Winter in Delhi has never been known to be kind to its inhabitants. As the Indian subcontinent battles environmental extremes driven by the climate crisis—claiming as many as 1,659 lives across India in 2019–Delhi’s winters have a special place in hell. And the January cold is the worst of them all, especially for the homeless people who sleep under the open sky. In 2019, 331 of them died in 45 days between December and January.
But over the last 27 days, this bitter cold has nothing on a few hundreds of men and women who have been, and continue to, live out in the open in a small neighbourhood in South Delhi. In fact, December 31 was the coldest Delhi has been in 119 years: 2.6 degrees Celsius.
This is Shaheen Bagh, one of the formidable areas in south Delhi that has turned into a battleground for people from all walks of life protesting the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). This is also where human grit is being put to test. Every day, over 2,000 women turn up in a city infamous for being unsafe for them, while huge crowds of men stand outside the seating area reserved especially for women. As CAA protests rage on, there have been reports of immense crackdown and violence on peaceful protesters. Data says that close to 48 percent of protests across 94 districts in 14 states recorded at least one violent incident or police action/violence. Here though, these facts are acknowledged but never instill fear. Armed with nothing but thick blankets, endless cups of tea and songs of resistance, the people here have one resolution: to protest the CAA, which came into effect on December 11, 2019.
It’s just after 1 PM when we reach the neighbourhood. Namaz has just ended and it’s time for everyone to dig into a biryani lunch being handed out in food packets. There are posters everywhere, kids are singing, people are drawing posters and women are sitting under a tent and chanting slogans.
As people start sitting on the covered floor to begin eating, several volunteers move around swiftly but efficiently. One of them is Zainul Abidin. The 29-year-old walks around, distributing food to men, women and kids.
Ironically, he doesn’t touch a single morsel, and hasn’t done so for almost a month.
Hunger, in the anti-CAA protests, has come to symbolise a powerful message: The longer the fast, the stronger the resolve. “Mahatma Gandhi was on a hunger strike for 15 days during the freedom struggle,” Abidin tells us.” [Social activist] Anna Hazare did it [during the anti-corruption movement in 2011] for 10 days. [Delhi Chief Minister] Arvind Kejriwal did it for 14 days [against inflated water and power bills]. We have broken all records. Today is my 27th day. I don’t know how long it will go on for. But I will carry on.”
For Abidin, his day ends at 5 AM and starts again four hours later, right at this open-air spot in Shaheen Bagh. He hasn’t gone home ever since he’s come here to protest CAA. He is up all day and all night. He quit solid food, drinks only water, and has been advised to drink juice by volunteer doctors but doesn’t consume any. “I have been living with a fever for the last few days. I don’t take any medicine and I have lost 20 kgs over the last one month,” he says.
Even as he talks, Abidin's voice neither fades nor wavers. While talking, Abidin leads us to the centre stage where piles of blankets lay on top of a makeshift seating area. He gets inside one of them. At the moment, Abidin’s only companion in the hunger strike is Mehrunissa, 50, who joined him 10 days ago.
A hunger strike is one of the most common non-violent forms of resistance across the world, and especially in India. Political or civil disobedience movements have been resorting to this method since the freedom struggle against the British colonisation, when Mahatma Gandhi (who was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr and James Bevel during the Civil Rights Movement in the US) led the movement towards India’s Independence. Fasting is seen as a very Gandhian form of protest, and evokes a sense of not just resistance but also patriotism. And it’s concerning that this very idea of patriotism has been put to test for the last few years. The final nail in the coffin seems to be the implementation of CAA, which will offer amnesty to all immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, except the Muslims.
Abidin is more than aware of his religious identity in India. He admits he has been made to feel that way. On December 15, students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university in Delhi were taken by shock and surprise when cops barged into the campus “unprovoked”, fired bullets and tear gas, and destroyed university property. Around 200 students were injured; even now, blood stains can be seen on the floors of the brutalised libraries on the campus. This act of police brutality stunned the nation.
The gathering in Shaheen Bagh happened immediately after that.
“I wasn’t in Delhi when it happened, but the moment I came to know, I came back,” Abidin tells us. “Some 10-20 of us got the Indian national flag and decided to march to JMI. As we walked, some 200 people joined us. But by the time we got there, the state had imposed Section 144 [that prohibits public gathering] in the area. So we came here to Shaheen Bagh, found a platform, and sat down.”
Initially, the group faced threats from the cops to clear out. “But it didn’t work. We stayed put. Every day, 20,000-30,000 people turn up to show solidarity or witness this movement. These are people not just from Delhi and NCR but also Uttar Pradesh, the Gulf, Singapore, Dubai and other parts of India,” he says. On and off, they get threats from right-wing goons. “There have been attempts to dismantle us. A few days ago, 15 cars filled with goons turned up. But I have put up sections of barriers between several areas and here. We just didn’t let them enter,” he says. “On New Year Eve, too, there were attempts to be violent with the peaceful protesters here. But we were alert, and people and activists have been everywhere to distill any form of disruptions.”
It’s important to note that the anti-CAA protesters are not just fighting for the Muslims in India; they’re fighting for the rights of all disenfranchised communities, especially the poor. Last month, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called the law “anti-poor and anti-Indian” and not “Hindu versus Muslim”. Adds Abidin, “This is not just about Muslims. It’s also about Dalit Hindus, Dalit Muslims, Sikh and Christians. And I feel that this law is extremely anti-poor because it’s the poor people who have the most to lose. And as long as this law is not retracted, the violence by right-wing extremist groups and goons will be stopped, and beating up of students discontinued, we will carry on.”
Activism aside, though, Abidin can barely list out the challenges the group protesting here have faced over the last three weeks. “There are no troubles here. We are the most peaceful protest. Sometimes, yes, the cold gives us troubles. We have no access to toilets. Our women are not entirely safe either. Since we’re “intruders” in this country, we’re not given any facilities,” he says.
“But thankfully, the people of Shaheen Bagh have opened their doors and hearts to us."
"They let us use their bathrooms and other facilities. We don’t know where the food is coming from, but it’s coming. People come with blankets, too, and distribute them. We have no control over what’s coming from where. And we welcome it,” he adds.
As Abidin continues to speak, two young girls take over the podium and start singing a Bollywood song on the microphone. We ask him whether he ever feels scared, for his health or of potential violence. “What’s there to be scared of? This is our freedom struggle,” he says. “Our first was against the British. Freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh were as young as 15-16, just like these kids. They gave their lives for us. This is just like that. Another freedom struggle.”
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