Friday, October 23, 2020
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Biryani and steaming tea: Inside a sit-in protest on an Indian highway

 In a working-class corner of southern Delhi, a nearly kilometre-long stretch of a wide, six-lane highway that connects India’s capital city to a burgeoning suburb has been blockaded for 10 days.

A crowd of several hundred – the number ebbs and flows – has taken over the stretch, staging the occupation to protest against a new citizenship law and a proposed citizens register that has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets across the country.

Many men and women, some of them in Muslim burqa robes, and accompanied by children, spend their entire day and often nights here, eating, sleeping, praying, singing – all in protest.

India has been rocked by demonstrations since December 12, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that provides non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who moved here before 2015 a pathway to Indian citizenship.

Some of these protests have turned violent, leaving at least 21 people dead in clashes with police.

But Shaheen Bagh’s occupation is entirely non-violent. It is intricately organised, masterminded by two young engineers trained at the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – Aasif Mujtaba and Sharjeel, who gave only one name.

From the maze-like, Muslim-dominated neighbourhood that flanks one side of the highway, a volunteer group of more than 100 men and women run the site, working in shifts and providing everything from crowd-control and food to bedding and medicines.

“What we intend to achieve is to inspire communities across India, who are against this act, that they block their own cities, so India comes to a halt,” said Sharjeel.

Siddharth Saxena, an accountant from a Hindu family, is one of the handful handling the occupation’s money.

Local residents have entrusted him with 10,000 Indian rupees ($140), most of which have gone on banners and stationery, he said.

But many times that amount has come via donations made in kind, including dozens of mattresses, an assortment of tables that form the foundation of the stage and endless cups of steaming tea that provide warmth on cold winter days.

As the occupation draws on, both Mujtaba and Sharjeel are aware of the risks they face, the possibility of legal action and even their careers getting derailed. But both seem to have accepted the consequences.

(Production: Anushree Fadnavis, Sunil Kataria)

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