Resisting a Saffron Spatiality: India’s Ethnocratic Spatial Politics



Drawing from the mobilizing protests initiated in the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi against the recent BJP anti-Muslim policies, Arinjoy Sen proposes a spatial filter to read the protest and their violent suppression, but also the last 30 years of Hindu nationalism that brought BJP in power. 

Sen Funambulist
Female protestors gathered under a self-built canopee in Shahen Bagh. / Photo by DTM (January 15, 2020).

Right-wing propaganda, having infiltrated the Parliament at a legislative and judicial level with majoritarian support within the Parliament, has forced dissent to manifest in the streets.” (Anonymous Shaheen Bagh protester) 

On December 14, 2019, a small group of local women moved to block Kalindi Kunj Road, a six-lane highway bordering the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh in southeast Delhi, using their bodies as a physical barricade/barrier. They came together to voice their dissent against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). From this first action of a group of women, Shaheen Bagh quickly emerged as the epicentre of anti-CAA protests in India, as well as a symbol of dissent, with almost 100,000 people participating to them over 101 days. As one participant of the protests noted, “The essential difference is that Shaheen Bagh was led and joined by women. And especially women of a minority community. This is what rattled the ethnocratic Hindutva activists and government. To see women reclaim their freedom and fight for their rights, shook the Hindu-nationalists to the core.” 

The CAA, passed by the Parliament of India on December 12, 2019 as an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1995, essentially reinforces the arsenal of anti-Muslim legislation constructed by the ruling BJP political party, reminiscing tendencies of ethnic cleansing towards a Hindu nation. It does so plainly, by excluding Islam from the religious faiths (Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian) eligible to avail a fast-track process of application for Indian citizenship. Ostensibly, the primary targets are people who may (or may not) hold citizenship of the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but who are residing in India without appropriate documentation. As such, the CAA must be read in conjunction with the NRC, which allows the rendering of persons as non-citizens if they fail to provide proof in the form of “satisfactory legacy papers.” 

It’s not difficult to see the urban spatial scale of such events. Most of the incidents, including the Delhi riots earlier this year, originated in confrontations with rather peaceful sit-in protests. The protests themselves were the only ‘provocation’: a highly charged collective embodiment of space, experienced by Hindu-nationalists as spatialized resistance against their cause but also as an encroachment to the very idea of a Hindu territory, rooted in their Motherland — an idea known as Hindutva. This contains a crucial element of territorialisation and aggression towards symbolism. Any occupation of territory — most especially the claiming of public space by Muslims — is therefore identified by them as illegitimate. 

The success of Shaheen Bagh as a site of resistance despite its small size could be attributed in part to its strategic location within the city. The area lies directly south-west of Noida, which shelters practically all of India’s national media headquarters. It therefore enjoys a high level of connectivity to transport and other infrastructure. Closer still are a nexus of universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Amity University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). This proximity allows not only for an increased participation but also an overwhelming media coverage which consequently acted as protection. 

The significance of the protests lies in the emergence of those who were assumed to be powerless. The women of Shaheen Bagh, mostly Muslim residents of the neighborhood, are perceived (especially in the eyes of the Hindu nationalists) as being bound to the space of private domesticity. This supposedly oppressed minority/group had reclaimed what was not imagined to be theirs, and turned it into their resistance. A new (and unexpected) collective spatiality was being negotiated in plain sight, at the heart of Delhi. This is where Shaheen Bagh’s strength was rooted. 

However, the retaliatory aggression by both militant Hindutva nationalists and police in the surrounding areas and institutions served as bitter proof of Shaheen Bagh’s success, underlining the contested instrumentalisation of public space: at once a site of resistance, sanctioned terror, and the struggle for control. Squares, junctions and street corners became strategic elements in the spatialization of violence. 

On December 15, 2019, Delhi police forcefully entered the campus of the Jamia Millia Islamia University (near Shaheen Bagh), launching a violent attack on the students. Nearly 100 individuals were detained by police; many were left heavily injured during the confrontation which saw the university library ransacked — all of this captured on CCTV. Prior to the attack, some students of Jamia Millia Islamia University had been protesting against the CAA. 

Three weeks later, a masked mob of more than 50 individuals, armed with rods, sticks and acid attacked the campus of JNU, injuring over 39 students and teachers. This was generally accepted as a continuation of organized Hindu-nationalist aggression; the mob appeared to infiltrate the campus freely without police intervention, with students accusing the police of intentional inaction and complicity with the attackers. This attack initiated a string of protests in solidarity with the students of JNU, condemning the attack across various universities within India and beyond. 

University campuses are not neutral or public spaces — there are numerous examples of clashes between the police and students within campus boundaries illustrating this. Academic campuses evidently provide a safe haven for students. More importantly, they offer a charged atmosphere where students can freely exercise their freedom of speech to an extent. The instrumentalization of university campuses towards political subjectivation may be decoded firstly, by the freedom of political expression made possible within the academy. Secondly, a sense of protection is delivered by the university boundary, around the collective spatiality that is formed within the confines of the campus. As such, university campuses are inherently spaces of political encounter. These are enclaves where surveillance and policing target early on in the times of political unrest, because students are assumed to be the first exercisers of political expression and markers of dissent. 

This series of aggressions culminated on February 23, 2020, when a womens’ sit-in against the CAA was confronted by right-wing activists in north-east Delhi’s Jafrabad area, led by BJP’s Cabinet Minister Kapil Mishra. As Mishra delivered an ultimatum to clear out the protest, violence erupted. This manifested in riots spanning multiple locations around Delhi over a week, in which a total of 53 people — two-thirds of whom were Muslims — were killed: shot, slashed or set on fire, and more than 200 injured. Hundreds of properties — disproportionately Muslim-owned — were destroyed, including four mosques. 

The prompts behind the current unrest — the passing of the CAA and the constrictive NRC — are the latest and perhaps most definitive motions towards the right-wing nationalists’ idea of a Hindu nation. Punctuated with strategic flashpoints, the path that has led to this moment reveals the long and concerted spatial politics — once instrumentalized by India’s colonizers, now by the Hindu right-wing — which call into question this country’s idea of democracy and secularism. 

One of the definitive moments in the historical development of radical Hindu nationalism was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. On December 6, 1992, Hindutva militants demolished the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in the town of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, prompting vast communal conflict across the country. Staged during a political rally of almost 200,000 participants, the demolition of the Babri Masjid marked a climax in a series of strategically orchestrated events, leveraging public space and sentiment within the “Ram Janmabhumi” narrative. A political movement cast in religious form, Hindu nationalists demanded the construction of a temple at the janmabhumi (mythical birthplace ) of the Hindu god Ram following the demolition of the mosque. Babri Masjid, then, became operable as a strategic site for reclamation through aggression. The agitators were successfully able to impose their constructed image of the mosque as a symbol of Muslim atrocity and Hindu humiliation, exploiting myth to project religious meaning to an arbitrary site. 

The Godhra train massacre followed 10 years later: 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were killed in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express train, near Godhra, Gujarat. Evidently an horrific callback to the legacy of Babri Masjid and its ensuing violence, an investigation concluded that the fire was arson committed by a primarily Muslim mob of over 1,000 people. This in turn led to the 2002 Gujarat riots (also known as the Gujarat pogrom), wherein inter-communal violence shook the state over three months, culminating in 1,044 dead, 223 missing, and 2,500 injured, most of whom were Muslims. Under the aegis of Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat and current Prime Minister of India, the riots explicitly targeted the minority Muslim population, again resulting in further violent outbreaks nationwide. 

Within the Gujarat pogrom, spatial configuration acted as a source of opportunity or restraint. An analysis of the neighborhoods worst affected by the ensuing violence point firstly towards a strategic identification of targets influenced by their spatial configuration — familiarity, morphology of streets, population of target demographic and possibilities of counter-attack. Secondly, it proves that beyond familiarity, the built environment itself has a significant contribution to the success or failure of an attack. It can facilitate or impede an attack depending on likely escape routes, segregation of neighborhoods, and vulnerability of the target. It is evident that not only does space reflect social relations but it can also actively facilitate social action through the manipulation, deployment and exploitation of spatial contexts. 

Within the complexity of these decidedly urban confrontations, what stands out is the territorial antagonism and spatialization of violence. None of the above can be seen as isolated events: they form part of a complex historical development, precipitating in the spread and subsequent spatialization of Hindu nationalist ideology as well as the proliferation of right-wing power within India. 

While an ethnocratic government does its best imitation of fascism in challenging the democratic and secular foundations of India, moments like Shaheen Bagh underline the pivotal importance of public space, of the polis and its streets as legitimate sites for democratic negotiation. Blunt legislation like the CAA and NRC, coupled with a heavily strategic sequence of spatialized aggression, set a marked contrast against crucial and spontaneous acts of resistance. Though moments like Shaheen Bagh become symbolic, as of yet and without more support, they fail to generate significant change in the legislative and judicial systems that target them today. Choreographies of oppression, exploitation, unfathomable inequalities and tendencies towards fascism are far from removed from the world. However, small gestures like a small group of women blocking a highway and making their voices heard have the symbolic power to generate greater actions of resistance — ripples of which can be felt across the world. ■ 

I would like to thank Shumi Bose for her constant support and guidance which were invaluable to this contribution.