The first round of talks between the protesters at Shaheen Bagh and Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors ended at the same point where the protests began 66 days ago — a demand for the repeal of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA.
Hundreds congregated at Road No. 13 A on Wednesday — an unusual sight on the afternoon of a week day — after they learnt that the Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors, senior lawyers Sanjay Hegde and Sadhana Ramachandran, would be visiting the protest site. Calling for a “balance”, the apex court noted on Monday that while people had the right to protest in a democracy, they should not be blocking roads.
The protests at Shaheen Bagh, which began on December 15, have blocked one of the main connections between Delhi and satellite city Noida, causing problems for thousands of commuters. They are protesting a law that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for persecuted non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The law has become controversial with protests against it around the country. In the Northeast, the protests are from the fear that the law will legitimise outsiders in an area scarce in resources. Some of the protests are against the non-inclusive and non-secular nature of the law, which has been challenged in the apex court. And some are out of the fear that the law will be used in tandem with a National Register of Citizens, although the government has said there are no immediate plans for the latter.
“We are all citizens here and the solution has to be found by us,” said Ramachandran, addressing the protesters near the stage area. The two mediators began the process for dialogue by reading the SC order on the matter, and insisting they were present to “hear the protesters” and not for making any “decision.” After asking media personnel to leave the site, the interlocutors asked the protesters to cite their grievances and demands .
Three elderly women, who have been protesting since day one and have emerged as faces of the protest, were the first ones to speak. “The blockade will not end till CAA is repealed. People come here with guns, who will take the responsibility of our safety [if we open even one side of the road]. A 90-year-old is sitting here, along with other women and children, to fight for our Constitution and we will remain here till that fight continues,” said Asma, one of the oldest protesters.
Her reference to guns stems from the arrest of two people with guns at the protest site.
Other protestors pointed out that the site covers only a 200-metre stretch of Road 13 A. “It is the police who have blocked other areas of the road in the name of security. If the blockade is causing inconvenience, why not open the other barricades near Kalindi Kunj and Sarita Vihar?” asked 75-year-old Sarwari.
Some of the women also raised issues related to the violence at Jamia Millia Islamia which injured several students, including those who are residents of Shaheen Bagh.
After listening to their grievances, Ramachandran pointed out, “Everybody has rights in a democracy. You have the right to protest, and others too have the right to access hospitals, schools, and earn livelihoods.”
Hearing her, a woman in the audience muttered disapprovingly, “She has come just for the roads [blockade].” But others were more receptive. “Our belief in democracy has strengthened after the Supreme Court sent you to talk to us. We have been sitting here for over two months and nobody came to speak to us. We were called anti-nationals,” said Fatima, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia. The young protester said that moving from the protest site would mean a loss of bargaining power.
“When they didn’t listen to us while we were sitting out here in the cold for over two months, how is it possible that they will listen to our demands when we move [to an alternative protest site]?” she asked.
Another undergraduate student, Zainab, broke down while speaking to the mediators. “The government has consistently asked us to not be scared [of the CAA]. How is that possible when they use words like “goli maaro” . This is blatant ‘otherization’.”
“We have been at the receiving end of provocative slurs. There has been a constant vilification campaign against us that we protest to get money. Shouldn’t these statements be probed?”
Hearing the two young protesters speak with such emotion, Hegde said, “I am moved by what you said and the clarity it had. Your speech reminded me of the saying that liberty lies in the hearts of men and women.”
Prakash Devi, another protester, pointed out that the law is against all marginalised people. “The ones who brought this law said Shaheen Bagh was a mini-Pakistan. But this is India and it shows that we aren’t divided. We believe in the rights of all who want to go to school, hospital or their work because we too do the same. But this is a bigger fight. The road will be cleared as soon as the government takes back the unconstitutional law.”
The meeting lasted for about two hours following which the mediators said they would visit the protest site on Thursday as well. “We have had a fruitful first meeting with the protestors at Shaheen Bagh. It is very important for aggrieved parties to be heard. Everyone expressed their confidence as joint citizens of this country, a feasible solution could be found. We thank all the participants in the interaction for their discipline,” they said in a statement.
“We are also thankful to Wajahat Habibullah for his support during this mediation process and for his petition in the Supreme Court,” said a Tweet from the official handle of the Shaheen Bagh organisers later in the evening.
Meanwhile, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) IT cell chief Amit Malviya shared a video on Twitter and alleged that activist Teesta Setalvad was “tutoring” the protesters “on what questions to ask the interlocutors.” The protesters said Setalvad had come to express her solidarity with the movement.
Calling Malviya’s allegations “demeaning and a diversion”, Setalvad said, “Can anyone dare suggest that women who have sat through Delhi’s bitter cold for 65 days can be tutored?”