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By Nazarul Islam, Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: Looking back in life, each of my three visits to India’s capital city Delhi had simply been memorable. Its charm has not failed to inspire anyone who visits this place. Can we identify the people who originally had laid the foundations of this historic city?
Students of history like me, share the belief that the Pandavas had built this glamorous city of Indraprastha—somewhere close to what is now the city’s Purana Qila; Qutbuddin Eibak, who got the tall brick-minaret built there; the Lodis, who created the Shisha Gumbad in the exquisite parks; the Mughals, who gave Delhi not just the Lal Qila but many majestic structures; and the British, who left behind for us Edwin Lutyen’s Delhi, all came under Delhi’s charm and, in turn, added their ‘bits’ to its charm.
For over a thousand years, and perhaps for a much longer time in its uncertain past, Delhi has continued to fascinate India and the rest of the world, as well. It will not be out of place to mention that all roads in India had once led to Delhi —the destination, the history, and the legend. This wonderful city, despite today’s polluted air, the political skullduggery, and the many masks it has held during along its history of turbulence—anarchy, chaos, massacres and riots, and bloodbaths—have offered stories over the years, that have continued to enchant all of us who live in the Indian subcontinent.
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My first visit to Delhi took place nearly 40 years ago. In January 1981, as a young writer, I went there and came face to face with India’s rising police wonder-woman, Kiran Bedi, in full bloom as the SP Traffic of the capital city.
She was energy in motion. In a matter of days, she had not only controlled chaos on Delhi’s roads, but she had also fixed up the mafia gangs, transporters and the political elite who had dared deviate from the law. Her name became a terror. She had consented to receive ( off the strange-looking non-Indian, from the neighboring country, whose Hindi expression was awkward and who was terrified to be in such a large city with hiccups.
She was warm, affectionate and as simple as a rustic song. As I was leaving, she gently shook hands to bless me and said, daro mat, fear not. For the rest of the time, before catching my return flight, I went around looking at as many monuments as a quick rickshaw ride allowed. Most of them created a sense of awe in my mind. I could not reconcile the contrast between KB’s touching simplicity and the awe-striking monuments of Delhi.
Is India’s capital city, the legacy of Nadir Shah’s ferocity or the melancholic love of Mirza Ghalib? I have often wondered if Ghalib was not speaking to many of the Shahs of the past when he wrote in his lonely last years, “tere vaade pe jiye hum, to yeh jano, jhoota jana/ke Khushi se mar na jaate eitbar hota” (It was your promises that kept me alive, though I knew they were pure lies. Had they been true, would I not have died of delight?).
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In Delhi, one does not have to be a poet of Ghalib’s genius to know a lie to be a lie. Every Lalita Devi in Delhi has the courage to face the terror of every Shah; every Ghalib has the wits to know the lies doled out as promises. The two together give Delhi its unique strength. Others have added but monuments to the history-saddled city.
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It appears that today, this unique strength is returning to Delhi in full measure. It runs in an equal degree among the courageously protesting university students and the steadfast Shaheen Bagh women, full of fortitude. Through their courage, action, speech, and idealism, they are saying to the millions of Indians ‘daro mat,’ a message simple and yet great. Shaheen Bagh is no monument, no exquisite public place created to charm the world. It is a locality, barely known to the residents of Delhi until the other day, and like thousands of other neighborhoods across the length and breadth of India that come alive through their every-day ordinariness. And, suddenly India has woken to the fact that there is a Shaheen Bagh everywhere.
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I have seen the videos of Mumbai, as it carried on, just a few days back and saw several thousand women there following the Shaheen Bagh form of protest. I have also seen the pictures of Sangli, located in Western Maharashtra. Those pictures bore witness to hundreds of women who had made a pavement outside the old railway station their own Shaheen Bagh. A follower in North Karnataka sent me that message: nearly 2,000 women have undertaken a Shaheenbagh satyagraha. It is, as if, all roads in India are being used to invite the Shaheenbagh located somewhere in Delhi to their own towns.
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It is as if every Indian town is saying to another town, a neighbourhood to another neighbourhood, ‘daro nahi’. That is precisely what ends the awe and fear aroused by the Shahs of history; and once the fear is gone, the lies are more easily seen as lies.
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The CAA, the proposed National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register were opposed in Parliament by several political parties. They have received, as expected, criticism from jurists, journalists and several kinds of civil society formations. All of that is as per the set vernacular and grammar of Indian politics. But, when the girl-students on university campuses and the otherwise ordinary and apolitical people started opposing it, one knew that there was something unique about the protest.
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Lately, after the Supreme Court treated the 144 petitions related to the CAA as just one more matter, there was neither much dismay nor much surprise. But when the Shaheen Bagh form of satyagraha started surfacing in small and big towns in the country, one knew that the language of political expression had moved to the next chapter. When state after state of the Indian federation expressed its disapproval of the idea of NRC and NPR, it was like known actors playing out a new scene.
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However, after entirely unrelated and leaderless groups of people had started assembling, with the tricolor in one hand and a copy of the Constitution in the other, in places all over the country, one found a compelling reason to believe that people are speaking truth to power— as never before, even since Mahatma Gandhi’s times.
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And beyond any doubt, the great phenomenon inscribed in the Constitution as ‘We, the people…’ is back with us. It is chanting tunes of courage and compassion; it is saying most emphatically ‘no’ to the current establishment’s ‘divide and rouse’ politics. Shaheen Bagh is a metaphor for that epistemic change in Indian political discourse. For India, a fundamental transformation is taking place before our eyes.
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Shaheen Bagh has been an inspiration, not only to India in search of truth but all of us who have a stake in the subcontinent!