Anti-CAA protest shines through the night at ‘Shaheenpet’

Drawing inspiration from Shaheen Bagh protests, women and children in Old Washermanpet, Chennai, demonstrate their protests against CAA and NRC with placards and slogans.
Drawing inspiration from Shaheen Bagh protests, women and children in Old Washermanpet, Chennai, demonstrate their protests against CAA and NRC with placards and slogans.

The sit-in protests against Citizenship Amendment Act at Old Washermanpet continue as the protesters almost unanimously opined that they feel let-down by the way the Tamil Nadu government is handling the issue.

By Gomesh S | February 18, 2020, Chennai
Drawing inspiration from Shaheen Bagh protests, women and children in Old Washermanpet, Chennai, demonstrate their protests against CAA and NRC with placards and slogans.
Drawing inspiration from Shaheen Bagh protests, women and children in Old Washermanpet, Chennai, demonstrate their protests against CAA and NRC with placards and slogans.

It is 7 pm on Monday, and it is five days since the anti-CAA protestors were lathicharged by police in Old Washermanpet. Thousands of men, women and children, predominantly from the muslim community, have been occupying the narrow Sajja Munuswamy lane and Aziz Mohammed lane in a Shaheen Bagh style sit-in prortest.

At ‘Shaheenpet’ as they call it now, the protesters continue to voice their opposition to, and demanding that the state government pass a resolution against the bill in the Legislative Assembly session, currently underway.

With a small stage at the junction, male protesters are sitting on the other side near the Vijayaragavalu road. The shops on either side of the lanes are closed, and sarees are tied as barricades between lamp-posts. Volunteers stand at every ten-to-fifteen feet to escort through the lanes and ensure that the protest happens peacefully.

Any outsider joining the protest or visiting the site to show solidarity is screened and issued an ID tag stating ‘media’, ‘volunteer’ etc. And they are guided through the protest venue, with local volunteers assisting them in interaction with the protestors. 

 “We decided to demonstrate a peaceful sit-in protest on Friday afternoon. When the police asked us to leave, more people came to support us. We were protesting peacefully, and that is when the police lathi-charged against us,” said Mariyam, a protester.

She said that the women police officials came forward to negotiate with them late in the evening. “But, the male police officers barged in, dragged us by our burka, and pushed us down on the road. Only after that, men from our families, who were sitting behind pelted stones on the police. We did not initiate violence, and the CCTV cameras in the lanes can be verified if required,” Mariyam added. She also agreed that the protest would not have become this big a movement, if not for the police brutality that happened against the women and children. 

Every time a slogan is raised on the stage, the voice of the children – who are holding placards and wearing headbands with the slogan ‘NO-CAA-NRC-NPR’ – echoes through the tent. Whenever a lull spreads through the tent during the night, it is the energy of the children that lifts the mood of the protesters.

“Barring those who are having public exams, every child from the locality is here. With the discriminatory bills like CAA & NRC, their future is at stake. We want them to know that we fought for their rights, and they also wanted to participate with us,” said Shamshath, who was protesting with her nine-year-old daughter.

For the residents of Old Washermanpet, more than the police brutality, the negligence of the Edappadi Palaniswamy’s AIADMK government is distressing. “It pains us to see our Chief Minister celebrate his completion of three years at helm, ignoring our struggles. They claim to follow Amma’s (former CM, J Jayalalitha) legacy. If amma had been alive, she would not have let women suffer on the streets,” said a 46-year-old protester, who did not want to reveal her name.

Though the protest is predominantly led by Muslim women and children, local people from other communities are also an integral part of it. “The government is for the people, and they cannot discriminate based on religion. In my family, because I went to school, I have documents. Imagine the state of those who do not own any ancestral property. If the officer who comes to verify makes a mark as ‘D’, what will happen to them? We are in this fight with them as we have always been brothers and sisters,” said Nagu, a Hindu woman protester.

As the protest continues throughout the night, members from various political parties, Muslim welfare associations, priests from mosques and churches deliver speeches to keep the crowd interested. And every other speaker drew parallels to the Jallikattu protest of 2017 and the Sterlite protest of 2018. They requested the protesters stay calm no matter how provocative the police department is.

Refreshments kept coming at regular intervals for the protesters and the media that are covering the protest. Funds were also collected from the participants to sustain the supplements for ongoing protests. “We are trying to maintain the intensity of the protests until we get a positive response from the Tamil Nadu government. Crowdfunding is the source of capital for the refreshments we provide.  Though a few people donate cash, we prefer them to provide whatever they can as a commodity like food, water, biscuits etc.,” said Mohammed, one of the organizers.

It is almost midnight and the numbers of protesters on the streets stats reducing. However, they continue to sing Tamil folk and rap songs and raise slogans throughout the night.

As dawn breaks in, they disperse in groups, most of them for their morning prayers and other chores, but soon are back for the next day.