Shaheen Bagh – the irrelevance of ideology, the temptation of appropriation

Shaheen Bagh

One of the most distinguishing features of the Shaheen Bagh protests, all around the country in their various manifestations, was their lack of any overt ideology.

The first encampment in Delhi was largely spontaneous, beginning in mid-December 2019 and composed of local women from the Shaheen Bagh area. Though they had local university students managing the logistics, the frontlines of the resistance was evidently the women.

The main Shaheen Bagh encampment was finally removed on March 24, 2020 when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed.

A recent report about a “Shaheen Bagh 2.0,” an attempt to re-establish the encampment, states that, “In the messages that were sent to women, the call for protests was given by at least 200 organisations in the country. These groups are believed to have Leftist ideology and majority of them are linked to CPI and CPM.”

This piece of information about the left connection to the revival effort could have some grain of truth to it or maybe not; it could be a “red scare.”

The point to be made and taken notice of is that a certain effort to circumscribe and comprehend the phenomenon of the Shaheen Bagh protests by ideological forces was active even when the protests were on. A lot of this was on the periphery of the protests, in posters, flyers, and in the speakers.

It was also evident in the kinds of the slogans raised and ideas shared from the platform of Shaheen Bagh. Notions about Hindu Rashtra, Hindutva, GDP decline, etc formed a significant part of the speeches and solidarity statements.

Yet, the people on the ground at Shaheen Bagh were not framing their protest as a retort to Hindutva or changing the dispensation. The women did not seem to be acting on any canned leftist ideology, if anything. Neither did they seem to invite any indoctrination – they were acting from the place where they were, in all sincerity.

From four fairly representative media reports from the “early days” of the protests at Shaheen Bagh [NDTV/Ravish Kumar; Indian Express; India Today; Aaj Tak], one can discern the following views, convictions and concerns expressed by the participants, especially with regard to what brought them to Shaheen Bagh.

— A sense of inalienable belonging to India, with expressions such as –

—- “Hum bharat ke rehne waale hain…aur hume proof dena hogais baat pe bahut dil toota hua hai…” [We are residents of India…and we will have to provide proof of that?…that has hurt us a lot…]

—-“hum bhi kehte hain jai hind, hum kehte hain vande mataram…” [We also chant Jai Hind, we also chant Vande Mataram]

—-‘Maa, mulk nahi badla jata’ (Indian Express) [One does not change mother and nation]

—- The issue of apna-paraya – being treated as the “Other,” as outsiders.

— A struggle to save the constitution and nation. “Hum desh bacha rahen haindesh bachane ka jazba hai hum me.” [We are saving the country…we have the ardour to save the nation]

— A sense of protectiveness towards the children and students.

— A sense of the condition of the Muslim community: we are a vibrant community, zinda quam and cannot be walked all over. We are not a murda qaum.

— Duty towards the nation – the sense of qurbaniDesh ke liye kuch kar rahe hain. [We are doing our bit for the nation.]

— The issue of haq (rights?).

— The issue of insaaf (justice?).

— The need to complain to the leaders of the nation:

—- Meri dukh-takleef main unhi se kahungi na? [I will approach them [the government] in times of my distress, righ?]

—- Yeh sab Modi sahab ko nazar nahin aa raha? [Can Mr. Modi not see all this (protests)?]

—- Hamare leader hain hamare mananiye pradhan mantri hain [He is our leader too, he is our respected PM]

Like any disparate group of people, there were different kinds of voices with different levels of convictions. But certainly the outrage and the sense of hurt over the attempted de-legitimation of their primal identity as Indians shone through as a strong reason for the protest. Connected to this was the attack on the body of the community in the form of the assault on Jamia students.

There were also feelings of solidarity and a mother’s protectiveness for her children that impelled the Shaheen Bagh protesters to set camp right after the Jamia attacks. In fact, it was such a local affair initially that most mainstream media did not even pick up the news of the site till after several days.

In short, this protest did not have any whiff of formal ideology undergirding it. Significantly, the protesters did not communicate their feelings or their grievance in terms commonly employed by left-leaning groups. Attend any event organized by such groups and you will leave with an earful of faasivaad [fascism], poonjivaad [capitalism], samantvaad [feudalism], nasalvaad [racism] and a host of other -vaads. Shaheen Bagh, if anything, was an apvaad (exception).

They even created a set of postcards addressed to Modi, inviting him to the camp for a ‘chai pe charcha.’ They had complaints, severe one, they were angry with the government, indeed, but they did not employ the strategies the left usually does.

Hindutva and all its manifestations are a problem in their own right; it is just that the Shaheen Bagh protest was not playing that tune outwardly. One can freely interpret their actions with any lens, however, and certainly, in certain analyses their actions were militating against deeply right-wing ideologies. But that was not what they were saying out loud; so, all later interpretation can only be second-order analyses. Theirs was a more pragmatic, more immediate, more gut-level reaction and outpouring.

One of the protesters was very clear about the various issues at stake: “Samvidhan ka mudda that isiliye hum aaye hain…mob-lynching pe aate to kehte muslim hain isiliye aa rahe hain…” [It was a matter of the constitution and so we came…if we had come out on the issue of mob-lynching then people would have said they are here because they are Muslims…]

There were several contradictions within the movement, if one would so like to think. But such contradictions prove that they were not hewing any strict, well-defined ideology.

The protest expressed itself in its own unique manner and exhibited a certain physicality as primary strategy, an adamant stance that could be seen as an Occupy, a satyagraha or something similar. It might have had features common with all those modes of protest, but they did not exhaust its range and depth.

Shaheen Bagh did not arise in the service of any one ideology and that was its chief strength. There was no ideal to swear fealty to, no credo to uphold. It was more immediate than any premeditated line of thinking. It represented in unison the existential outrage over a betrayal cutting very deep.

They had not come there with ideas of alternatives to capitalist or imperialist systems, they had not been involved in the discourse surrounding the bigotry of Hindutva. Nor were they any pagans waiting for some doctrine from on high. They had their own ideas of faith and belief which they wore lightly – and did not try to impose on others.

They protested unabashedly as women, as mothers, as homemakers, as parda-nasheen, as Muslims – all the while supremely at ease in their multiple identities. There was a significance to the way they unapologetically embodied each identity and role in the public sphere. That should be recognized and respected for its worth, especially by those sympathetic to the movement.

It would be a pity if the original springs of the action were co-opted for some different, supposedly more revolutionary aims. Other movements and overpowering ideologies should also not try to ride their coat-tails and attempt to colonize their form to sneak in their own agendas. If such narrow interests do not pay heed, a Shaheen Bagh 2.0 will not be Shaheen Bagh anymore.

Aviral Anand is a writer interested in social jusitice issues.



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