New Delhi: Among all the anti-CAA protests, the Shaheen Bagh protest with the predominance of women became a phenomenon. It was hailed as an extraordinary example of nonviolent protest; so much so that it was described by a well known sociologist as an action bigger both in its magnitude and in its purpose than Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Renowned academician historian, Prof Romila Thapar made a special visit to the place; it became a pilgrimage for many as it acquired international, almost a global profile as a certified Gandhian Satyagraha against a “fascist” government.

Had it been like any other peaceful protests, long or short, it would have been a routine anti-government protest, a necessity for the health of a democracy. But a few worrying features of Shaheen Bagh protest distinguish it from all other protests of recent times and attract a critical attention of anyone trying to understand protests, particularly peaceful and nonviolent protests—of the real, cosmetic, and the deceptive varieties.

The features that attract less than needed attention are invisible leadership and organisational structure; the considerable financing that it must have required and yet it looked voluntary and spontaneous—a Sikh gentleman selling his house in order to feed the protesters, the only highlighted instance of its financing. There was an extraordinary predominance of women participation, not of the activist type who have facility, finance and time, but the ordinary women whom we call “housewives”, who can hardly take out even an hour for anything other than household duties and occasional or periodic temple or mosque visits.

I became curious because of the unusual knee-jerk response to my very normal questions—as if a raw nerve was touched! On showing my surprise at such a unique phenomenon and wondering how all the costs involved were being managed, I was met with strange comments. My being a Gandhian was questioned, I was lumped with RSS, though all I had said was that it was a phenomenon worth studying and that there was something mysterious about it. I have respected and sided with people’s right to protest peacefully, while abhorring government’s majoritarianism. In the matter of Shaheen Bagh, profiled out of all proportions as a never-before satyagraha, I was not doubting its declared purpose; I became doubtful as I witnessed a lot of anti-Modi-Shah people scoffing at any critical inquiry or comment on Shaheen Bagh. Anger is the other side of the fear for questions. You fear criticism when you have something to hide.


Besides the other unusual features, the most unassuming though a unique name of the Bagh, “Shaheen”, not for a Delhi protest spot alone, but, curiously enough, in other places too, must catch our attention; the most outstanding, baffling, in fact alarming feature that rings bells. Combined with it is the overwhelming participation of a section of women with steadfast commitment, so much that a mother, instead of taking her infant baby to the doctor or tending it at home, saw the child die as she sat through the protest. Such sacrifices are mostly known to be made not for a political end; they are certainly known to be made to religious ends or to religio-political ends. Add to this the way they continued their protest when the entire world was trying to fight the coronavirus, by one singular way of people locking up in homes, when public gathering was a sure disaster for humanity.

“Shaheen”, meaning falcon, was created as a metaphor and powerfully used in his poetry by no less than a great poet and visionary of an Islamic Pakistani state, Alama Iqbal. He used it as a metaphor for self-discovery and self-respect—“khudi” and “khuddari”—high virtues for any. Shaheen’s sharp vision sees beyond what the ordinary can see; it is the most fearless of all birds; Shaheen eats what it preys itself.

Allama Iqbal moved from Indian nationalism to Islamic nationalism; from a spiritual awakening of Muslims to a political awakening of Muslims; from integrity of all religions and all people of India to an idea of the integrity solely of Islamic national awakening; from unity of men to unity of the Islamic community or the concept of an Islamic form of government. The Shaheen or falcon metaphor was the basis of the Two Nation theory and the creation of Pakistan; and Indian unity was the kill for the falcon. Iqbal was thus called the “Mufakkir-e-Pakistan”—“Thinker of Pakistan”. The “Shaheen” of Iqbal thus became a powerful symbol, an inspirational metaphor for the Two Nation warriors.

Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, 40 women stormed a police station, smashed windows etc., to protest against the arrest of two SIMI activists. SIMI leader Safdar Nagori is believed to be the creator of Shaheen Women Force and training 400 activists including women in Murshidabad of Bengal. In an interview with Sayantan Chakravarty in April 2001, five months before SIMI was banned by the government, Safdar Nagori expressed his views: “…When we are told that there is a rashtrapita [Father of the Nation] in Gandhiji, and another great statesman in Jawaharlal Nehru, we feel it is a direct attack on our fundamentals. Nehru wanted Muslims to recognize Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani as our Prophet. He was forcing us to alter our religious belief and we have no regard for such a man.” In response to the statement “you have openly eulogized Osama bin Laden not once, but dozens of times”, he replied: “We believe that he has shown great character in standing up to the Americans, the biggest terrorists in the world.”

What took place during and after Donald Trump’s visit were clearly moves of a hidden but well trained and organized force with an advance planning and coordination doing multiple functions and involving many functionaries. The way it was timed to coincide with Trump’s visit raises serious doubts. No truly pro-BJP force would time it like that.

In the end I would repeat my initial question about the name and the why and how of a “non violent”, “Gandhian”, anti-CAA protest allowing itself, without any resistance, to be marred all too often by violence. Any genuine nonviolent movement would have been immediately suspended even if they were not ready to risk their lives by inter-positioning—stand like a wall—between the attacker and the attacked. Were it nonviolent, such a response in order to save the legitimacy of their cause could have been an evidence of their genuineness. Any non violent force would have been humble enough to suspend its action, instead the Shaheen Bagh protests continued without any display of responsibility. Genuine satyagrahis have a sense of responsibility

It was a protest subsidized by the government, because it allowed them to break law without punishment; by around three million commuters who spent extra hours daily to travel the same distance to work and back home; and by more than hundreds of shopkeepers who lost their businesses for more than 90 days because of the place and space occupied by the protesters.

The protest should be a matter of serious investigation. It must be added that “Hindu” outfits taking to violence only help the communal divide upon which thrives radicalization and national insecurity. The ideals and ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, with their emphasis on the one-ness of humanity and the unity of the subcontinent, seemed far away from what was witnessed at Shaheen Bagh, including by an administration that seemed powerless to either determine the truth and to act against those who sought once again to fan the Two Nation flames celebrated by Allama Iqbal

Rajiv Vora is a prominent Gandhian, and former Editor: Gandhi Marg and Chairman, Swaraj Peeth Trust