India: from populist nationalism to popular constitutionalism

A visit to Shaheen Bagh, in south east Delhi, reveals the surprising emergence of new shades of citizenship.

Shirin M. Rai
21 July 2020, 1.08pm
Shaheen Bagh.
Author's image.

As COVID-19 sweeps all before it, injustices of another time are being further entrenched by populist regimes, which affects the governance and everyday outcomes of this pandemic and the politics of holding the state accountable. The urgency engendered by the pandemic is being mobilised by the populist, Hindu nationalist regime in India to establish a hierarchy of needs even as it seeks to blame some for its spread. Variously, it has been the Chinese, the Muslims, or the refugees - spreading the virus with intent, systematically as a political act. Through the communalisation of COVID-19 in India government officials and political parties pushing an Islamophobic agenda have weaponized the pandemic to ensure that an indiscriminate virus has discriminatory effects. As Arundhati Roy notes, ‘The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally’

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During the lockdown of 1.2 billion Indians, repeated attempts have been made to muzzle the press; India now ranks 142 out of 180 in the world press freedom rankings. The dominant, state narrative of the fight against the virus is projected and remains unchallenged. More worryingly, this ‘pause’ in life is being used to arrest people campaigning against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the erosion of constitutional guarantees. The resistance to the BJP government’s pushing through a law on citizenship that seeks to identify the Muslim community as not deserving of refuge led to an outcry among the Muslim populations in the country and among all those who take India’s secularism seriously; it resulted in astonishing political spectacles of solidarity – hundreds of people, particularly women, who had never participated in political protests coming out and peacefully occupying public spaces in opposition to this exclusionary and discriminatory law.


It was a beautiful day in late January when I first went to Shaheen Bagh, in south east Delhi. The sit-in, largely of women protesting against CAA, had been going on for a month already. My journey started in Jamia Milia University. Outside its gates students and people of all ages gathered to hear speeches and decorate the walls with amazingly vibrant murals. The university had been at the centre of protest when students were attacked by police on December, 15 for protesting CAA. We stood there listening to the speaker, who made the point that the attack of the government on those protesting is not only an attack on the Indian constitution but against humanity – giving refuge is the humane thing to do, whatever the religion of those who need it.

This was a popular engagement with India’s constitution that in its preamble confirms India as a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic’. Popular constitutionalism, evidenced in the mass recitation of the Preamble at protest meetings, was trying to wrest the initiative to reshape citizenship through invoking the central document of Indian democracy.


“‘When it encounters resistance from the other, self-consciousness undergoes the experience of desire—the first milestone on the road that leads to dignity’. (Fanon)

Citizenship frames our relationship with the state in many ways – through law, policy and political institutions. The state has the power to delineate who is a citizen and who is a ‘stranger’, a migrant, a refugee, and even a traitor. Political dissent is also important in understanding citizenship. What spaces can citizens occupy, what language they can speak in, what clothes can they wear, what demands can they make? The visibly Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh, supported by students, teachers and ordinary people decided that they would oppose the CAA. It emerged from press interviews that many women had never come out of their homes for any political event before this and yet here they were – their peaceful refusal in the face of political vitriol a powerful gesture of strength in the face of prejudice.

I saw women of all ages, with children, in high heels, in burkas and trousers, sitting in front of mics occupying and claiming a multi-use space of performance. The women chatted, listened, whispered and laughed out loud; they clapped for the performers, they raised slogans in support of democracy and against those who would silence them. The atmosphere was festive, relaxed, peaceful.


“Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. You don't need anything else.”- (Malcolm X)

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As the state weaponised the constitution, the women of Shaheen Bagh in southeast Delhi decided that they had had enough. Coming out of their homes, they made their presence felt in a way that connected them with the Indian independence movement – an insistence that their rights be recognised through their presence in a public space that could not be overlooked. They occupied a road and made into a garden of hope (bagh), an aesthetic oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a mega-city’s poor corner. And how attractive a space it became – with art, books, and libraries; reciting poems and readings in different languages. The optimism among the protesters was palpable – perhaps this was a turning point in Indian politics?

The exuberant art in Shaheen Bagh made connections with struggles across borders. As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered strength in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the solidarity of the oppressed was expressed in this mural – there is Malcolm X, the leader of Black refusal to engage with an institutionally racist state, and the slogan of #MuslimLivesMatter, connecting this struggle with that of Black people everywhere. Since 9/11, the Muslim refugee population has soared worldwide. To deny them the right to refuge in India can only be institutionally Islamophobic. The pandemic has underlined the role of the state and the importance of solidarity in public life is being celebrated – through rainbows in windows and claps for frontline workers. Optimism is important, but, just like solidarity is not charity, optimism too needs to be tethered to experience. Even as we hope for the best, history teaches us difficult lessons.


"Ham dekhenge, lazim he ki ham be dekhenge, ham dekehengeWo din ke jis ka wada hai ."(we shall see, it is inevitable that we shall see…that day that has been promised… (Faiz Ahmad Faiz)

On the way to Shaheen Bagh, I saw an amazing sight – children, returning from school, shouting the slogan made famous by the JNU student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, when he called for Azaadi (freedom) in 2016. Kamala Bhasin, the feminist activist who first raised this slogan in the 1990s had called for azaadi “from patriarchy: Azaadi; from all the hierarchy: Azaadi; from endless violence: Azaadi; from helpless silence: Azaadi.” We now heard the same slogan from the women in Shaheen Bagh.

Shaheen Bagh as a space, appears to be two squares joined together, but the camped protesters occupied part of GD Birla Marg, an arterial road connecting Delhi to Noida, a middle class Delhi suburb. The spatial battles that followed stemmed from the blocking of this road, in the end leading the Supreme Court to appoint interlocutors to persuade the women to move, while acknowledging their right to protest. The space that was occupied by the protesters did look like a square, lined with art, food outlets, a library, and, of course, the stage where people gathered to hear speeches, songs and plays.

Calling it ‘square’ also connected with international struggles – from Madrid square, Puerta del Sol during the Occupy Wall Street movement, Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 to the Hong Kong protests outside the Legislative Council in 2019. The call for freedom rang out in those spaces too and resonated with the occupiers of Shaheen Bagh. However, this space was also adjacent to the homes of the protesting women – the mohallas (neighbourhoods) allowing them to work around their family lives – a work/life balance in protest!

The resistance of Shaheen Bagh inspired many across the country. Many Shaheen Baghs sprung up in India, led by Muslim women, supported by those who saw the danger of undermining the citizenship of some as undermining the citizenship of all. The solidarity expressed generated a hope that protest will generate an alternative political discourse which will give secularism a second lease of life. Solidarity for Shaheen Bagh protests crossed social boundaries – people of all religions came to stand with the protesters, which worried the government. In particular they worried about the Dalit-Muslim alliance that was built on a recognition of institutionalised and systematic marginalisation of both groups. Will solidarity of the oppressed develop through this struggle for a secular citizenship? This cross-religion and caste solidarity was manifested in the ‘langar’ (Sikh public kitchen) that nourished even as it proclaimed friendship.

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“Why would she not let me come here?!! She would be here, but she cannot see! She is looking after the kids so that I can be here.” (Interview)

The women of Shaheen Bagh did not want to be saved by upper caste Hindu men; they were saving the constitution’s essence by demanding that the right to refuge be extended to all groups. They also built bridges across the structural landscape of institutional and social exclusion and prejudice: on India’s Republic Day, January 26, the mothers of Rohith Vemula and Junaid Khan and the ‘dadis (grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh’, Asma Khatoon (90), Bilkis Bano (82) and Sarwari (75) hoisted the national flag amid chants of “samvidhan ki raksha, desh ki raksha (defence of the constitution is defence of the country)”.

Indeed, expropriating the national flag and the constitution as symbolic of their struggle was a powerful move to undermine the mobilisation of majoritarian nationalism by the BJP government. The reciting of the Indian Constitution, with its secular commitment, became a performance of defiance and of claiming citizenship. This popular engagement with, defence of and loyalty to a secular and egalitarian constitution was claim-making at its best – by invoking constitutional secularism this was a refusal to let the Islamophobic and exclusionary populist nationalism dominate.

As I stood around, I struck up a conversation with one of the women. She was holding the hand of her young daughter. ‘How old is she?’ I asked, pointing at the child. ‘Eight. My younger child is at home with my mother-in-law’. ‘Ah, so you brought her with you here? Did your mother-in-law let you?’ ‘Why would she not let me come here?!! She would be here, but she cannot see! She is looking after the kids so that I can be here’. I didn’t need to know any more about the passion with which those present and those absent – looking after the children, cooking, taking turns in attending the meetings – feel about the issues at stake. But challenges also bring risks with them – of discursive as well as physical violence.

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Shaheen Bagh | Author's image.


"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" (Isaac Asimov)

The presence of police in this area underlined the ever-present potential of state sanctioned violence. From the start the women of Shaheen Bagh had made it clear that theirs was a peaceful movement of civil disobedience in line with Gandhian tactics. Their presence generated ripples of solidarity drawing others into this site of protest – artists, students, activists, academics.

However, these women inevitably drew the ire of the state. Narendra Modi called this protest a ‘design’ to destroy national unity – ‘Behind this lies a political design that is poised to shatter the nation’s harmony’. The BJP political machine also ensured that this civic protest was represented as a Muslim protest – commenting on their clothes, misidentifying protestors as being from one community rather than an alliance of citizens. This of course resulted in the women in Shaheen Bagh attempting to reclaim nationalism – through clothes, through inviting people of all religions and communities to join them.

Violence is not only physical – that kind of violence was reserved for later (the riots after the elections in Delhi). What the women of Shaheen Bagh experienced was the poison of hate in political discourse. For many years now the Muslim fabric of life has been under threat – through economic marginalisation, political underrepresentation and discursive violence. The supporters of Shaheen Bagh protests were routinely charged as ‘pseudo secular’ and ‘anti-national’ and sometimes prosecuted for ‘sedition’.

Epilogue: solidarities under threat"

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me."
(Martin Niemoller)

I celebrated when the Delhi State election results were declared; the Aam Admi Party won convincingly – 62/70 seats, with BJP securing 8. In the run up to the election, we had witnessed the worst kind of electoral campaign – one of hatred, one of Islamophobic mobilisation and one capturing the nationalist discourse of betrayals, traitors and anti-nationals protesting in Shaheen Bagh. But we celebrated too soon.

On 24 February a Hindu nationalist mob attacked people in Northeast Delhi; the attack continued until 26 February, claimed at least 53 lives, left more than 200 people injured and inflicted damage to properties and local businesses. The protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act completed 90 days at Shaheen Bagh on Friday, February 28.

As if the violence of the mob was not enough, then came the COVID-19 pandemic; the Shaheen Bagh protests were “temporarily” suspended. More than 100 days after they started the agitation protesters in Shaheen Bagh were removed and some detained, amid a lockdown in the national capital over the Covid-19 outbreak. Many other anti-CAA protesters were arrested amidst the COVID-19 lockdown and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But the women of Shaheen Bagh did not entirely disappear in the face of this onslaught. They left their traces – in the stories that were told about them. The slippers they left on ‘protest beds’ to remind the state of their presence in their absence have become powerful expressions of resistance.

As the murder of George Floyd, and then of Rayshard Brooks, shows, institutionalised hatred is not easy to reverse. In India, the courts as well as representative institutions such as parliament have shown a wilful disregard for the struggles to ensure citizenship rights of all people. In such times acts of remembering together, reevaluating and reimagining community spaces, becomes central to creating spaces of solidarity and of visualizing a future which is discontinuous with the present socio-economic order in which we live.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the protests of Shaheen Bagh women show that taking a stand against institutionalised prejudice and entrenched inequalities is important regardless of outcome. Taking a stand builds solidarities that can last; taking a stand can challenge a state that is cruelly blind to what the politics of hate can do; taking a stand can effect change. By challenging a populist state, by refusing to accept a diminished citizenship, and by standing up for the principles of a progressive constitution, the women in Shaheen Bagh, among many others campaigning for change, have shown us a glimpse of what a reimagined politics might look like.

The photographs in this essay were taken by the author on her visit to Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Milia University in January 2020.

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