer confined only to the issue of the National Register for Citizens, other political and economic issues were also raised. The issues raised in this massive Civil Disobedience Movement, were more relevant to the citizens of India than the debates of mainstream political parties on this issue.
The images from Shaheen Bagh were unusual. These were women never before seen on political platforms, or in the audiences of political meetings of mainstream political parties, or NGOs or other civil society organizations. The women who had spontaneously gathered were essentially home makers, emerging from the shelter of their homes in simple middle class, lower middle class, and working peoples localities, taking the lead, supported by women students, for a peaceful protest, a ‘ satyagraha’, described by Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘struggle for truth’ or the ‘force of truth’.
The site of the civil disobedience movement was ‘Shaheen Bagh’, a locality predominantly, but not entirely inhabited by the Muslim minority. Neither was this a strictly feminist congregation. The women politically aroused, did not perceive any contradictions between their traditional roles as nurturers and home makers, and their political rights as citizens, admitting that they had entered the political space of the country for the first time. Predominantly Muslim, they were not protesting exclusively for any religious group, and were joined within weeks by women and men of every religious faith in the country. Their demands addressed to the Prime Minister of India, were simple and direct: “We are citizens. Our ancestors fought for the freedom of the country. All of us of whatever faith belong to this country. It is the Constitution which has given us our citizenship rights, no government can take these rights away. We will not submit our documents for scrutiny under the National Register of Citizens, as this is unconstitutional. The Citizenship Amendment Act discriminates and divides citizenship on the basis of religion. Roll back the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, the National Population Register, in writing. Who else should we make demands to except to the Prime Minister. We have gathered here because we feel that it is time for us to protest, even students in the country are not safe from physical and murderous attacks.” These were references to the brutal attack on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, among other Universities, where students had been attacked. Students of Jamia Millia Islamia, were brutally beaten in the library, washrooms and hostels, for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register outside their campus. Severely injured students were arrested and denied medical treatment, until their parents joined by other citizens, organized a peaceful protest demonstration of thousands, in the middle of the night outside the Police Station, and young lawyers took the lead in extending legal assistance.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, the women of Shaheen Bagh were still there, at the peaceful road blockade under a makeshift canopy, sitting on the ground every day and every night, in the height of winter, aware that they had inspired the entire country by their example, as protests were being held in all major cities and even in small towns and rural hamlets. There was no flagging of their spirit or determination. The women were not led by any political party, or any NGO or civil society organization, nor were they funded. There were no leaders or orators at Shaheen Bagh. Every woman present who desired to, was entitled to express herself and convey her viewpoint to the print and TV correspondents and representatives of the alternative media, who arrived at the scene of a protest, which could no longer be ignored. Basic assistance was generously contributed by neighborhoods and all communities, as the word spread throughout New Delhi and the country. Doctors voluntarily set up medical clinics aware that the women were there out in the cold, many with babies in arms and young children. Members of the Sikh community from the Punjab organized a community kitchen or ‘langar’ as it is known for weeks, to serve simple meals to those protesting. Delegations arrived from Northern provinces, from the predominantly tribal heartland of the country, and from Dalit organisations representing those historically, socially and economically discriminated against in India.
The appeals for non-violence and unity in the struggle, their clear understanding of what was at stake, the articulation of citizenship rights, and what constituted nationhood and commitment to society; the intertwining of art, culture, music and the poetry of resistance, with the day to day needs of continuing the struggle in which they had taken the lead, was radically very different from what has been passed off hitherto as political awakening of women.
The attire was diverse. Women with their heads modestly covered as in many parts of India; many with head scarves, others bare headed, students in modern attire. Providing a backdrop were men, old, middle aged and young, at a suitable distance, yet eager to assist in logistic roles. The congregation grew from strength to strength. It was visible to the whole of India, that Muslim women, unjustly pitied and stereotyped as backward; as confined to the kitchen, with patriarchal traditions and without a voice in their homes, had taken the lead in a united struggle of women and men, of young and old, of the majority and the minority, of students, middle classes and lower middle classes; of workers, professionals and cultural artists. Despite the statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi disowning them, exclaiming: “… from one look at their dress you will know who they are…”, they did not disown him. Demanding answers as citizens, from their Prime Minister, and a roll back of unconstitutional decisions and laws, ‘ in writing ‘. Neither did they disperse, when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court observed, that the Supreme Court would be ready to hear a Petition on the violence on students at Jamia Millia Islamia University, if all protestors dispersed.
This was far from all. The Constitution of India on which scores of political leaders had taken their oath of office from the date of its promulgation; a document framed by revolutionary democrats, the majority of whom had participated in the anti-Imperialist and anti- colonial struggle referred to in India as ‘ the Freedom Movement’ and who believed that constitution making was too important a task to be restricted only to lawyers; this Constitution was brought into this dusty roadside blockade of Shaheen Bagh converted into a public square, and its Preamble read aloud.
A venerable former Judge of the Supreme Court in the ninth decade of his life observed :
“This is the beginning of a different political movement. This has never happened before, the reading from the Constitution of India by simple citizens in a public square during a peaceful protest. The Constitution will no longer be the monopoly of Judges, lawyers and law makers it is now amidst the people.”
That is the significance of the civil disobedience movement of the women of Shaheen Bagh. They had raised the political discourse for the core issues; for justice, political, economic and social, and were far ahead of mainstream political parties in India and its intellectuals. There was another important political achievement, the Muslim minority community was no longer in the clutches of false political leaders or those maulanas and ulemas who had a vested interest in keeping them self-absorbed, or those extending token sympathy with their ‘victimhood’. With this movement, the Muslim minority community in India had broken out of its siege, ceased to see themselves as victims, supplicants or second class citizens, despite daily demonization, murderous attacks, and unjust imprisonment of their youth. They were back in the political arena, as in the days of the freedom struggle, and in the decades immediately after independence, battling politically on all issues shoulder to shoulder, as citizens.
These are tragic, difficult, and yet historic times for us in India. Winds of change are about to transform and alter our traditional and stagnant political beliefs, and our entire way of life as a society. Remarkable developments are taking place. Indian Muslim women, young and old, have arisen in defense of the entire country, for all religious groups; for persecuted Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims, for Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims disenfranchised and rendered stateless in Assam, for the protection of citizenship rights of the entire country and on wider issues of poverty, unemployment, and the safety of women and students. The movement was a resounding success impacting 11 provincial governments of, as public support for the movement was massive. All these state governments declared, with resolutions passed in most of the eleven Legislative Assemblies, that their province would not be implementing the National Register of Citizens. Was it as simple. No struggle is. Tyranny does not disappear silently into the night, neither does fascism. There were several attempts to create violence at the site. Shots were fired at the peaceful protest. A youth assisting the protestors had his hand brutally slashed. Yet the women remained at Shaheen Bagh, braving bitterly cold winds and rain, and they were still there in March 2020,when spring arrived.
As the political struggle spread to the entire country, the government was afraid, Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh could not be permitted to continue to inspire nationwide protests. This was a revival of civil disobedience on a nationwide scale not seen since Indian independence. The attacks began with hate speech directed against the protestors by BJP-RSS local leaders of Delhi calling upon their storm troopers to teach those at Shaheen Bagh, a lesson. In the North –East of Delhi, Muslims who had supported and sympathized with the Shaheen Bagh protest, were brutally attacked in an organized pogrom. Fifty –two citizens of India, both Muslims and Hindus, were killed in the murderous attack by hired mobs, permitted to loot homes and shops and use lethal weapons including firearms by those present in uniform, hundreds were injured.
The majority of those killed were Muslim. Hundreds of Muslims along with a few from other communities lost their homes, their properties and their entire source of livelihood. As five young people belonging to the Muslim community attacked in the pogrom, lay seriously injured on the road, and one of the five was dying; the attackers and the police present taunted them saying :” Now sing the National Anthem that you Muslims were singing at Shaheen Bagh;” a few moments later one of the victims was dead. A video of the recording spread throughout the country, leaving no one in doubt that fascist barbarism had taken over.
In the northern State of Uttar Pradesh, where Yogi Adityanath is the Chief Minister, those who had organized peaceful protests in the provincial capital Lucknow, and in other places inspired by Shaheen Bagh, were arrested and imprisoned. They received notices for attachment of property, for payment of fines totaling exorbitant sums of several lakhs of rupees, for protesting and allegedly causing violence and damage to property, which had never taken place, as the protests were absolutely peaceful and non-violent.
On March 24,2000, using the so called Covid 19 ‘ plandemic’ as a pretext, the government directed that ‘Shaheen Bagh ‘ had to be vacated. In the weeks that followed, young students, women and men who had participated in protests, including the women students of Jamia Milia Islamia University, were summoned for interrogation and arrested during the ‘plandemic,’ declared a serious health emergency. Among those arrested and imprisoned was a young married woman student, who was pregnant. Many who participated in the peaceful protests have been detained, interrogated and imprisoned in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, some under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention ) Act, 1967, a statute in which there is no provision for bail.
While the government and corporate media are still busy mandating masks and social distancing, there is no social distancing in India’s prisons, where jails accommodate more than three times the number of prisoners in the same limited space. Whatever happened to Covid-19 quarantine measures of WHO, advised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, projected as a deadly and life threatening pandemic, requiring a complete lockdown of society and social distancing. Do these regulations apply to the entire people of India, including those unjustly imprisoned, or is the lockdown selective, with an objective different from public health and safety, as senior citizens who are academics, lawyers, social scientists, including a poet critically ill and a Christian priest suffering from Parkinson, both over 81, among three others over sixty including one of India’s foremost intellectuals belonging to the Dalit community, who has held senior management positions in prestigious public sector and private sector enterprises, and a lawyer and visiting Professor at the Delhi Law School who is diabetic, and others younger, have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities( Prevention) Act, essentially for being human rights defenders and researchers of the conditions of the most deprived of Indian society, and having assisted them in securing justice from the Courts. Those arrested include young women, members of cultural troupes of the Dalit community, the Kabir Kala Manch, all arrested in what is now known as the infamous ‘Elgar Parishad’ and Bhima Koregaon ‘Case, all denied bail including the senior citizens arrested, who have serious illnesses. According to the BJP-RSS led Central Government working for the deprived and researching their conditions are all‘ Unlawful Activities’; whereas the provincial government emphasized that all those arrested are innocent of any wrong doing and have been framed under instructions.
Shaheen Bagh is not the end, it is the beginning of a new awakening in India. Unlike any other movement in recent years, it was sustained, united, and spread throughout the country, led by simple fearless women experiencing for over three months, as they braved the winter cold, holding their children close to their chests to shield them from bitter winter winds, the real meaning of what it takes to be a concerned human being and citizen, to face unflinchingly and upfront the challenges and the struggle to rebuild a new and more just society, which in India is also the challenge of reviving a civilization.
On March 24,2020 the women of Shaheen Bagh were dispersed. Two months later, hundreds of thousands of internal migrant workers broke out from their enforced lockdown and hunger imposed by the ‘plandemic’ and walked home, from cities to rural hamlets and small towns, covering hundreds of miles in the scorching summer heat, in similar acts of peaceful non-violent civil disobedience; hundreds were to die in accidents and of exhaustion in different circumstances on the roads or in the so called ‘migrant trains’. These are examples of mass political education and grass roots organization taking place, even though citizens have been deserted by mainstream political parties, who now only occupy only the electoral space, whereas articulation of the political direction has now been taken over by masses of affected citizens. And there is more to come as farmers movements have begun against the corporatization of agriculture.
The political document that inspired the women of Shaheen Bagh is the manifesto of our anti-Imperialist ‘freedom struggle’, the Constitution of India, now being widely disseminated among the masses of the Indian people, 70 years after it was enacted. First by the ‘Pathalgadi’ movement of tribal indigenous people of India, who inscribed relevant constitutional provisions protecting their tribal rights, on stone structures in Central India at the entrance of their villages; thereafter popularized by the women of Shaheen Bagh. In the public protest at Shaheen Bagh and in mass meetings that followed of hundreds of thousands in the country, it was the Preamble of this Constitution which was widely read :
WE THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens:
Justice, social, economic and political;
Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
Equality of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all
Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;
In our Constituent Assembly this twenty-sixth day of November 1949 do
HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION
Niloufer Bhagwat is Vice President of the Indian Association of Lawyers and the Confederation of Lawyers of the Asia-Pacific region , a former Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and International Law at the University of Bombay and an Advocate of fifty years standing appearing at the High Court , Supreme Court , other Courts and Tribunals and Commissions of Enquiry, and civil society constituted International Tribunals on crimes of aggression, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, Iraq , Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. She was awarded the Philip Jessup Award of the American Society of International Law and the Monique Weyl Award of the International Association of Democratic Lawyer
Leave a Reply