Led mostly by Muslim women, thousands attended the protest at Eidgah-e-Jadeed on Tannery Road in Bengaluru earlier this week.

Bengalurus Shaheen Bagh Muslim women and the religious route to the Constitution
news Protest Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 15:50

An all-women’s protest which saw the footfall of nearly 5,000 persons occurred at Eidgah-e-Jadeed on Tannery Road in Bengaluru earlier this week. The protest led mostly by Muslim women and some Hindu women demonstrated the crystallization of a rich cultural alternative to the simultaneously vicious and unimaginative Islamophobia of local and national BJP leaders like Tejasvi Surya, Amit Malviya and liberal Congress leaders like Shashi Tharoor. Occurring in the gaze of sparse media scrutiny, barring the stray cameramen, the protest marked a unique milestone, with women protesters showing these leaders to be ignorant in comprehending religious paths to claiming citizenship. 

A statement by one of the protesters “Jitna freedom Quran hume deti hai, utna hi freedom Constitution hume deti hai” (how much freedom the Quran gives us, the same freedom the Constitution gives us) set the tone for the protest. Using poem and idiom, verse and rhetoric, speakers and protesters wove together historical timelines and celebrated female Muslim labour in nurturing the nation. They cited from the Quran and resorted to animated counter-memes to imbue azaadi (freedom) with new meaning. 

The protest organised by the Karnataka Joint Action Committee was unusual for the anti-CAA movement in Bengaluru. The city has seen a few all-women’s protests, but this was the first huge gathering of its kind in Bengaluru East. The organisers said that they were planning more similar protests and hoped this would build the momentum towards Bengaluru’s version of Shaheen Bagh. 

A placard held at the protest, referring to BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya’s tweets discrediting protesters as being women who were paid Rs 500-700.

Lending to its uniqueness was also the reincarnation of uncommon female figures of azaadi like Hazrat Mahal. One speaker explained that Hazrat Mahal was a young woman who led the rebels of Lucknow in battle against the British in 1857. Even after her exile to Nepal, she wrote to residents of Awadh not to give up the fight. “Hazrat Mahal tum ho aur mein bhi hoon” (you are Hazrat Mahal and so am I), another speaker roared to enthused applause. 

The protesters used the language of religiosity and piety while showcasing the ethical patriotism of Muslim figures in history to decimate the Islamophobia of the ‘secular’ and ‘right-wing’, the pro-CAA and the anti-CAA ideologues. There was a rich tapestry of historical timelines woven together – if Tipu Sultan was the warrior-king who fought valiantly against the British, there was a recounting of Muslim freedom fighters who died in jail at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Kaala Pani) and World War I Muslim martyrs whose names were inscribed on the War Memorial at India Gate.

But there was a very deliberate move to not lapse into merely remembering Muslim men. The protesters sent out a clarion message – there is patriotism galore in the project of education as social empowerment. There was repeated emphasis on Fatima Sheikh to not be forgotten alongside Savitribhai Phule who educated children of marginalised Dalit and OBC communities. The tawaifs (courtesans) who donated money and jewellery to the nationalist cause were to be remembered. Muslim women’s names were not the only ones recalled – Rani Durgavati, the mid-16th century ruler of Gondwana who fought against a Mughal general, Asaf Khan was assigned the endearment of ‘jigar’ or heart. Yet another timeline was the Partition, with a speaker referring to how citizenship built on kaagaz (paper) and mazhab (religion) is a willful forgetting of how the 1947 riots destroyed people’s documents. 

The protest organised by the Karnataka Joint Action Committee was unusual for the anti-CAA movement in Bengaluru. 

But religiosity was not simply called to the service of historical memory of nation-building, it also permeated the very forms in which people defined and related to the Constitution. One of the protesters, Humaira told TNM that she had converted from Hinduism to Islam 17 years ago. She stated that she married several years after her conversion, with her parents’ consent. She gestured, through personal example, that it was wrong to fashion terms like ‘love jihad’. A graduate of business management, she was carrying a placard that read, “We have all been paid 500 to save our Constitution.” This was a clever rebuttal of BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya’s tweets discrediting the Shaheen Bagh protesters as being women who were paid Rs 500-700 and biryani. 

Incidentally, Shaheen Bagh was praised and revered in slogans such as “Shaheen Bagh ki maa, daadiyon aur bachchon ko salaam” (we salute the mothers, grandmothers and children of Shaheen Bagh). Other memes and narratives on social media were soundly critiqued and reclaimed – the elected leaders at the Centre are the men who are puncturing the nation, said a few speakers, pointedly dismantling Tejasvi Surya’s classist remark that it is puncture-wallahs who attend anti-CAA protests.

Muslim women from different class backgrounds and localities in Bengaluru (like Yelahanka, Shivaji Nagar, AK Colony, Kushal Nagar, RT Nagar, Thanisandra and KR Puram) talked about why they came. Among them were montessori teachers, school principals, madrassa students, medical students, IT and mobile phone company employees. The medical student found more solidarity with Jamia friends on Instagram than her own friends in Bengaluru, while the madrassa students, busy with classes in the week, were excited that this was their first protest. For all of them, piety and an anxiety around wujood (existence) was critical to their relationship to the Constitution. 

The protesters sent out a clarion message – there is patriotism galore in the project of education as social empowerment. 

One speaker, Dr Sajida Begum, the founder of the Children Women’s Trust, called for a spirited defense of Kaaba (the shrine at the centre of Mecca), she said. Another speaker said they had descended from Aadam and Hawwa, and no Shah-Modi combine could ask them to produce documents. It is this religious rendering of citizenship that has eluded men like Shashi Tharoor who criticised the use of terms like ‘la ilaha illallah’ (there is no God but God) in the protests.

If the poetry and the many children protesters contributed to the carnivalesque air, there was intense anxiety for the future of the qaum (community). This was most poignantly expressed in the fear of a future where a nation-wide NRC would devolve into hair-splitting over demonstrations of children’s citizenship. Where birth certificates may well be compared with Transfer Certificates or TCs, what nation remained for Muslim children, wondered one speaker --- this was however expressed in a way that showed Muslims to be hardly be the only victims of this violently obsessive categorizing exercise. Speakers asserted, Muslims cannot be the sole victims, we will share that fate with Dalits and people of other disadvantaged castes and tribes.  

An elderly Muslim woman protester said she worked as a cook in the homes near the Eidgah. She found an abiding sense of community in these protests. I asked her if she would stop protesting if the CAA was revoked. For as long as her Muslim sisters and brothers felt the need to protest, she would too, she said. As the speakers and the protesters indicated, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s dastoor (process) vis-à-vis the Constitution and the taleem (education) of Fatima Sheikh needed saving beyond the CAA-NPR-NRC. 

Tarangini Sriraman teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and is author of In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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