On the morning of February 11, the road leading up to the protest site is lined with people carrying placards. “Today’s protest is silent. We don’t support any political party,” the posters read. As TV crews arrive and start setting up cameras, protesters walk up to them, pointing to the placards taped to their bodies. There’s some discussion about one byte, just one, but the protesters are firm. They shake their heads, refusing to open their mouth.
Inside the tent, women are sitting in rows, holding similar placards — “Today is a silent protest. We are against police brutality. We don’t support any political party.”
One man approaches the mediapersons milling around. “You can shoot, click pictures. But the protesters won’t speak to you today.”
Why? “Words can be twisted. This protest is not about opposing or supporting any one political party. We don’t want anyone to get the wrong message today. We won’t allow either the victors or the losers to manipulate us,” the man says.
Inside, there’s some commotion. Two girls are arguing. “Can’t I ask her to move? I have to speak for that,” a voice rises. She’s promptly shushed. Many women have news channels open on their phones, but on mute. The faces are tense, manners terse.
Outside, people are gathering in batches. One such group is huddled around a phone, watching poll results. “It’s great that the protesters have decided not to speak today. Our movement has nothing to do with any political party. No politician has spoken up for us. In a democracy, we have to vote for someone. But that doesn’t mean we support everything that party stands for,” says Mohammed Wasim, a local resident.
Are they worried about the results? “We are as concerned as any citizen in a democracy. The most powerful political party chose to fight this election making a group of citizens its prime opponent. We are under fire anyway. But if this kind of politics wins, everyone should be worried,” says Shain, standing near Wasim.
Wasim is being called to the police station regularly these days. “I spoke to some mediapersons, they showed me on TV. The police seem to have recognised me from that. But we don’t need to hide. We aren’t doing anything wrong. I am happy to report at the police station,” says Wasim.
Wasim’s teenaged cousin was beaten up at the Jamia Millia Islamia protest yesterday, he says. “Not just his cousin, other children from the area too. Again, no political party has done anything for us, but we know whom the police reports to,” Shain says. He calls out to some kids nearby.
“Yes, the police twisted my hand. I fell down when they pushed us, I hurt my foot. Others have worse injuries. But I will go to Jamia again. I will keep coming here too,” says Khushboo, a chirpy 14-year-old. Is she following the poll results? “Yes, on my friend Zoya’s phone.” Did the negative comments about Shaheen Bagh before the elections worry them? “We are not scared of them. In fact, their statements show they are rattled by us,” says Khushboo.
Zoya, quieter than her friend, speaks up: “I hope the election results today tell the BJP what people of Delhi think of us, and of them.”
A little way further is a tea stall. Here too, people are following the results. “The BJP will win, I can give it to you in writing,” says the tea seller. “He’s trying not to jinx the results, totaka hai,” a customer grins.
“The BJP will lose. Amit Shah thinks he is Baahubali’s son, but the people will show him,” says 22-year-old Fazl. “He’s the reason the protesters have been asked to stay quiet today,” the tea seller rolls his eyes.
Zubair, Mukee and Sameer Khan are at the tea stall. “It’s better to talk to people here. Here, we are just individuals. The moment we step inside the tent, we are linked to a cause. That cause is independent of any political party. I wouldn’t talk to you today if you met me inside,” says Zubair.
Kejriwal hasn’t exactly come out in support of the protests. Nor did he counter the BJP’s relentless targetting. Are people upset about that?
“Kejriwal was being diplomatic. We understand that. And he has worked for Delhi. At the end of the day, that’s what you want from your government,” says Mukee. “CAA and NRC anyway aren’t something a state government can fix. It’s good Kejriwal didn’t try to gain mileage from a movement that has nothing to do with him,” says Sameer Khan.
Suddenly, someone says Amanatullah Khan is trailing in Okhla, the seat that houses Shaheen Bagh. “BJP will never win from here. And that’s a choice they have made, not us. They didn’t even try any outreach here,” says Zubair.
Inside the tent, the crowd has swelled. Men have joined the women in neat rows. Now, along with placards, people have black bands around their mouths. In a corner, more placards are being prepared. Phones have been kept away. The atmosphere seems more relaxed than in the morning. Every attempt by mediapersons for comment is being met with polite but firm shakes of the head. “Our fight is beyond one election. Please understand that,” a man holds up a scribble on a postcard.
Just outside, however, the restraint is not quite as strong. “Is Kejriwal coming back?” a boy selling the national flags asks. Answered in the affirmative, he does a little jig.
“Don’t take that to mean we are only against the BJP or fully behind one party,” Mohammad Sameer, who answered the boy’s question, says. “Kejriwal has at least not tried to divide people. Whatever work he has done — schools, hospitals, bill waivers — are for people of every community. The BJP has singled Muslims out as the enemy. Don’t they understand it will only hurt the country?” says Sameer.
By now, a crowd has gathered. An elderly man says: “Do you ever remember a poll campaign where one group of people was so viciously, consistently demonised? More than its political opponents, the BJP was fighting us.”
“The Muslim vote is actually the easiest to win. No one has done anything for us. We’ll vote for anyone who says they care about us. But in the BJP’s worldview, that’s apparently just not an option. It’s not Muslims who are against the BJP. It is the BJP that seems to have decided it is against Muslims,” says Mohammed Kafeel.
Just then, a man barges out of the tent. Even behind his spectacles and the black band around his mouth, it’s clear he’s livid. He gesticulates at the ‘silent protest’ signs. The crowd immediately scatters, looking shamefaced.
“Look to what lengths people are going to ensure no wrong message goes out. We are damned if we support a party, doomed if we oppose one,” Kafeel says, speaking softer now.
He continues: “More than anything else, this protest is about making sure our voice isn’t silenced forever. And by ‘our’, I mean any community not currently enjoying the ruling party’s favours. If the BJP loses today, we will know at least our fellow citizens understand our concerns. That even if they vote for BJP at the Centre, they aren’t blinded by hatred for us. There will be no celebration at Shaheen Bagh irrespective of the poll results. But as a citizen, I will celebrate the rejection of negative, divisive politics, as I think every sensible Indian will.”
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