The Women and Children of Hauz Rani
By Ashana Mathur, UG 2022.
In the olden days, men would send smoke signals as an alert or warning for incoming danger. On 23rd February 2020, when the Gokalpuri tyre market was set aflame by Hindutva mobs, its fumes rose high enough to send the message far and wide; the pogrom had begun. As Muslim property was destroyed and men were dragged out of their houses and beaten to death in the streets, in another part of Delhi, the women of Hauz Rani were being brutally lathi-charged and molested by the police. Hauz Rani, a Muslim mohalla in the heart of south Delhi, was one of the many localities that suffered that night.
On 31st January 2020, before violence erupted across Delhi, I, along with a group of students from the Department of Media Studies visited Hauz Rani to interview and interact with the protesters. We were quite surprised to note that unlike the Shaheen Bagh protest which occupies a major highway connecting Noida and Delhi, the protest at Hauz Rani was contained in a small children’s park, inside a residential block. The protesters were mainly the locals who lived in nearby buildings.
The protest site had a large tent ‘shamiana’ under which women sat and raised slogans of ‘Halla Bol’. It also accommodated an elevated stage for speakers and performers, along with a kitchen which served the numerous protesters with biryani and tea. We also noticed a library; which served as a designated place for children to read books and draw, and for students to study.
Our first attempts to strike conversations with the protesters were met with raised eyebrows and suspicious glances. Some men even accused a student of being from the RSS. They snatched her notebook and went through her notes from the interviews to make sure that she hadn’t penned down anything controversial. But fortunately, there were more than enough people at Hauz Rani who wished to express and share their opinions with us. Where some voices roared with anger, others faltered with grief and fear.
As we conducted our interviews, the stage was ceaselessly occupied by a stream of artists reciting beautiful poems, singing songs or delivering impactful speeches that would everyone spellbound. As their slogans echoed through the park, we couldn’t help but think about the places where these echoes couldn’t reach. In an attempt to talk to the people who weren’t present at the protest, we made our way through the narrow lanes, towards the heart of Hauz Rani.
We encountered a myriad of people, but our most interesting interaction was between the owners of two adjacent shops. “In times like these, it is natural for people to feel scared. It would be great if politicians would come and discuss the details of CAA with us; the people who feel most targeted by this Act, instead of trying to stop these protests,” said the middle-aged man sitting behind the counter. He was the shopkeeper of a small stationery store who went on to tell us that he fully supported the protests and regularly donated art supplies (such as chart papers, sketch pens, paints, etc.) to make posters that decorated the shamiana. But the man next door had a very different idea of the protests. “I’m very happy as the protests have greatly improved my business. Ever since they started, there has been an influx of hungry protesters that come to my shop, which is fortunately close to the park,” said the man frying bread pakoras. He also asserted that he remained in indifferent to the protests and they didn’t concern him.
As men started to leave for Namaz, there weren’t a lot of people left for us to interview and hence we returned to the protest site. Upon our arrival, we quickly realised that the kids were much easier to talk to than the adults. Perhaps it was because they weren’t intimidated by our camera-phones and talking into a mic made them feel as if they were on TV. We ventured into the library and saw that the children were either immersed in reading books or were busy hoarding crayons. They were making paintings laden with themes of peace, unity and patriotism, along with anti-CAA captions, which were proudly displayed on the makeshift walls of the library.
The kids told us that they usually come for the protests straight from school and return only during the late hours of the night or the next morning. They spent a vast majority of their day at these protests, often without any parental supervision. When we asked them if they knew anything about the CAA, we received very different answers. Some kids recited actual parts of the act and its implications on their community, and some parroted remarks which they had heard over dinner-table conversations or in an exchange at a tea stall. However, a majority of them answered with a simple ‘no’. Despite their ignorance on the subject, the one underlying aspect that was present in all their answers was an alarming sense of fear.
Even though they had no idea what the CAA is, they knew that the act would in some way harm their community and their right to live in India “Modi doesn’t want us to live here, he wants to send us to Pakistan and lock us up,” said a nine-year-old Alina. In an atmosphere riddled with unverified information, it was heart-breaking to hear the level of terror in the kids’ voices. When we share videos of young children singing in Shaheen Bagh or watch them march through the streets of New Delhi, we often tend to forget about the emotional and psychological impact that growing up in such a political climate may have on them. The Quint reported that around 41 minors were detained from protest sites and were subject to physical and phycological torture. Minors detained in UP were repeatedly thrashed every time they fell asleep or requested to relieve themselves. Hence, there is a pressing need to understand that if the current political climate doesn’t improve soon, it may result in severe generational trauma.
As while we were leaving, we witnessed another very troubling scene. A girl spray-painted on the side of the shamiana – FREE KASHMIR. As the protesters saw this, they immediately asked her to step away and they started to remove it. They explained to us, a perplexed audience that had gathered around, that they can’t risk the media interpreting this written here in a controversial way. From us being accused of being from the RSS to this, it is alarming to see the paranoia amongst the protesters. But at the same time, one has to admire their determination to protect their cause from any outside intervention or disruption. We left Hauz Rani that day, with the sight of its people carefully removing the spray paint, ignorant to the fact that in three weeks, this spray paint would be the least of their worries and that in three weeks, this children’s park would be invaded and Delhi would witness its worst religious riot in decades.