Shaheen Bagh's Contagious Freedom Lets Us Imagine The Nation We Can Be

Aman Sethi
Women gathered in large numbers to celebrate the 71st Republic Day during the ongoing protests against CAA, NRC and NPR at Shaheen Bagh, on January 26, 2020, in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI — On Republic Day, Radhika Vemula, Saira Bano and the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh tugged at the halyard affixed to the bundled national flag atop the five-story high flagpole anchored in the middle of the national highway connecting south eastern Delhi to Uttar Pradesh. 

On December 13 2019, the Delhi Police had stormed the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus in a violent attempt to suppress a student demonstration. The students were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, a controversial new law that violates the secular tenets of the Indian constitution by making religion the basis for granting citizenship, and conspicuously discriminates against Muslims. Two days later on December 15, a group of elderly women from the neighbouring settlement had occupied the highway in protest. 

Now over a month later, on Republic Day, they were joined by Radhika Vemula,  whose son Rohith had killed himself 5 years ago after the administration of the University of Hyderabad harassed him for being Dalit. Saira Bano’s teenage son Junaid was lynched by a group of men who accused him and his friends of being “beef-eaters”. 

As the crew of mothers and grandmothers squinted the flag, now unfurled and slightly askew, there followed a moment of silence, as if the gathered crowd of several thousands had taken a collective sigh. A low hum began, growing louder as it rippled through row after orderly row of women, children and men. 

“Jana gana mana,” they sang, their voices rising above this barricaded stretch of the highway, carrying snatches of the national anthem up above the overbridge festooned with posters, the scaled model of the war memorial at India Gate, the large welded map of India, the bus-stop now converted into a library and reading room, the ersatz detention camp assembled out of aluminium and plywood.

Their voices floated down High Tension Road (the surprisingly apt name chosen for the high-tension electricity cables that...

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