Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

India’s Anti-Citizenship Act Protests Inspires and Politicises a Generation

, by KUMAR Sunil

In the winter of 2019, a group of Muslim women protesting the new citizenship amendment act at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi soon became the face of the resistance. Shaheen Bagh fuelled similar protests across the country, brought together social movements, trade unions, and politicized ordinary citizens.

A highly controversial amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 was rammed through the Indian Parliament by the National Democratic Alliance government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and immediately given assent by the President of India on the night of the 12th December 2019. Contrary to the original Act, in the new Act, religion was made a fundamental basis for granting citizenship. The provisions included that the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who migrated to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan due to religious oppression up to 31st December, 2014, will be granted citizenship. The provisions did not include the Muslim migrants. This sparked a wide fear among the Muslims and outrage in general across the country, in the light of the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in the North Eastern State of Assam. The final results of the NRC exercise, released on 31st August 2019, undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court, had left the citizenship of 1.9 million people in doubt in Assam. The majority of them Muslims. They had to submit additional documents to prove their citizenship, and failure to do so risked prison in specially constructed detention centres or deportation, without a plan to which country.

In Assam, massive protests started immediately after the passage of the law in the Parliament, leading to the death of 3 protesters in police firing on 12th December and two others in related incidents. A total of 430 anti-CAA protest-related cases were registered, and 573 people were arrested across the state.

Shaheen Bagh roads filled with slogans and graffiti.
Credit : Priya Puthoor’s facebook.

In Delhi, the students of Jamia Milia Islamia University started the protest on Campus on 13th December. On 15th December, students and citizens began a march to Jantar Mantar, the designated protest venue in Central Delhi near the Parliament. They were stopped by the police, leading to a clash between demonstrators and the police at the gate of the University. The police used force and broke the entrance gate lock to enter the University Campus without an official order. In a shocking display of brute force, police broke the library’s doors and windows and beat the students studying there mercilessly. They used tear gas shells to push out the students from the library, with their hands raised in surrender. Police also beat up the people offering Namaz (prayers) in the mosque, situated outside the University campus and broke the vehicles parked there. Many students suffered injuries and were rushed to the nearby hospitals. Police also detained more than 50 students and continued to conduct searches in the Hostels. A Research Scholar Shahzad, demonstrated nakedly at Gate No. 7 of the University against such atrocities of the police in the freezing winter cold. Shahzad’s protest was inspired by Gandhian Satyagraha - giving pain to self to protest the state repression.

This cruel repression of the students incensed their family members, friends and relations. Teachers’ union of Jamia University and local people came forward to support the students. The vice-chancellor of the University, Nazma Akhtar, blamed the police for illegally entering the Campus, registered her protest to the government, and threatened to go to the Court with a demand to file cases against the police. The University was forced to shut down earlier for the winter vacation and opened only on 5th January 2020. The violent incident sparked anger across the country and led to immediate solidarity protests on other university campuses.

It also mobilized the immediate neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, a largely lower-middle working-class area in South East Delhi, which had its children going to the University. This led to the beginning of more organized protests by students, guardians and ordinary people against the CAA-NRC at Jamia University Gate and in Shaheen Bagh. By 25th December, the protesters at Shaheen Bagh blocked a significant section of the road 17A connecting Mathura Road in Delhi to Noida across the Yamuna, and drew massive crowds from across the city. The all-day and night sit-in organized by the Muslim women and ordinary citizens received support from justice and pro-democracy intellectuals, common citizens, trade unions, social movements, farmers groups and even film actors and others.

This was unique because, for the first time, the much-derided poor, uneducated and burqa-clad women confined to their homes were leading a protest and were joined by women from other religions, Christian nuns, students, workers and farmers from across the country. Muslim women of all ages were taking part in the movement. The movement broke the myth that Muslim women are not allowed to go out of their homes. Bilkis Dadi (grandmother) of Shaheen Bagh, 82 years old, sat there regularly and became a symbol of resistance, challenging the Prime Minister, ‘we are Hindustan [1] by birth. I can recollect the names of many generations of my forefathers. Can you tell the same of yours?” She was included by the ‘Time’ Magazine in the top 100 influential people of 2020. The police beyond barricading the roads didn’t know how to stop the young children, mothers, grandmothers from coming there every day and evicting this massive crowd.


The energy generated by the Shaheen Bagh movement inspired the sit-in and demonstrations against CAA-NRC at many places of Delhi, such as Khuriji, Jafarabad, Kardampuri, old Mustafabad, Wajeerabad, Turkman Gate, Inderlok and Hauzrani. Muslim women were at the forefront of all these sites, something never seen before. The ordinary women of Bhalswa – a resettlement colony, also organized daily candle marches against CAA- NRC after coming from their workplace. The women called themselves ‘Shaheen’ of Shaheen Bagh. Everyone wanted to be recognized as ‘Shaheen’. Shaheen is the Persian word for the bird falcon, known for its speed, and the phrase ‘falcon spirit’, meaning awakening one’s mind, being vigilant and transforming for the better. The people gathered at Shaheen Bag celebrated New Year Day and Republic Day on 26th January like festivals and collectively read the Preamble of Indian Constitution – ‘We the people of India’. They reiterated their claim to the values of the socialist, secular and democratic Republic and warned the government hellbent on changing the secular fabric of the country. The widespread use of the national flag at the protest site was also an act to reclaim it from the right-wing goons who used it as a license to attack minorities in the name of cow protection and strike terror in the name of nationalism.

The movement against CAA-NRC spread to other parts of the Country at Ghanta Ghar (Lucknow), Mansur Ali Park (Allahabad), Md. Ali Park (Kanpur), Aligarh Muslim University (Aligarh), Idgah Maidan (Deoband), Islamia College (Bareilly) in the state of Uttar Pradesh; Motihari, Gopalganj, Patna, Madhubani, and Gaya in the state of Bihar; and Nagpur, Pune, Nanded, and Aurangabad in the State of Maharashtra. Demonstrations were also organized in Hyderabad, Bhopal Indore, Kolkata, Kochin, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, and Kota. In all these demonstrations, the participation of women was overwhelming, who called themselves Shaheen. Their slogan of resistance was – Ham kagaz nahin dikhayenge (we will not show our papers); we are Hindustani not by paper, but by blood. It was a real awakening for them.

Ham Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge by Varun Grover

Dictators will come and go
The NRC papers, we won’t show.

You blind us with teargas
You poison our waters
That our love will sweeten
And we will drink it all in a go.

The NRC papers, we won’t show
The NRC papers we won’t show.

This nation is all we got
Where Ramprasad is also Bismil
How will you divide the motherland?
That has blood and sacrifice of every Indian.

Raise your batons all you can
Shut down every train you can
We will walk we will flow
The NRC papers, we won’t show.

We will pitch our tents here
The NRC papers we won’t show
We will save the Constitution before we go
The NRC papers we won’t show.

We will sing the national anthem bro
The NRC papers we won’t show
You will try to divide us by caste and religion
United we will keep demanding food and truth
The NRC papers we won’t show
The NRC papers we won’t show.

Fatima Sheikh and Saviti Lbirary at Protest site, 2020.
Credit : Joe Athialy.

It was not easy to reach the protest venue at Shaheen Bagh by the main road, because the police had barricaded the protest place. The only way to reach Shaheen Bagh was to get off at Jasola – Shaheen Bagh Metro Station and walk there on foot or by E-Rikshaws, who offered free rides to those who couldn’t afford to pay. The Bus Stand at the protest side turned into a children’s activity centre and a library, named after Fatima Sheikh and Savitri Bai Phule, two 18th century women educationists, celebrated as a symbol of Dalit and Muslim feminism. Many donated the books of famous and radical authors Premchand, Shaheed Udham Singh, Dr. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Ismat Chughtai, Ramchandra Guha and others in English, Hindi and Urdu languages.

The walls on both sides of the road were plastered with posters, wall writings, graffiti against CAA-NRC, issues facing the country, and people’s resistance against them. A photo of Dr Ambedkar [2] with the slogan – “Save constitution - Save India” was found at many places. The atmosphere at the protest site was festive and an occasion to engage in debate, discussion, and meet. At the volunteer’s camp, cultural workshops, painting, wall writing workshops and other activities were regularly organized. There was space for tired volunteers to rest, men and women together, without feeling unsafe. Creative and revolutionary slogans and graffiti emerged; one such read, “yahan kala dharne par hai, kahin sach kee hatya hui hai” (Art is on protest here, truth has been murdered somewhere).

Ordinary women added their unique difference from any other regular protests by bringing their children, sewing, knitting and other daily house chores. They not only were unashamed but would unapologetically announce from the stage that if someone needed a sweater to beat the cold, then go ahead and get some wool. The daily life and protests merged, making it a matter of life and death. That is also why the false propaganda by the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) that women sitting at the protest site were paid Rs 500-700 (6-8 euros) a day. Such malicious propaganda on the corporate media, social media by the BJP and their supporters couldn’t shake these protests.

On the boundary walls of the Jamia University too graffiti and wall writings describing the police repression, mob-lynching, resistance of Shaheen bagh, and the idea of a new university and India sprung up in due course of time, something more visible at the famous Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. The plastered hands of Jamia students in police violence featured in the graffiti and posters with the map of India accompanying the slogan, ‘Julmi jab jab julm karega satta ke hathiyaron se, chappa, chappa gunj uthega, inqualab ke naaron se’ (Whenever the oppressors will use the power of state to oppress people, then the slogan of long live revolution will reverberate everywhere.) These became a tool for mobilization but also for teaching revolutionary thought and education in the neighbourhood.

The picture of Ayesha and three other young female students shielding Shaheen, another male student, from the police batons and showing their fingers in defiance, looking in their eyes became the symbol of this resistance and flooded the social media and walls. Another caricature of this picture of Ayesha emerged in Jamia, where she is safeguarding the map of India (Bharat Mata [3]) from police batons. Similarly, a giant map of India with lights, visible from afar, shining in the darkness of night, was erected at the site. The map read: ‘We the People of India Reject CAA, NPR, NRC’. These created symbols, which left deep impressions on the minds of the people.

In the relay hunger strike, the students of Jamia sat with placards in their hands – ‘We have pens, not cartridges in our hands.’ They were guided by the legendary Indian revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, who was hanged by the British at the age of 23 years and famously said, ‘the main task of students is to study; they should devote their full attention towards this. But, should the knowledge of the situation of the country and the ability to think about improving it not be included in education? If not, I understand the education, which is only about making clerks, is useless.’


The movement inspired many to write, sing, create music, paint, express their anger, and get inspired. Many took to Twitter and other social media channels to popularise the struggle, counter the fake propaganda of the pliant Godi media [4] and BJP IT cell. The slogan of Azadi (freedom) reverberated the streets, and so did the song Ham Dekhenge (we will see) by famous Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Dastoor (tradition) by another famous Pakistani poet Habib Jalib. These were the songs of defiance and a counter to the right-wing threat to dissenting Indians to send them to Pakistan. The movement inspired young rappers and singers like Sumit Roy, Armaan, Poojan Shahil, Hussain Haidry, Ajiz Ansari and many others to compose and pen songs and poetry, which became a rage. Sumit Roy wrote ‘go protest’ after the police violence on Jamia students; Poojan Shahil’s Hindi version of ‘Bella Ciao’ inspired the youth, who were lost and confused with sudden spread of the hate, polarisation and questioning of every value they thought was good, democracy, secularism, brotherhood, religious harmony and so on. These young poets found new meaning to their songs and creativity through the daily conversations at Shaheen Bagh. The right-wing protests and disruptions of the solidarity protests in the city elsewhere were responded to by singing the national anthem, reading of preamble of the Indian Constitution and other songs.

The lyrics of some of these songs became an inspiration for slogans for the posters in the protests. Taking a dig at the worsening pollution in the city of Delhi, one poster read, ‘PM 2.0 is worse than PM 2.5.’ PM 2.0 refers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, starting in 2019. Trade unions, citizens organizations, feminist organizations and other civil society organizations of Delhi organized marches in other informal bastis/settlements and affluent localities such as Dwarka and Hauz Khas too. If police arrested demonstrators, people immediately mobilized and gheraoed (encircled) the police stations, and at times, the police headquarters demanding their release.

Booklets on CAA-NRC were published in 14 languages to make awareness among the people. When people were detained and arrested, youth advocates devoted their service to release them. Senior and experienced advocates published a special booklet for the young lawyers explaining the legal processes for detainees, conducting a medical examination under sections 57 and 91 of the Indian Penal Code etc. Advocates for their timely action and support to the protesters invited anger of the police and were targeted during the protests.

The protests further divided and polarised opinions in public and private spaces, as has been the case since Narendra Modi came to power. The rift was always there in the generally quieter and non-political Bollywood, where some young and vocal actors have spoken on issues of public concern in the past, but largely prominent and senior actors remain silent and occasionally appearing in government advertisement for public campaigns. In contrast, a vocal minority came in support of the government and its Hindutva agenda and a group openly opposed the CAA-NRC and supported the protests. About 300 film celebrities, like Nasiruddin Shah, Meera Nair, Swara Bhaskar gave an open statement against CAA-NRC and expressed solidarity with the protests. They said, “we salute the collective protest defending the diversity of society and the principles laid out in the Indian Constitution. We are aware that we are not always fulfilling the promises and remaining silent, even seeing injustices. However, today, the situation demands that we stand up for our principles and values.”

The resistance of Shaheen Bagh gave hope to a generation of young people and, most importantly, the Muslim women who took the agency into their hands. Shaheen Bagh showed a new culture of resistance, which touched many emotionally, culturally and politically. Shaheen Bagh became the symbol of resistance. Pandemic disrupted this momentum, but it gave momentum to discontent and hope. The farmer’s protest, which started in November 2020 is keeping this flame of resistance alive.

Nothing has been forgotten; everything is itched in the memory; the courage and resistance in the face of massive atrocities and repression, as is reflected in the poetry by young poet Aamir Aziz. He dedicated this influential poetry to Kashmir, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia University, Uttar Pradesh, JNU, Delhi and all those places where under cover of darkness, the cowards committed atrocities on the people.

Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega, Sab Kuch Yaad Rakha Jayega
(We will remember everything. We will remember it all)

You will ink down lies, we know it well.
May be with our blood, but plainly the truth will be written and published someday.
You could write the night, but we will write the moon.
If you put us in jail, we would jump over the walls and still write.
If you would lodge an FIR against us, we are all set to write about the injustice we are suffering from.
If you murder us, we will come as the ghosts and still write.
We will write mentioning the proofs unveiling the murders you have committed.
You may enjoy jokes sitting in the courts,
But we will ink the walls, and roads about justice we need.
We will speak loud enough so even hearing-impaired ones could hear us.
We will write clear enough so that blind ones could read it.
You could symbolize the black rose, but we will write about the red rose.
If you would oppress us on earth, in the afterlife the just will be done.
We will remember everything. We will not forget it at all.
The dearest friends of mine who you murdered with lathis (or sticks) & bullets;
In the remembrance of them, we will keep our hearts broken-down.

Poster on Shaheen Bagh
Credit unknown


[1India is also referred to as Hindustan by many people, a word representing the composite cultural rubric of the country.

[2Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891‑1956): One of the most prominent Indian leaders of the twentieth century, who founded the dalit discourse in Indian politics and helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India, a movement now known as neo-Buddhism. Also, as the first law minister of independent India and as the Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly for drafting of the Constitution of India, he is considered the ‘father’ of the Indian Constitution. He resigned from the post of law minister in 1951, following the stalling by Parliament of his draft of the Hindu Code Bill through which he sought to promote gender equality. His birth date, April 14, is now a public holiday in India and is known as Ambedkar Jayanti. As a sign of respect, many Indians use the title Babasaheb for him. “Jai Bhim!", referring to his first name, is used as a greeting among many Dalits and the progressive circles. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, the government of India’s highest civilian award.

[3Mother India or Bharat Mata has been used in popular discourse and anti-British struggles to refer to the country. However, BJP and RSS have appropriated it and given a religious tone and often used it to popularize the image of Hindu India. Personified as a mother goddess, dressed in a red or saffron-coloured sari and holding a national flag sometimes standing on a lotus and accompanied by a lion.

[4Godi Media literally meaning ’media sitting on lap’ or ’lapdog media’ also called Modia is a pejorative term coined and popularized by famous NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar, for the sensationalist and biased Indian print and TV news media, which supports the ruling NDA government. The term has become a common way to refer to television and other media that are perceived as mouthpieces of the ruling party in India.


Sunil Kumar is a political activist and writer. The article originally written in Hindi has been translated by Arjun Prasad Singh and edited by Madhuresh Kumar.