t all began on December 15, 2019, when the Delhi police broke into Jamia Millia Islamia, one of India’s premier universities, and brutally assaulted students peacefully protesting the controversial Citizen (Amendment) Act that redefines Indian citizenship on the basis of religion. CCTV footage from inside Jamia’s Zakir Hussain Library shows police forcibly entering and randomly beating students immersed in study. An estimated 26 million rupees worth of damage occurred, and the library remained closed for three months due to the physical devastation. 

  Jamia Alumni Releases Video Of Cops Attacking Students In Library | WION News | World News

Jamia, as Dr. Zakir Hussain—the library’s namesake and one of Jamia’s founders—put it, “promote[s] the national integration of Indian Muslims, who will be proud to take part in the future progress of India.” The shattered windows and battered bookcases represented an infrastructural assault on this model. In the days that followed, thousands of Muslim women in the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, located just south of Jamia, launched an indefinite protest that operated as a counter-infrastructure of care. Stretching for 101 days until India’s national coronavirus lockdown was initiated on March 24th, Shaheen Bagh was an assembly of indignant bodies that entered the field of violence in order to stop it. As an insurgent political imaginary that some have called the most powerful citizenship movement since Indian Independence, Shaheen Bagh continues to posit a counter-reality to violence’s realism.

The round-the-clock protest began when a small group of women connected to Jamia called their neighbors onto the street to join them in a peaceful sit-in. Saima Khan, a 33-year-old woman who helped organize communications for this leaderless movement, told journalist Rajvi Desai: “After Jamia, there’s no more fear in our hearts. There’s no future for our children now; our lives are meaningless, except for Shaheen Bagh.” Women from the neighborhood joined first, followed by others from the wider district and city, and then others from surrounding states.

An extensive encampment emerged, a localized social network that weighed into collective social and spatial reproduction, exploding into something bigger. Ringed by a wall of men, thousands of Muslim women filled a billowing tent, delivering cries for justice and songs of peace. They sat in protest, most of them seven-days a week, sending echoes of their call for azaadi/freedom around the country. Out of the bare existence of a community living on the street, a platform emerged for transforming women’s everyday carework into a new secular infrastructure, a reparative commons taking citizenship as such as its material terrain. The tasks of keeping children at hand, preparing meals, and tidying the home normally carried out as private affairs were turned into extroverted webs of mutual support. These webs came to extend across the nation, with dozens of “Shaheen Baghs” popping up across the country to care for those living through the ruins of secular citizenship and to confront the violence of Hindu majoritarianism enshrined in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA). Through an ethical stylization of embodiment, the so-called “brave women of Shaheen Bagh” performed citizenship as the act of persisting in the face of an attack on the conditions of persistence.

Shaheen Bagh, as both a network of urban occupations and a political imaginary, models what Sharik Laliwala calls a new vernacularised secularism ascendant in Muslim political fora. This is represented in such “post-Islamist” rituals as the reading of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, the display of the Indian flag, and the use of portraits of prominent non-Muslim democratic leaders, such as B. R. Ambedkar and M. K. Gandhi, alongside religious iconography. One Shaheen Bagh banner played on a song from Guru Dutt’s classic film Pyaasa (1957): “Jinhe naaz hain Hind par, woh kahaan hain? Yahaan hain… Yahaan hain… Yahaan hai” (Those proud of India, where are they? They are here, they are here, they are here!). Shaheen Bagh shows this trend to be as much a material as a representational innovation, though, with the social reproductive labor and political power of Muslim women placed front and center under the Indian flag. Alongside inter-faith prayers, Shaheen Bagh built a community kitchen, a blanket depot to manage Delhi’s frigid winter, a street library for children to maintain their studies, and an open-air art gallery. A designated space for offering namaz was set up. Iftar was served for fasting women.

Sikh farmers from Punjab find shelter at Shaheen Bagh, February 8, 2020. Source: Amdadul Hoque Topu

When a caravan of buses carrying hundreds of Sikh farmers traveling from Punjab to join the protest was blocked by the police, Shaheen Bagh women fired up their stoves and escorted the weary travelers to the protest site, layed out bedrolls, served them a hot meal, and opened the mosque for bathing. One day, the owners of a restaurant sent biryani for the protestors; another day, a meat trader delivered provisions. The police on duty were also offered biryani and kebabs, even when they tried to block the deliveries that went into their meal’s making.

These makeshift infrastructures sustained thousands of people for months. They also produced a makeshift community—not in the sense of a temporary or insecure network, but in Abdoumaliq Simone’s (2017) sense of being rooted in an improvisational mode of becoming, a prefigurative citizenship not defined by identity papers or religion. Shaheen Bagh performed a “transformative ethos” of care circulated within infrastructures (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 100) that both made evident the democratic deficit in existing infrastructural arrangements and operated as a demand to institutionalize the democratizing impulse it advanced. It functioned as what Ashraful Alam and Donna Houston (2020) call a “care collective,” or a social form in which care operates as an infrastructure holding together diverse coalitions of “haves” and “have-nots,” affirming the interrelationality implicit in the model of citizenship—what prominent lawyer Karuna Nundy calls the “camaraderie of citizens” addressed in the Indian constitution. As an intervention into the material conditions of livability, Shaheen Bagh was and still is a platform for reparative urban citizenship posited as a means of challenging damaged national citizenship.

Until the mid-1980s, the predominantly Muslim locality of Jamia Nagar within which Shaheen Bagh falls was a barely populated grassland with but a few Jamia professors’ houses scattered about. After the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the area grew rapidly as Muslims moved there in fear of falling victim to the same Hindu mob violence their Sikh neighbors had experienced. After the controversial demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh in 1992 and the communal riots that shook the nation thereafter, Jamia Nagar’s population growth accelerated as Muslim ghettoization deepened through the systematic exclusion of Muslim families from mixed neighborhoods (Gayer and Jaffrellot 2011). Islamophobia, expressed as the Hindu-majoritarian treatment of neighbors as fictive kin, has been so deeply spatialized into the Indian city that it has taken visceral root in the senses, with mundane “offenses”—such as the smell of meat—acquiring deep moral valences of Muslim invasion (Ghassem-Fachandi 2012). The CAA and the associated National Register of Citizens simply map the majoritarian sentiment that biryani doesn’t belong onto national citizenship, extending the politics of neighborhood exclusion onto the conditions of national belonging.

The material unmaking of urban citizenship for Muslims has been a direct consequence of this affective order. Despite the considerable presence of a Muslim middle class there, the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, for example, lacks potable water and a government school. Every year the shoddy drainage infrastructure means monsoon rains flood homes with sewage. Residents manually clean out pipes, a material reminder of the systemic disinvestment and municipal disconnect they face (cf. Anand 2012). The remedial forms of material provisioning, carrying water, running backup generators, stringing lights, pooling kitchen resources, and shuffling chairs and beds at the occupation site were thus not incidental to a place like Shaheen Bagh. They should be seen as part of a learned “make+shift” (Simone 2017) practice of confronting constantly mutating forms of Muslim marginalization, or the relegation of Muslim life to a zone of non-being. They are a spatial claim that we are here, we belong; they are a physical materialization of a life made to matter through its imposition on the sphere of appearance. 

“No CAA” graffiti on a police barricade outside Shaheen Bagh on January 8, 2020. Source: DTM/CC

Confronted with this infrastructure of care, the Delhi police weaponized infrastructural disconnect, targeting the vital systems sustaining Shaheen Bagh by setting up blockades that cut off road access, water tanker supply, and sometimes electricity. This was justified by characterizing the encampment, a force pushing back against violence, as itself a violent affront to public order. The chain of justifications grew weekly. The protest must move to a park—although there is none in the area—to preserve the public’s right of way and urban normalcy, the police asserted. Shaheen Bagh is nothing but a “mini Pakistan” aimed at keeping the Indian law out, declared Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra. Such a cohesive mobilization could not possibly be the work of Muslim women, who must be mindlessly following the command of more nefarious men or foreign agents, the mainstream media openly speculated. Finally, Shaheen Bagh in the time of COVID-19 came to be seen itself as a viral outbreak, “terrorists on a suicide mission,” a health scourge to be eradicated. And so, the power of law, institutional or vigilante, had to reclaim the mantle of “the people” for the bahumat—the majority.

As Thomas Blom Hansen notes, Hindu majoritarianism operates precisely as the capacity to stage bahumat as its own type of moral force. Launching “a riot or a protest of some sort, either against a public institution or another community/hostile neighbours,” he argues, has become an increasingly influential practice of making a moral sphere of influence visible. In a fragmented public sphere founded, as Clare Talwalker (2009) puts it, on a “kin fetishism”—an imagined world of intimacy against which stands a threatening field of “stranger sociality in metropolitan areas”—the dominant political vernacular becomes the performance of “a collective sentiment/anger that threatens public order.” This is the opposite of care, in other words, with crowds “an evermore powerful currency of political transaction in India. The bigger the crowd, the stronger the argument.”

Shaheen Bagh represents a wholly different sort of staging, one that harnesses the moral force of care for those imagined to be outside a singular world of intimacy defined by religion, caste, or language. As an occupation, it threatened not public disorder—a point recognized by the Supreme Court, which refused multiple petitions to remove the protestors for obstructing traffic—but majoritarian singularities. As an ongoing political imaginary, it stages a relationality that holds those of different communities together in the face of accusations that their very being-together is disorder. The assembly at Shaheen Bagh was not a crowd at all in this sense. It was a community defined by a commitment to make visible the violence that defines its members’ very conditions of being. Its visible presence as an imputed “disordered being” was the threat to majoritarian order; it was a force against that order, a sign of a capacity to reorder.

The denigration of, false propaganda against, and infrastructural assault on Shaheen Bagh show just how clearly the hegemonic powers of denied care—Hindutva—understood the counter-visuality of Shaheen Bagh to be. To shut it down, deny the relationality it invoked, and re-inscribe citizenship as a masculinist play of demographic numbers and neighborhood representation—to re-assert bahumat as political currency—is the logic of majoritarian power. Witness the February 2019 Delhi riots.

On February 23, Kapil Mishra—the BJP leader who had earlier characterized Shaheen Bagh as a mini Pakistan—stood with a band of supporters in Maujpur, where an anti-CAA protest modeled on Shaheen Bagh was taking place, and issued an ultimatum to the police—either clear out the demonstrators or his followers would do it themselves. Over the following week, Hindu supremacist mobs stormed Muslim-majority neighborhoods in Northeast Delhi, areas not-incidentally where the BJP had just won some of its few state assembly seats (in contrast to Shaheen Bagh, which like most of Delhi was won by the less-communal Aam Aadmi Party). 52 people died (the majority of whom were Muslim), 545 were injured, 226 houses were severely damaged, 487 shops were gutted, and 14 mosques were left desecrated. In riot-affected Gokulpuri, Ananya Bhardwaj reported that a group of 200 people gathered around a Muslim cemetery armed with hammers, sickles and axes. “On one call, all of them raised their tools and struck the building’s boundary wall. ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ they said, and struck again.” No police emerged, despite the action taking place adjacent to the area police station, so their assault continued on the gravestones inside, after which they set fire to two shops that had “Khan” written on them. 

Charred cars in Shiv Vihar, one of the riot-stricken areas in Northeast Delhi, after mobs set fire to the area on February 27, 2020. Source: Banswalhemant/CC

In the face of considerable evidence of police collusion with the protestors, the Ministry of Home Affairs (under the BJP-led central government), which oversees the Delhi police, stated that the police were unable to prevent the attacks because the neighborhoods were unnavigable. The narrow lanes, dense settlement structure, and lack of signage and street lighting in Muslim-majority neighborhoods—the very product of infrastructural disconnect—was here offered as the basis for the withdrawal of state protection. “Little Pakistan” was left outside the sphere of Indian law. Jai Shri Ram! By reaffirming the Muslim political subject as a body perpetually subject to gratuitous violence, the riots also showed that subject to be beyond the need for care, beyond a place within the national body, unworthy of citizenship. Shaheen Bagh and all places of visible Muslim urbanity must be denied relationality; this is the Hindutva stance on urban citizenship. This is its position of urbicide.

In the wake of the Delhi riots, residents in affected areas erected metal sheets, bamboo poles, and wooden boards as barricades to cordon off Hindu spaces from Muslim ones. A divided city has been reproduced. If Islamophobia gets spatialized through the masculinist performance of neighborhood bahumat—boys and men in streets asserting Hindu strength, testing for echoes of their chants of “Jai Shri Ram!”—then women-led infrastructures of care must be understood as a spatial claim to citizenship offered against the majoritarian claim that it is us vs. them, nationalists vs. anti-nationals, Hindus vs. Muslims. In exposing themselves to police power, Shaheen Bagh women put into play a style of persistence that holds the potential to defeat violence’s aim of pushing the marginalized into a permanent zone of non-being. Even after the physical encampment was broken down, their ethos of care endures—soon into the repair work that will become necessary in the wake of a coronavirus lockdown now communalizing biological life itself.


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D. Asher Ghertner is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Director of the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers University. He is the author of Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi (Oxford, 2015) and co-editor of Futureproof: Security Aesthetics and the Management of Life (Duke, 2020).

Stuti Govil is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on gender and public space in Delhi.