In a shocking turn of events last Thursday, a man brandishing gun opened fire at the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protestors near Jamia Millia Islamia, injuring a student of the university. The students were marching towards Rajghat to protest against the contentious CAA and NRC, on the occasion of Gandhi’s martyrdom day.
It becomes imperative to understand the ‘chronology’ that has led up to this turn of events. Like several other sections of the society, the students of Jamia have put up a consistent protest against the CAA ever since its passage in the parliament in December 2019. Taking their protest to the Parliament, a peaceful march led by the students on December 15 turned violent when the police tried to push them back. Later that evening, the university witnessed an unprovoked retaliation when, apart from protesting students, those who had clearly stayed away from the protest were severely beaten up by the Delhi police personnel. These included students, boys as well as girls, who were praying in the Mosque as well as those who had been peacefully studying in the university’s library.
Outrage against the unrelenting repression triggered the women of Shaheen Bagh to start a first of its kind indefinite dharna to protest against the police brutality and CAA-NRC. The protests in Shaheen Bagh have been going on since then (December 15), despite constant attacks from several quarters. As a matter of fact, the number of protestors have been swelling in day by day. Shaheen Bagh has also presented itself as a model for people elsewhere wanting to protest against the CAA and NRC, and Shaheen Bagh has been emulated in dozens of other parts of the country. The Jamia students have not stopped protesting since then either. The restlessness among the ruling establishment and its allies to break away these protests is palpable when in a repeat of the firing incident on Thursday, another man fired at the protesters in Shaheen Bagh on Saturday. Thankfully, this time around, no one was hurt.
Meanwhile, the government, its supporters and all those displeased with these protests, which includes a section of the mainstream media, have been all out spreading not just misinformation but also hatred against the protestors. The protestors have become the prime target of senior leaders of the ruling dispensation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the past few weeks alone, hardly a day has passed when a senior leader of the party has not spread misinformation about the CAA-NRC protests, especially those which have a sizeable and visible Muslim presence.
The union Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly targeted the Shaheen Bagh protests on a daily basis, shortly ahead of the Delhi assembly elections scheduled to be held on February 8. While addressing an election rally on Thursday, he remarked, “On February 8, you will be deciding who should form the government in Delhi… On one side it is Narendra Modi, who conducted airstrikes and surgical strikes on Pakistan’s soil to kill terrorists, and on the other, there are these people who back Shaheen Bagh. You have to decide.” On an earlier occasion Shah had also said, “Press the button with such an anger that Shaheen Bagh feels the current.”
Only a few days ago, Union Minister and BJP star campaigner Anurag Thakur was seen chanting "desh ke gaddaron ko", to which the crowd enthusiastically replied "goli maaro saalon ko”, translated as "shoot down these traitors who betray the country". Similarly, BJP MP from west Delhi and one of the aspirants for the Delhi CM’s post, Parvesh Verma, while branding the Shaheen Bagh protestors akin to Kashmiri militants, said: "Lakhs of people gather there (Shaheen Bagh). They will enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, kill them. There's time today... Modi-ji and Amit Shah won't come to save you tomorrow”. Similarly, other BJP leaders — not just those at the fringe but also those who occupy prominent positions in the party or have been given tickets in the ongoing elections have not left themselves behind in the vilification campaign. The constant rumour mongering by BJP IT Cell National In-charge, Amit Malviya, is another case in point. On Saturday, while addressing an election rally in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had also said, “If not words, then bullets will make people understand”.
This despite the fact that the ongoing protests in Shaheen Bagh and Jamia have been peaceful. Barring the traffic jam and route diversion, there is hardly any other valid complaint that can be used against the protestors. As far as the issue of the blockade ensuing out of the Shaheen Bagh protest is concerned, what has to be kept in mind is that the spatial dynamics of the area hardly provide any open space where the people can organise in such large numbers. Moreover, even if they try to move out of the Shaheen Bagh-Jamia Nagar area, it is clear that they won’t be allowed to do so, as has been apparent from the violent attack on the December 15 march and the firing on Thursday.
The purpose of recounting and enumerating these speeches and the vilification campaign is to explain the kind of impact that it has had on the public at large, especially on the youth like the person who was involved in the Jamia shooting. According to a report, neighbours of the accused believe that “It’s the effect of Shaheen Bagh, JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] and AMU [Aligarh Muslim University].” This can be corroborated with the fact that minutes before he opened fire on the protestors, he had posted on his Facebook page, ’Shaheen Bagh Khel Khatam’, intending that his act was going to end the logjam at Shaheen Bagh. There are enough reasons to believe that what happened in Jamia on Thursday was a direct result of the ongoing hate campaign against the anti CAA-NRC protesters, especially Muslims. It can be also noted that on Saturday, Kapil Gujjar, the man who opened fire in Shaheen Bagh shouted “Jai Shree Ram” and, "hamare desh me aur kisi ki nahi chalegi, sirf Hindu ki chalegi (only Hindus shall have a say in our country, nobody else)," as he was taken into custody by the Delhi Police.
In the last few weeks, the vilification campaign against Muslims (remember PM Narendra Modi’s comment, “those creating violence can be identified by their clothes itself”) have created an atmosphere where every anti-CAA and NRC protestor is being portrayed and seen as a “gaddar” (traitor) and hence deserving of being killed or jailed immediately. And this is not just limited to right wing politicians but lawyers as well who have been seen arguing on similar lines. All this has made life as a Muslim even more difficult. They have been selectively targeted by the state as well as vigilante groups. Muslims across the country (in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, etc) have been specifically targeted for taking part in the protests, putting their life and liberty at stake.
What is worrying is that while just after the Jamia incident, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah assured that “the culprit will not be spared”. A few hours later at an election rally, he once again indulged in the vilification of the anti-CAA and NRC protestors, especially those of Shaheen Bagh. What is also important to note is the way the police acted during the Jamia shooting. According to an eyewitness, “The Delhi Police just stood by and watched” as the accused brandished a gun for a while before opening fire. As per eyewitnesses, “We were shouting for help. We told them (Delhi Police) to stop him, to control him. But no one did.” This only confirms that there is an inbuilt bias against Muslims in the police force as has been documented by several studies and fact finding reports already.
Hence, as long as the vilification and hate campaign against the anti-CAA and NRC protesters (especially Muslims) continue, incidents like the Jamia and Shaheen Bagh shooting are likely to repeat themselves. If the Union Home Minister and his government are really interested in stopping these incidents and getting the culprits punished for their crime, the first thing that they should do, apart from ensuring a free and fair investigation, is to stop the misinformation and vilification campaign immediately. Until and unless that happens, there is no guarantee that similar incidents will not be repeated in the near future. And for that nobody else but BJP leaders, including Amit Shah, will be responsible.
(Mahtab Alam is a journalist associated with The Wire.)