At Park Circus Maidan in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)
It is the first time that Safiqua Hassan, 60, has been part of such an agitation. Since January 7, through day and night in what is an unusually chilly winter for Kolkata, she has been turning up at Park Circus Maidan, singing songs and chanting slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. The only time she leaves the protest is to visit a neighbouring house to use the toilet.
"The papers the government is asking for, how will we get those? We are poor, illiterate people. We never thought of making documents," she says.
The numbers at the Maidan have been swelling and now they are in their hundreds, as women come with husbands and children, and students drop in to lend support, shouting slogans such as 'azadi', 'halla bol' and 'inquilab zindabad'. Inspired by Delhi's Shaheen Bagh, the Kolkata movement has been dubbed 'Swadhinata Andolan 2 (second freedom struggle)'.
This time of the year, Park Circus Maidan is usually a venue for circus troupes (hence the name). However, the women are determined to stay put, and have now sought permission to set up tents, loudspeakers and potable toilets. The immediate trigger was the January 5 violence on the JNU campus in Delhi.
The choice of the ground is significant as a part of it is called the National Congress Park, for the various meetings the Congress held here during the Independence struggle.
Cultural organisations have been coming to perform street plays and songs against the CAA and NRC, including known names like Moushumi Bhowmik and Kumar Suman. So have political leaders.
The force behind the protests is Asmat Jamil, 45, a resident of Park Circus, who has had a kidney transplant and suffers from various ailments. "The BJP and RSS are trying to prove that we Muslims are not Indians. The British also tried to prove that and divided our country, but we chose India. I started this movement with 60 women. But now, thousands are coming, from every community... Now our movement is not for Muslims alone, it is for every citizen of India."
Uzma Alam, the convenor of the Kolkata All India Muslim Law Board and also a Park Circus resident, says, "This is a non-political movement. If any political leaders are coming, we welcome them. CPM leader Md Selim and Congress leader Somen Mitra came, but no Trinamool Congress leader has come or offered support."
The organisers say that doesn't worry them nor do they want anything from the government but cooperation. Says Alam, "This is 24X7 movement, all the protesters are women. So we need proper toilets. When we started out, we were using pay and use toilets, a couple of days ago the masjid committee permitted us to use their toilets as well. But that is not sufficient."
Farhat Islam, a 41-year-old mother of three, has been at the protest site since the start. "I am homemaker, I have never participated in a movement like this. My children's annual examinations are also on. But I thought that if I come here, their studies might suffer, but if I don't, I was ignoring that their life was at stake. My husband, who is a businessman, is supporting me."
Asmat Jamil says they were determined to continue their agitation till the Supreme Court stops the CAA and NRC.
Many women say their husbands have stepped in to look after the children as they sit at the protest site. Sheikh Sanaullah, 30, from Topsia feeds his daughter Esheel, 1, from a bottle as wife Parveen Sana, 25, joins the protests. "It is my responsibility to create this space for the movement. Otherwise, how will we answer our children and the next generation?" he says.
A teacher and mother, Nilofer Sadiq heads to Park Circus every day after school, heading back once in the evening to help her children with homework. "This government should know we are Indian by choice. We are born here, we will be buried here. We have no other country," she says.
Shahabi Jamal brings daughter Mausa Rahman, a Class 12 student, along. Her husband is a doctor. "I never thought he would allow me to join such a protest. But he did, with one request." He wanted Mausa to carry a placard saying 'NPR stands for National Politics against Religion'.