'The agitation won't stop': As police action looms, Mumbai Bagh stays firm in protest

The indefinite sit-in in Mumbai’s Nagpada area has weathered many challenges, including mounting pressure from the police and more recently, internal efforts to sabotage the protest.
'The agitation won't stop': As police action looms, Mumbai Bagh stays firm in protest
'The agitation won't stop': As police action looms, Mumbai Bagh stays firm in protest
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Mumbai Central’s Morland Road went from being a nondescript under-construction street to a festival of learning, empowerment, liberation and revolution on the night of January 26. Modelled on the lines of Shaheen Bagh and in solidarity with the women who have valiantly held the square in Delhi’s squalid political climate for 53 days, Mumbai Bagh — the indefinite sit-in in Mumbai’s Nagpada area — began late on the night of January 26 and has weathered many challenges, including mounting pressure from the police and more recently, internal efforts to sabotage the protest, to enter its twelfth day today. 

In the wake of the first few petitions being filed against the unconstitutional nature the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, a group of 50 to 70 women from the neighbourhood and a few students and individuals from around the city occupied the street at 10pm on the night of January 26, and read the Preamble to the Constitution to mark the beginning of the indefinite sit-in. 

“We have two demands. The first is that the CAA, NRC and NPR not be implemented on a nationwide scale. And the second is that the Maharashtra state government – that has so far released a statement that the three legislations will not be implemented in the state – now pass a formal resolution to that effect as a guarantee, like Punjab, Kerala, Rajasthan, etc,” said one of the protesters, a political science student from the nearby Maharashtra College of Science, Commerce and Arts.

Word swiftly got out that Mumbai city’s first Shaheen Bagh-style protest is being staged after the sit-in at Mumbra in Thane District began on January 20, and through the course of the night, not only did more women and allies join in, but local support poured in as well — as restaurants in the vicinity decided to provide food, beverages and other refreshments to the women who had resolved to sit in round the clock to hold down the fort. Now in its twelfth day, the protest sees an average of 1,000-2,000 people in the afternoons, and nearly 5,000-7,000 people in the nights. A team of volunteers was promptly formed to manage the increasing crowd and ensure that order and security was maintained, and the women in turn quickly started organising themselves into shifts and took turns in attending, so that the numbers stayed consistent even in the dead of the night.  

Many of these women are homemakers and primary caregivers for their children. A sizable chunk had already been juggling busy professional lives as well as personal lives to begin with, and still found it in them to dedicate at least 6-8 hours daily to the protest, often in the graveyard shift. They went from being spectators and listeners to convenors in a day. Several college students and young girls kicked into action and emulated the artists who first attended the sit-in to learn the art of sloganeering, while many others in the crowd listened in intently when experts spoke about the fundamental flaws in the legislations, and even took the initiative to set up training sessions with them late in the night when the crowd normally quiets down to rest, so that they could carry on the sensitisation efforts as newer faces began to join in.

“We stayed silent when the Babri Masjid case’s verdict was announced, and we stayed silent when Muslims were being targeted and lynched by cow vigilantes. But these new legislations were the last straw. This has brought Muslim women, who otherwise lead very private and domesticated lives, out on to the streets — and this itself should terrify the government,” says Rezia Khan, a single mother of two girls, aged four and six, who is also appearing for her HSC exams soon. She added that she owes it to her children to resist the fascist wave building in the country.

She further explains that this is beyond one religion. “Our Constitution is in danger, and people don’t realise that the three legislations will affect every poor Indian citizen across communities. So everyone needs to come together. Over the past 10 days, this is what we have gained. We have been educated, empowered, and the patriotism in us has been stoked,” she adds.

Over the course of the eleven days, several prominent anti-CAA voices like Umar Khalid, Aishe Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Sushant Singh, Monica Dogra, and Trisha Shetty have also attended Mumbai Bagh to share their opinions on the subject. During the nights, the women would organise themselves into smaller groups, singing songs of revolution and change, holding debates and discussion amongst themselves about the state of affairs in the country, and even bringing in the next day by collectively praying in the wee hours of the morning.

Meanwhile, artists and painters joined in and quickly got to work to adorn the bare concrete wall that flanked the left of the site with graffiti, slogans and political cartoons. Children from nearby schools started spending their afternoons at the protest making drawings about what patriotism and secularism mean to them — which were later put up on the wall as well.

However, even as the protest snowballed into one of the largest resistances that Mumbai has put up against the CAA, NRC and NPR, cracks began to appear in pillars propping it up. The women were exercising their constitutional right to protest peacefully, but in the absence of official permission, the police had begun using intimidation tactics on the protestors from the first day to call off the protest. Strategies like choosing people at random from the crowd and interrogating them about their agendas, recording the IDs of everyone attempting to join the protest in order to induce anxiety, not allowing the artists and speakers to use megaphones for which no official permission is required, and even going as far as to barricade the street from both sides and sporadically deciding to prevent people from entering for varying durations every day were used to curb support.

On the other hand, the local politicians had been growing increasingly insecure about not having played primary roles in the hosting and organising of the now burgeoning sit-in, and were exerting pressure on the crowd to shift the protest to another venue of their choosing instead. Reports surfaced that women were being offered sewing machines if they agreed to abandon the sit-in, and that some women within the crowd were also resorting to fear-mongering and rumour-mongering about stringent police action in order to scare the protestors back into their homes.

However, the women who had been on the ground actually convening the protest had also begun growing wary of their vendettas. On Saturday, which was the seventh day of the sit-in, when a close associate of a local MLA spontaneously announced that the protest be called off in spite of not having met either of its two set goals, 40-50 women put up a front and refused to vacate the lane – with some even laying down in front of a police van that was advancing to clear out the street. As word got out that a small group of women were resisting the call-off and holding down the fort all by themselves, the crowds that had dispersed joined back in and declared that the sit-in will continue. It was then decided that new representatives from the crowd will be chosen, who will now direct the protest, take all the executive decisions and decide the course of the sit-in.

Food and refreshment providers began pulling out support as well, but that didn’t deter the women from continuing to spend entire days on the ground. The supply normalised within a day.

In the face of accruing pressure from every front, a delegation of political leaders and women representatives from the protesting crowd met State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh on Monday in order to appeal to him to fast-track the passing of the resolution, but that meeting did not yield desirable results, and instead, the ministry ordered the team to call the sit-in off on Thursday, February 6.

The police were also restricting men from entering the protest on Thursday - and a photojournalist, Ashish Raje, who is also the Joint Secretary of the Mumbai Press Club, was asked for an ID. In the altercation that followed, he was roughed up and received injuries on his finger and legs.

On Thursday, incumbent MLA Rais Shaikh, ex-MLA Naseem Siddiqui from the NCP, ex-MLA Amin Patel from the Congress, ex-MLA Waris Pathan from AIMIM and a few others called for a press conference at a hotel in the area to formally announce that they were withdrawing support from the protest, and that they will ensure that the gathering breaks up within a day. Yet another meeting that was completely devoid of representation from the women – its conclusions were swiftly dismissed by the protestors on the ground.

“These politicians don’t realise that by indulging in local gully politics, they are not only putting the protest but also the movement and the Constitution in jeopardy. This is larger than them, and now the reigns are entirely in the hands of the women. We will back them no matter what direction they decide to take this in,” said Feroze Mithiborewala, a human rights activist who has actively contributed towards conducting the day-to-day proceedings of the protest.

The next few days of the sit-in remain critical – with the police closing in and local support dwindling, the women are focused on keeping up the momentum and raising more awareness in other communities to have more representation, and remain resolute that Mumbai Bagh will power on until their demands are met.

(Binjal Shah is an independent journalist covering gender and intersectionality in India.)

All photos by Siddhant Vaidya

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