In an old story, the hoopoe called the birds of the earth to a great conference to decide what to do about the troubles of the world. “We need a leader,” said the hoopoe, “a king of kings.”
But the birds were hesitant- they had doubts, they had fears. Some were reluctant to give up their comforts; some couldn’t see further than the cages that surrounded them. One by one, the hoopoe guided them through their fears.
Finally, they took off. Filling all the corners of the world, they flew across deserts of crystal sand, mountain ranges, the spine of the earth, around seven planets, across seven oceans, until they reached seven valleys they would need to cross to reach the king of kings. Across the valleys, each ascent and descent raised questions in their minds. As time passed, with exhaustion, hunger, uncertainty, fear returned, and some lost their way. Their numbers grew fewer, but those who remained carried on, resolute.
Suddenly- a storm surged out of nothingness and lay waste to all the contents below them.
But the storm did not harm the winged ones. On they flew, tired, but surefooted, until they saw the mountain at the beginning and the end-
and they saw the sovereign- and the sovereign was them- each of them- and all of them
(adapted from Peter Sis’s interpretations of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds)
Aap Kaha ke ho?
Where are you of?
This impossible and curious question opens a universe of stories and the answer is often
“Hum Yaheen ke he”
I am of here- of this body, this street, this town, this state, this country, this continent, this planet, this soil.
We belong here.
India is the world’s largest democracy with over 1.3 billion diverse people. 72 years ago, the founders of our nation wrote our country into being with a Constitutional invocation, a collective imagination (hopeful)- that India would remain (forever) Sovereign, Secular, Democratic and equally in love with all its citizens, regardless of who we worshipped or how. We consolidated our histories and many layers of earth- 22 languages, 13 scripts and 720 different tongues. We consolidated Middle Kingdoms, Mughals, Maharanis, Maharajas, Adivasi peoples into states with (ever) shifting rivers and borders. We partitioned ourselves, painfully, with a migration of millions of Muslims across the faultline into Pakistan.
The Muslims who stayed were promised protection (eternal) and belonging (unconditional). However, time and time again, this promise has been broken.
On the 11th of December, 2019, India’s Parliament un-wrote this Constitutional promise by passing the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which, when combined with the newly established National Register of Citizens, paves the way to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship. In response, thousands of people spilled out onto streets across India, united in protest, asking for the Act to be repealed.
Over the next month, our uprising grew to a size and scope not seen since our Independence. Stories began to emerge of students organising and mobilising, of communities across faiths, genders, states and classes joining together in solidarity and of a group of women from a small, close-knit neighbourhood in the capital gathering in a non-violent sit-in that was swelling in numbers, by the day.
At the entrance to the Falcon’s Garden, we were gently led through police barricades at the border, under ropes of protection, between the linked hands of men that formed chains to shield the women at the forefront of this movement into- another world, a tear in the fabric of time.
Under rose coloured tents, the future of our nation was being (re)written as many poets, prophets and philosophers came back to life (to sing). Women young and old, came together in the streets to defy the conventions of what it meant for them to occupy public space.
The Shaheen falcon is a non-migratory species that they say flies so high above the heads of all other birds that no one can make it prey. Here, in the Falcon’s Garden, we learned what gave these women their flight- a deep (resounding)
In an act of recognition and respect, the men supporting the women at the forefront of this movement remembered to make space. The resistance belongs to everyone (and everyone found a role to play). We witnessed a potent version of masculinity, one that was reflective of a transition, an awakening. They embraced their role as protectors of the community – not in a display of patriarchal might, but by placing their physical bodies around the borders of the tent as guardians, recognising that there are different forms of protection and that every protesting woman, child, and elder in the tent was in turn protecting their rights to claim sovereignty. Through the coldest winter nights in more than a century, the women of Shaheen Bagh expressed their desires for a kind, gracious, inclusive future as men served them tea and listened.
This is what collective care looks like. It was as if the earth beneath our feet was shifting into balance.
Men acknowledged that it was women here who were the true leaders of the resistance and it was their potency that would see them to deliverance. We heard time and time again, from both women and men:
हमारी हिम्मत उनसे
उनकी हिम्मत हमसे
We find our strength in them,
They find their strength in us.
“में इस मिटटी की बननी हूँ , में इसी मिटटी में मिलूंगी – हम यहाँ से हटेंगे नहीं ”
I am made of this earth, into this earth I will go, I remain unmoved
At the very front of the tent was a stage where there was a mic open to anyone who chose to speak for the movement. Drawing their strength and articulation from the Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, and Mahatma Gandhi, we watched women climb the rickety steps to get to the podium, where their hesitation dropped away, their chests opened up, and their voices soared.
We watched the brave and graceful politisization of Muslim women who have always lived on the margins, increasingly rendered invisible. We were witnessing a new dawn in Indian feminism.
Over our time in the tent, familiar faces became family. This was a world unto itself.
Hamida khalla was an ocean of gentle wisdom, constant and unmoved through the changing tides.
Mariam khalla, was the North Start that tended to the spirit fires till dawn; as the sun rose through the horizon, every new day, she counted this world one step closer to the one we were dreaming of waking up in.
‘Super Aunty’ with a playfulness and light in her eyes that lit through you even in the darkest and most uncertain moments. She was an entire mountain range.
And they did it all in their mothertongues.
In this temporary (yet immortal) space Fearless Collective joined these women to create a permanent monument to their resistance. The image we painted on the wall was born through our conversations in the beating heart tent and the love we had witnessed there. .
We asked the women how they wanted to be remembered.
The answer was clear as song: they wanted to be remembered together (young and old, Hindu and Muslim), holding (in their hands and in their hearts) the Preamble of India, guided by love and the flight of the falcon. Crescent moons and lotuses, recitations of the old poets and bird feathers entangled like limbs.
When they joined us in painting, we saw fearlessness manifest in every step they took. It was the first time they ever climbed scaffolding, the first time they held a paint brush. With their invincible smiles they told us that they didn’t know how to paint but:
“zindigi bhar hamne ghar saaf kiye hain, ek hi haath hai – yeh kyoon nahi kar sakenge”
“We’ve cleaned houses (others’ and our own) our whole lives – waving the broom and the brush are not so different. Why won’t we be able to do this?!”
Laughter echoing through our paint site drew in strangers like moths to illumination: local painters, calligraphers, students, and children came as friends and volunteers and didn’t leave our side.
They became our farishtsas (protecting angels).
But this was not a space devoid of fear. Everyday the women were under constant threat of being removed, by force, under ultimatums of mob violence. Gunshots echoed through the air and yet- they remained, steadfast like mountains.
अटल और अटूट
In the world outside Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi was in the throes of state elections; security was heightened and word on the street was that dire measures were about to be taken to end the protests. This movement, that had chosen the language of poetry, art and love as its medium of expression, was being demonised and represented through a rhetoric of divisiness and hate in the mainstream national media. They were being called enemies of the State (when all they had was pure devotion towards this soil that they called their own). Dark poison slipped through cracks in protective boundaries as men armed with guns broke through. The women remained unmoved. No one was harmed.
On the 1st of February, the atmosphere grew somber as our phones and our conversations were flooded with warnings of a (violent) clearing of the protest site. Panicked whispers grew louder and reached us around the same time we noticed a swelling mob approaching us. Something was not right.
We scrambled to leave, as volunteers jumped down from scaffolding, the children who had joined us to paint began to run through the field and jumped over a wall, and we prepared to run for our lives. Within minutes the mob was chased out, the tension dissipated, we were safe and able to return home.
Shaken, but sure about showing our solidarity, we decided to go back to the Bagh the next morning. The crowds at the protest site had thinned dramatically. We walked to the mural, for a moment of quiet reflection and found Razi, a young student from Jamia, waiting at the bottom of the scaffolding. His face lit up in the radiant smile we knew him by and before we had even reached him, he started unpacking the boxes of paint. In a matter of minutes we were joined by Sameer. In no time, seven year old Aliya and her little brother Farhan, who had watched their neighbourhood transform into this historic site, were there too, standing on their toes to reach as high as they could to paint their favourite birds on the wall. One by one our volunteers returned. Almost like limbs of the same body, with no need for spoken word, we all began to paint. The women in the tent sat waiting with bags of rose petals to shower on anyone who meant to hurt the movement. It would remain non-violent.
And this it did. There was no violence at Shaheen Bagh that day or any other. In the face of fear, we are capable of tremendous love.
Over the days we witnessed numbers swelling again at the protest site. People were pouring in from across the country: farmers from Punjab had come in solidarity, carrying grain from their fields to feed the community at Shaheen; the students of Jamia built a creche and a library and were taking turns painting with the children as their mothers sat on the frontlines. Protest banners, posters, installations and photographs lined the streets that would now forever be transformed into a chapter in the history of our country, remembered as one of wild trust in love, hope, fire, (self) determination.
After the scaffolding came down, we gathered together under the crescent moon in Fearless Feast. Carpets were brought from people’s homes were laid down in the dust, plants out of their gardens arranged around the wall like an adorning garland. We were joined by musicians, poets and artists from across the city who drew the night in with their song – quoting the revolutionary poem “Hum Dekhenge” (We Shall See) by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
“Lazim hain ki hum bhi dekhenge
It is certain that we too shall witness
Wo din ke jis ka wada tha
The day that has been promised
Jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garan
When the enormous mountains of oppression
Rooi ki tarah ur jaenge
Will blow away like cotton”
As we sang Faiz, the voices from the tent resounded through the night sky. The affirmation we painted on to the wall shone iridescent under the neon glow of precious light that had been laid out just for us:
My love is the revolution
Long live love
Painted in shades of Laal, Gulaab, and Gold are two women- the younger girl Khushboo (fragrance) holds the Constitution of India firmly in her hand. She is six years old and has come to the protests everyday. Beside her, an elder sits fire-eyed and immovable with a falcon.
They are here fighting for a collective imagination- an imagination of our country that was invoked into a reality 72 years ago. They are here in defence of a flag that was drawn out in saffron, white and green and hoisted up (handspun). Written in constitutional spell we chant (again and again): “We the people of India, have solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic. (forever and ever ever and ever and ever) (हमेशा हमेशा हमेशा हमेशा )
Shaheen Bagh is a place that lives inside our chest. Try and take that away.