Shaheen Bagh protests began on 15 December 2019, three days after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) which, in conjunction with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), posed the threat of excluding scores of Muslims from Indian citizenship. Within a few days the number of protestors swelled and Shaheen Bagh garnered global media attention as one of the longest on-going protests against the CAA, NRC and National Population Register (NPR). The supporters of the CAA questioned the legitimacy of Shaheen Bagh—touting the protests as ‘anti-national’, as ‘conspiracy’, as ‘gathering of traitors’ to hijack the new citizenship law the purpose of which was to weed out ‘infiltrators’. The book under review, Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, offers an alternative view. It brings together interviews, essays, photographs and ground reports in an edited volume that describes the significance of the 100-day Muslim women-led resistance as a historic civil rights movement that spontaneously erupted to (re)claim the secular, democratic rights of a besieged minority. The editor, Seema Mustafa, describes how Shaheen Bagh saw for the ‘first time in living memory’, Muslim women, long stereotyped as demure and caged, participate in direct political action, leading from the front.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one, ‘Ground Reports from the Protest’, details the evolution of the movement, the voices of the participants and the range of meanings—symbolic, spatial and political that the protest movement acquired. The five chapters draw from the field reports of journalists, researchers and documentary photographers covering the protests to evoke a strong sense of ‘here and now’. Part two, ‘The Idea of Shaheen Bagh’, brings together the writings of academicians and civil society actors such as Nayantara Sahgal, Zoya Hasan, Apporvanand, Harsh Mandar, Nandita Haksar and several other authors to highlight the significance of Shaheen Bagh as a historic moment that has redefined secular participatory democracy in India. Part three, ‘A Riot, A Witch-Hunt’, looks at the aftermath of the Shaheen Bagh protests long after its closure in the wake of the Covid 19 lockdown in March 2020. It lays bare the communal hate that underpinned the violence unleashed in the 2020 riots in North East Delhi and the witch-hunt of student leaders and other participants of the protests under anti-terror laws.
The authors of the edited volume delineate how the Shaheen Bagh resistance was able to realize several landmarks that are unknown to the history of protests in Independent India. First and foremost, Shaheen Bagh protests successfully reignited and reclaimed the pluralist idea of Indian Nationalism. Nizam Pasha explains how the NRC-CAA-NPR had the unintended consequence of reaffirming the Indian identity of Muslims in India. Nayantara Sahgal emphasizes how the message of the Shaheen Bagh movement was loud and clear: ‘We will not submit to another partition.’ Harsh Mandar foregrounds the stakes when he writes how CAA bears on contestations of belonging and rights— ‘Who belongs to India and on what terms? Whom does India belong to? Citizenship ultimately is the right to have rights.’ Mandar highlights the success of the movement as a beacon of hope by bringing the popular revulsion against NRC into the public domain, standing for the unity of people across religious and caste identities, re-politicizing students and galvanizing the fragmented opposition to take a secular stand. Sharik Laliwala and Nandita Haksar take this theme forward in their papers by highlighting the significance of Shaheen Bagh as a historic moment that led to a renewed faith in secular politics.