A sharp voice pierces through the noise of women chatting, girls giggling and infants bawling. The men are mostly on the margins.
“Aap logon ko bola tha paanch minute chup rehne ke liye; aap wo bhi nahi kar sakte? (I requested you to keep quiet for five minutes; can’t you even do that?)”
A hush descends. Humera Sayed (22) has effortlessly managed to silence a crowd comprising women more than twice her age. “The thing is, when I am on stage, I feel like I own it,” Sayed, pursuing BSc from Delhi University’s Gargi College, says later.
The stage is essentially a makeshift tarpaulin and wooden structure pitched on a busy thoroughfare in Shaheen Bagh. And the audience — a mass of women, with children in tow, unruffled by the biting cold.
While protests at other places such as Mandi House and Jantar Mantar have come and gone in waves, the women of Shaheen Bagh have been unrelenting, having vowed not to withdraw their agitation until CAA is “rolled back” or the Centre “promises not to implement NRC”.
From the stage, there are no fiery speeches, loud sloganeering or flag waving. Instead, speakers regale the audience with poetry, songs and plays, while a projector occasionally plays documentaries.
“We are not here to oppose anything. We are here to uphold our Constitution, the only holy book, the Constitution of Ambedkar. We are telling people that the book is being tinkered with and we won’t let that happen,” Sayed, who lives in Shaheen Bagh, says.
Asked whether the elders, especially men, take offence to her admonishing them, Sayed says, “Instead, people ring me up when I don’t turn up.”
Explaining why women are leading the charge here, Adeela, a homemaker, says, “More than anything else, NRC will have a devastating impact on families. We hold our families together. More than the men, women from families with limited means are vulnerable in terms of not having proper documents to establish their identity, let alone descent.”
Shakeela Bano says the visuals of Delhi Police assaulting students of Jamia Millia Islamia left many women in the area shaken, drawing them to the protest site. “The women of the families are taking turns. Some come and sit here during the day, some in the evening, and some sit through the night. It’s not easy, but necessary,” she adds.
Musarrat, sitting on the staircase of a large garments showroom overlooking the protest, also stresses on “saving families from being torn apart”.
“We have relatives in Assam and have heard how flawed the system is. The spelling of my name differs from one identify card to another, which is the case for many in this country. Tomorrow, in the event of an NRC, what do I do? And (Home Minister) Amit Shah has told a channel that even Aadhaar and voter IDs won’t be accepted,” she says.
Performances on the stage are punctuated by announcements urging the gathering to avoid speaking to the media in case one lacks clarity on NRC or CAA.
“When someone asks you, tell them you are fighting for the spirit of the Constitution. It’s not a Muslim issue. It’s an issue for the entire country,” the organisers announce.
A part of the anxiety voiced by the women stems from Shah’s utterances on NRC — nearly every woman here has seen his speeches in video clips that have gone viral on social media.
“Shah has time and again said NRC will be conducted across the country. When triple talaq was abolished, we gave him the benefit of doubt thinking he must’ve done something good. But not this time,” Musarrat says.
While political faces such as Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, CPM leader Brinda Karat and former Congress MLA Asif Mohammed Khan have stopped by the gathering, the coordination work is being done by Aasif Mujtaba (30), a PhD scholar at IIT Delhi.
Under Mujtaba, around six groups of volunteers take care of the safety of women, preventing the entry of dubious elements, providing medical aid, arranging food and bedding for those staying overnight.
At night, when the performances end, the organisers screen films using a projector. On Tuesday, Lion of the Desert, a film set during the reign of Italian dictator Mussolini, was screened.
Groups of policemen posted in the area keep an eye on the gathering from a distance. Locals said many shopkeepers have approached the police to clear the road, citing loss of business. The protest has blocked a key stretch —Kalindi Kunj Road— linking the densely populated Shaheen Bagh with the satellite township of Noida for 10 days and 11 nights.
Around 12.30 am, as the gathering starts to thin out, some women stay back “to ensure police do not clear the area overnight”. Many head home through the alleys, playing video clips they recorded through the evening.
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