The pandemic dispersed Delhi’s mass protests but their legacy lives on in art

We joined a historic peaceful protest led by Muslim women. Art was our voice and our mural is a tribute to their stories, memories and movement

Gayatri Ganju Shilo Shiv Suleman
13 May 2020, 12.00pm
A woman painting a mural in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India, 2020
Gayatri Ganju

Hundreds of thousands of people took to India’s streets in protest in December 2019 when the country’s parliament passed its divisive new citizenship law and introduced a new national citizenship register.

Now, only non-Muslims from neighbouring countries who entered India before 2015 can seek citizenship. The more than 200 million Muslims living in India fear they could be stripped of citizenship – literally pulling the soil from beneath their feet.

A beating heart of these protests was in a close-knit, Muslim-majority area of east Delhi called Shaheen Bagh, the ‘Falcon Garden’. Hundreds of women gathered here every day, community kitchens were set up and students organised volunteer groups to help sustain a historic sit-in of up to 100,000 people on some days.

As stories from the neighbourhood spread, online and by word of mouth, it became clear to us that this was where we had to be. We are part of the Fearless Collective – a South Asian feminist art project that works with local communities to reclaim space and publicly represent themselves in affirmative, powerful ways.

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Fearless was started in 2012 by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman and has worked in ten countries, creating more than 40 community murals. We make participative monuments with communities of women across the world. We believe that its creation is an act of resistance in itself. Beauty forces us to stop and look beyond ourselves. Art makes us visible to each other and at Shaheen Bagh, it brought people together.

India is well known as the world’s largest democracy. Seventy-two years ago our nation’s founders agreed to a hopeful imagination of India in our constitution: sovereign, secular, democratic and equally in love with all its citizens, regardless of who we worshipped or how.

In 1947, we partitioned ourselves, painfully, with millions of Muslims migrating across the faultline into Pakistan. And the Muslims who remained were promised protection and belonging. But, time and time again, this promise has been broken.

In January 2020 on the eve of India’s Republic Day, which commemorates the passage of that constitution, we joined the women of Shaheen Bagh, protesting the new citizenship law, to sit with them, listen and paint.

This winter saw record low temperatures, and yet, for more than 45 days, women gathered in the bitter cold, in a peaceful sit-in. This was a space of mourning and outrage, yes. But it was also a space of Islamic resurgence and love (Ishq) and the values of South Asian Islamic identity.

Protestors fill Shaheen Bagh at dusk, Delhi, India, 2020
Gayatri Ganju

Over the years, Islamic diversities have been systematically erased from Indian culture. Mughal history is being removed from our textbooks, monuments are being renamed. And our tongues are being Sanskritised.

At Shaheen Bagh and through the resistance movement we saw a recognition of the whole; a complete India made up of all of its parts. We were witness to a political awakening of Muslim women, particularly those from working-class communities who have long been marginalised and rendered increasingly invisible in the recent past.

Here, working-class Muslim women were the ones leading the protests, blocking the roads and chanting in the streets. They were claiming their place at the forefront of the movement, embracing their faith and its place in the nation.

By the time we arrived, the streets of Shaheen Bagh were already lined with protest posters, art installations and pop-up photo exhibitions. With every passing day, more artists appeared from across the country to volunteer their hearts and their skills. We women discussed our local and national histories, and also imagined what our futures could look like. This was a space of love, but it was not devoid of fear.

Gunshots rang out. We prepared to run for our lives

One chilly evening in early February, gunshots rang out. WhatsApp messages from friends and journalists flooded in, warning that the protest was about to be violently broken up by a Hindu fundamentalist mob.

We had been painting one of our largest murals yet, depicting two women – a young protestor named Khushboo and an older woman. This was an image of true intergenerational power. While we could leave, these two women, along with the rest of Shaheen Bagh, had no choice but to stay and face the mob: this was their home.

Aap log chalejao” (‘You need to leave’), Samir, a local painter, told us. We scrambled to get out, as volunteers jumped down from the scaffolding and the children who had come to paint with us ran through the field and jumped over a wall.

We prepared to run for our lives. However, within minutes the mob was chased out of the area by local residents. The tension dissipated. 

Love not fear

Shaken but determined to show our solidarity, we returned the following morning. The crowds at the protest site had thinned dramatically, but there was an urgent need to gather in numbers, in case things escalated.

As we walked towards the unfinished mural, we saw Razi, a young student waiting beside the scaffolding. His face lit up and he started unpacking boxes of paint. Minutes later, we were joined by Samir.

Then Aliya, aged seven, and her little brother Farhan – who had watched their neighbourhood transform into this historic site – appeared too, standing on tiptoe to reach as high as they could to paint their favourite birds on the wall.

Art became our voice, through which we held our protest and each other

One by one, our volunteers returned. Almost like limbs of the same body, with no need for words, we all began to paint. There was no violence at Shaheen Bagh that day. We chose the collective creation of beauty over fear.

The Fearless Collective is a group of women who create street art with local communities
Gayatri Ganju

As we finished tracing the last lines of gold into our mural, we were joined by Urdu calligraphers, poets and performance artists. On the last night of painting, we gathered together as a community to recite poetry.

The local chai seller recited poetry he’d heard as a child. We chanted slogans with farmers from Punjab, who’d taken an overnight bus to bring donations of grain to the protestors. We listened to speeches made by the aunties and children of Shaheen Bagh, each one gripping the microphone with unwavering strength. 

Until the sun and the moon remain / The name of the revolution will remain / Long live the revolution!

These were our fellow painters. This is where the power of this moment lay; each person was a deep well of beauty with the capacity to create.  Art became our voice, through which we held our protest and each other.

Coronavirus arrives but beauty survives

Just weeks later, we were faced with another threat: a virus that made the world stop. The Shaheen Bagh protestors decided to respect the government’s social distancing mandate. Where once,tens of thousands of people gathered, now only a few women were left as a symbolic act of resistance.

At the end of March, as the whole country went into lockdown, Delhi authorities tore down the posters and banners that had been created during the sit-in. If nothing else, this showed us the power of art as dissent.

We will always remember the painted posters that people held up high; the children who painted them while their mothers and grandmothers sat in peaceful protest; and the people who poured in bringing food, blankets and flowers to keep spirits alive.

The women of Shaheen Bagh told us that the falcon their neighbourhood is named after flies so high that no other bird can make it their prey. In the falcon’s garden, we saw that what gives these women their flight is a deep, resounding eternal love for the country they belong to – and all its communities.

Our 60-foot mural still stands there – unmoved – as a testament and monument to the women of Shaheen Bagh, their stories, their memories and their movement. Painted in to the mural is an affirmation that was written collaboratively with them – that traces the collective belief of everything we witnessed at Shaheen Bagh:

Ishq Inquilab (my love is the revolution) / Mohabbat Zindabad (may love live forever)

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