Arfa woke up around 4 am last Thursday on one of the coldest mornings this winter in Delhi. The rest of her family — husband, two sons and daughter — were sleeping as she had a cup of milk and some biscuits. That was her sehri (pre-dawn meal) ahead of the roza she would keep that day. After her morning prayers, she caught a couple of hours of more sleep. These days Arfa’s daily routine includes not just chores at home. As the protest in South East Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens enters its second month, she is among the hundreds of women gathering there to lend support.
The roza is part of a “collective” fast. Arfa is using a practice associated with Islam’s holiest days to register her protest against the “kala qanoon (black law)”.
The organisers of another ‘çollective’ roza at Jamia Millia Islamia nearby, where participants have been keeping roza too, say there is another reason they chose fasting to make their voice heard. “January is the month when, in 1948, Gandhi (days before he was killed) fasted for the security of Muslims (in the aftermath of Partition),” says Nizam Pasha, a Supreme Court lawyer. “The importance of roza in Islam cannot be overemphasised. It is true for other religions as well. It is a protest, prayer, to reclaim our secular India.”
Pasha adds that within days of a call being made for ‘collective’ roza on January 10, word spread through social media. A volunteer at Shaheen Bagh, Saima Khan, says at least 100-odd women fast on any given day.
Arfa, who has kept 10 rozas so far, joins the protest at 2 pm. Avoiding conversation and praying silently, she says it is her religion that gives her resilience in her “battle for a secular India”’. “Jab pareshaaniyaan aati hain, tab hum roze rakhte hain. Iss baar qaum ke liye, mulk ke liye, hum roze rakh rahe hain. Hum sab Hindu-Muslim barabari se rahein, saath rahein, yahi dua karti hoon (Whenever there are difficulties, we fast. This time I am fasting for the community, for the country. I pray we live together and live as equals).”
Historian Rana Safvi says the choice of fasting as a protest tool is significant: “Roza is about controlling your base desires, a protest that doesn’t allow you anger. This control is akin to Gandhi and his satyagraha.”
Arfa’s daughter is an undergraduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia. She wasn’t in college the day police entered the campus and beat up students, but the incident has left her worried. “Look what they did in AMU, Jamia! This is why we have stepped out,” she says, pausing to shout ‘zindabad’ in response to an ‘inquilab’ call from the rickety stage.
Shabnam Jahan (55), who has kept five rozas so far, adds, “I fast for the future generation… so that the government takes back the NRC and CAA. Allah hi muraad puri karega (Allah is the one who will fulfill our wishes).”
At the sit-in organised by Jamia students at Gate Number 7, a relay hunger strike has been on for 10 days. Towards evening, samosas are distributed for the rozedaars.
Among those coming every day, for “at least two-three hours”, are Anjum and Asifa of nearby Batla House, who finish their chores, drop children at the neighbours after school, and head here. “Aaj humne roza rakha hai, apne qaum ke liye, uski behtari ke liye (We are fasting today, for our community, for its betterment),” the two young women said.
A Jamia Coordination Committee student says, “People are fasting of their own accord, whichever day they want to.”
Gandhi has been a recurring figure in the ongoing protests, with posters and slogans invoking his dream of a tolerant India. On the pavement is a makeshift library, a reminder of police violence at the Jamia library. Sahil, an organiser, says, “On December 25, we read chapters on Hindu-Muslim unity and satyagraha from Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. We have also read Jamia and Gandhi by Afroz Alam Sahil.”
Ramchandra Guha, a Gandhi historian who was roughed up at an anti-CAA protest in Bengaluru, says, “Invoking Gandhi’s name for protection of rights of minorities and Hindu-Muslim unity is admirable. Gandhi would have approved of the spontaneous outpouring of people of all faiths across the country.”
At Jamia, Pasha is planning the biggest fast yet, most likely on January 18, to mark the end of Gandhi’s six-day fast — days later, he was killed.