Beyond BJP’s aggressive rhetoric, Shaheen Bagh has drawn the attention of scholars globally

Seema Chishti
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At Shaheen Bagh on counting day, the banners did the talking. (Express photo: Yashee)

Shaheen Bagh in Delhi’s Okhla constituency has been discussed a lot over the past few weeks — Okhla has now voted in an Aam Aadmi Party candidate by a massive margin. However, till a week ago, the place was on the edge. Shaheen Bagh had become a hotly contested campaign keyword, in the context of the people here, especially the women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens.

Even after the election results, Shaheen Bagh spoke volumes with its continued silent protests. It snubbed the BJP’s bellicosity and, perhaps, added to the discomfort of the AAP’s tactical silence on a crucial but contentious issue. Now an idea that has transcended its postcode, Shaheen Bagh has drawn the attention of scholars globally.

Christian Volk, a Germany-based political science professor says, “Political protests articulate the core ideals of democracy: That people assemble, publicly express their opinions, usually their dissent, and thus make a social conflict visible. Protests are a piece of untamed democracy.”

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Do they have any impact on secure majority governments, like the one BJP has at the Centre? “Measuring the impact of protest is an empirically difficult challenge. The protests in Spain — Indignados — brought forth Podemos, a new party, a movement party, which is now part of the government. In this case, the impact is clear,” Volk says and adds, “But even beyond direct influence on the political decision-making process, political protest can impact modern democracies. It can undermine the credibility of governments and their legitimacy, change the way we think about the world and thus describe problems in a new way, give a voice to marginalised groups or simply bring people out of their isolation and let them experience solidarity within the movement.”

On the significance of women being so visibly upfront — the CAA protests have been led primarily by women — Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University and most recently the author of How Fascism Works, speaks of his grandmother, Ilse Stanley, a German Jewish woman who lived in Berlin when Hitler rose to power, who, “as a woman in a social worker’s uniform, with a non-Jewish appearance, she managed to do work that a man probably could not have done”.

Stanley says, “My grandmother fundamentally never accepted that her beloved liberal homeland could transform in the way it did — and ultimately, she turned out to be right, as Germany has been for decades a world centre for liberal democracy. Now, [India] a crown jewel of the liberal democratic system is facing its own 1935, when the Nuremberg laws stripped German citizenship from many German Jews, like my grandmother and father. Because of India’s long history as a shining jewel of secular liberal democracy, large protests have broken out, with young people committed to preserving the India of their ideals against a slide back into nationalist authoritarianism — indeed, a slide back into fascism, the toxic Western ideology that the RSS brought into a land in which it had previously been unknown.”

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Princeton-based professor Gyan Prakash, who studied protests against the 1975 Emergency says, “Unlike the student-youth protests of 1973-74, the upsurge of youth and students is far more organic. Unlike then, when the ABVP and RSS provided the organising cadre, there is no political party behind the current protests. In that sense, it is genuinely more ground up. Also, although JP spoke about Total Revolution, his programme for decentralising power never targeted the local caste and class structures of power... The demand for equal citizenship has a clearer social goal than was ever the case with the JP movement. A different idea of the nation, invoking the constitutional idea of equality, has emerged to challenge the Hindutva’s hijacking of nationalism.”

Prakash finds the lead taken by Muslims, especially women, “extraordinary”. He says, “I would draw a comparison with the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s”, and believes this is now “a movement crossing religious, linguistic, and regional boundaries”.

On the use of Gandhi as an icon in nation-wide protests, Oxford-based historian, professor Faisal Devji, posits that, “A number of commentators have already compared the protests to civil disobedience, which was inaugurated in India with Gandhi’s salt march in 1930. But I think non-cooperation might make a better comparison... The great mobilisation of 1920 brought together Hindus and Muslims in a political partnership for the first time since the Mutiny of 1857. Rather than losing their identities within some generic vision of Indian citizenship, the different groups involved in all these events, supported each others’ causes and in this way created a nation out of their joint struggles. Today’s protests, too, appear to be remaking national identity by a common struggle that encompasses the international issue of refugee status and the domestic one of equal citizenship, for both of which religious and caste differences are crucial.”

Volk adds, “In academia we speak of ‘negative politics’ in this context (negative not in the sense of bad, but in the sense of denying). Negative politics, certainly, also has a strategic component, that is, it is easier to mobilise people when you are against something than when you have to agree on something positive.” They reflect “a feeling of powerlessness on the part of the activists.” But, he adds that protests are crucial to send a message to the political elite that they must “anticipate an active civil society, politically vigilant and committed citizens”.

Shaheen Bagh has set a striking example of an active civil society, full of politically vigilant and committed citizens. Arvind Kejriwal’s political pitch may have let him steer clear of the BJP’s framing of Shaheen Bagh as “Pakistan”. But with Shaheen Bagh not going away anywhere, he will have to articulate his position unambiguously.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 13, 2020 under the title 'Not loud, but clear'. Write to the author at seema.chishti@expressindia.com.

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