From Shah Bano Case to Shaheen Bagh:  Challenges to Majoritarianism

Co-Written by Badre Alam Khan & Wasim Ahsan

Shaheen Bagh 1

In a just concluded Assembly Election (11th Jan 2020), the AAP (Aam Admi Party) has got ‘Landslide Victory’ by securing 62 out of 70 seats and defeated the BJP with a huge margin. In this election, Shaheen Bagh protest site was the center of discourse amidst electoral campaign. Most of the BJP’s leaders like PM Modi and Amit Shah and CM Yogi Adityanath (UP) have targeted, maligned the Shaheen Bagh protestors and made communal remarks, especially on Muslim women. Mr. Shah wittingly invoked to the people of Delhi to vote in favor of the BJP candidates, so that the current will directly hit at Shaheen Bagh protestors. However, quite reverse electoral outcomes have come out on 11th February 2020 and people of Delhi have massively voted to the AAP, keeping the party performances in their minds, because it has delivered and addressed the basic needs such as health, education, electricity, and sanitation facilities. In other words, Delhi voters have once again voted to the AAP on the plank of ‘inclusive development’ rather than communal and corrosive politics of the RSS- BJP combine.

In this article, we are not going to discuss the discourse around the electoral defeat and victory of Delhi assembly elections. Our focus will be confined to Shaheen Bagh’s anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protest and its inclusive characters. Contrary to communal forces, we will argue that the ongoing protest against the CAA- NRC and NPR at Shaheen Bagh led by Muslim women are secular, democratic and inclusive in nature. It is crucial to remind that the communal forces have consistently alleged that anti-CAA protestors are anti-nationals, Pakistanis and having a sinister design to provoke violence, anarchy, and disorder and will create civil war like situations in Indian society.  The latest issues of   Organiser,, Jan 2020, RSS mouthpiece has also endorsed these points and misinterpreted  like “Arab Spring’ (which was started in 2011, mostly young generations by using the social media platform effectively and fought against the existing ‘authoritarian regimes’  and, in doing so, they widened the ‘democratic space’ in the Middle East regions rather than created chaos and civil war like situations, as wrongly interpreted by the latest issue of Organizer) and wrongly compared it with Shaheen  Bagh  by underling that the ongoing protests will also generate situations like- civil war in our country.

Before coming to Shahen Bagh protest and its inclusive nature, let us reflect on the Shah Bano episode which took place in the late 1980s.  After the judgment of Supreme Court in the favor of Shah Bano (the apex court had fixed a certain amount to divorcee women like Shah Bano, till she alive), immediately reactions came out from Muslims clerics and community leaders for boycotting the verdict. For the clerics and conservative Muslims verdict was contrary to the “Islamic Sharia” (which Muslims are supposed to strictly follow because of it has divine roots) as a result, massive protests took place on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere against the verdict. Then the PM Rajeev Gandhi succumbed to pressure of the Muslim Ulama and leaders. Hence, The Congress government bypassing the verdict of Supreme Court enacted the ‘Protection of Rights Divorce Act’ in 1986. This Act had been widely perceived by Liberals, Feminists, Lefitits and including the Hindu nationalists that contradict the norms of gender justice and individual rights of Muslim women. Amidst that, the Hindu nationalists had put-forth the agenda of Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

For the Hindu Right, through the UCC the gender justice can be protected. But later on, the feminists and liberals have not convinced fully that the UCC (the recent feminists have changed position and argued that this step is nothing but to ‘discipline’ the entire Muslim society and construct culturally homogeneous society) is needed to protect the rights of women in a diverse and plural society like India. For a section of liberals and feminists, to protect the rights of Muslim women, the community must initiate ‘social reform’ within the community (mainly reform the Muslim personal law and make more gender just) rather reform from the above say like state.  For the Hindu Right, the individual rights of Muslim women must be given primacy over minority rights. In other words, communal forces believed that minority rights (often wrongly conflated minority rights with minoritarianism by the RSS-BJP combine) and gender justice are fundamentally unmarriageable. But empirical evidence tells us that it is not necessary that minority rights and gender justice contradicts each other. In fact, both can be complementary to each other because the purpose of minority rights like Human rights is to protect culture, languages and religious identity and established educational institutions as enshrined in our Constitution too. The minority rights and norms of gender equality can only contradict with each other when the community practices illiberal and patriarchal values vis-a-vis Muslim women. When the Congress government led by then the PM Rajeev Gandhi had passed the said Act in1986 to protect the so-called Rights of Muslim Women; immediately the Hindu Right strongly reacted against the Act. And as a result, the government succumbed to the pressure and opened the gate of the Babri Mosque which prepared the grounds for the rise and growth of Hindu nationalist forces in the political sphere.

While passing the law against the instant triple talaq Bill in 2019, the same arguments made by the BJP leaders. And they said that this Act is historic in nature and it will empower Muslim women who are the victim of patriarchal practices prevalent in the Muslim community. While opposing the said Act, secular and Left parties have said that this Act in the present forms and contents is not going to empower Muslim women essentially but will ‘criminalize’ Muslim males by giving three years of imprisonment.

The tall claim often made by the BJP-RSS combine to empower Muslim women is now clearly exposed when they are relentlessly passing the communal and misogynists’ remarks on the Muslim women (for instance, BJP’s leaders said that Muslim women who are sitting at protest site like Shaheen Bagh are paid one rather than exercising their independent political agency) who are enthusiastically protesting against the unconstitutional CAA-NRC-NPR for the last two months at Shaheen Bagh.

As close participants of the ongoing protests at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere, we would like to argue that protest site is not just offering a vibrant alternative ‘democratic space’ for articulating all kinds of rights like women, minority and human rights, but, they are also challenging the hegemony and dominance of Hindutva forces in the public domain by doing several kinds of activities. For instance, Muslim women amidst protests are observing Roza (fasting), praying Namaz, reciting resistance poetry and delivering thoughtful speeches on stage at the protest site within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Besides Muslim women, members of other communities like Sikhs, Dalits. Left-progressives are also active and taking part in the ongoing protests and conducting various programmes such as reciting poetry, making graffiti, organizing lectures around CAA-NRC-NPR and raising slogans like Inqalab Jindabad, leke Rehenge Azadi, Ambedkar wali. Gandhi Wali and Baghat Singh walit, Maulana Azad wali etc.

To conclude this easy, we would like to say that contrary to communal forces, the protest site at Shaheen Bagh is deeply grounded in democratic and secular values because it provides space for all sections of Indian society whether Dalits, Sikhs, LGBT, Adivasis and Progressives forces. The strength of the ongoing protest at Shaheen Bagh lies in bringing all sections of society at one platform.

However, the BJP top leaders attempted to polarize along the religious lines amidst the Delhi Assembly elections and they have also threatened to finish off Shaheen Bagh protest. But despite all this, the BJP got massive electoral defeat and confine to secure only 8 seats.

So the question needs to be raised what lesson we can draw from Shan Bano to Shaheen Bagh so far?  As far as Shah Bano’s case is concerned, in our views directly or indirectly controversy around the said case had provided an opportunity to the Hindu nationalists to strengthen its communal tentacles in the center-stage of Indian politics. Like Shah Bano’s Controversy, the BJP leaders have tried to communalize Shaheen Bagh protest led by Muslim women in order to get larger Hindu votes in this Delhi election 2020. But, they (communal forces) have utterly failed to acquire the political space because of given inclusive, democratic and progressive nature of Shahen Bagh protest against CAA-NRC-NPR.

  Badre Alam Khan is a Research Scholar University and Wasim Ahasan is a former student of Jamia Millia Islamia.




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