A Spectre of Velivada Haunts Indian Politics: Thinking with Shaheen Bagh

The recent insurgence against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) has evoked enthusiasm and hope about the spirit of a democratic polity among people from all of walks of life. There are many reports and analyses regarding the disastrous aspects of CAA and NRC, as well as multiple instances of resistance and protest against these legislative and governmental measures and their intent. Most commentators have highlighted the unprecedented participation of large numbers of people from marginal and minority communities in these resistance and protest movements. However, few have paid attention to the ways in which such participation from these groups has reframed the existing infrastructures of politics, and the possibilities that they have opened up in terms of rethinking not only the political, as such, but also the question of infrastructure, at large.

Tale of Two Reclamations: Velivada and Freedom Square

In mid-2015, during the protest against the university administration for expelling students from the hostel under false pretexts—which eventually resulted in the suicide of Rohith Vemula on 17 January 2016—students of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) erected a tent at the North Shopping Complex located at the heart of the campus, declaring it as Velivada. The temporary structure hosted the portraits of anti-caste icons like Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and it became the congregation ground for various activities. Similar to this event/act of denomination, the JNU community, in a move against being branded anti-nationals in 2015-16 by machineries of the ruling political dispensation (along with the help of an organised media campaign), reclaimed the space in front of its administrative building, renaming it Freedom Square. The teaching and student community of JNU converted that space into a pedagogical enterprise where several scholars, academics, and artists presented alternative ideas regarding nationalism; often critiquing the very idea of the nation and the violence associated with its structure.

Source: www.velivada.com

Let us begin by examining these two terms closely—Freedom and Velivada. Where the former is based on an abstract, universal concept, the latter is rooted in particularity—both in terms of language and cultural significations. What are the performative dimensions of the English word ‘freedom’—a universal major in character, when juxtaposed with the provincial/regional minor coinage ‘velivada’? Velivada, a Telugu word, signifies the civic structuration of land based on caste hierarchies. Literally, a street outside the limits of village/city (or a ghetto), it is a name that designates the outcaste settlement. Unlike freedom, the quintessential human value par excellence, Velivada, meaning a place outside of the ‘proper’ civic settlement, bears traces that evoke histories of segregations and exclusions based on a caste economy.

While, the reclamation of a space by naming it Freedom Square is an attempt at restoring ‘lost glory,’ and is thereby an act of strengthening the existing infrastructure; the entry of Velivada into the agraharas of the pedagogical enterprise, i.e., the university, anticipates a reframing of the infrastructural logic itself. Instead of relying on the virtues of a politics of restitution, they prefer to install new-universals. They bring back the constitutive other/outside of the empty-universal and instil them at the heart of the universal. The unavoidable presence of Neel Salam, Jai Bhim and pictures of Ambedkar (along with Phule and so no) in any anti-authoritarian mobilisations today is perhaps the most visible outcome of such cracks in the infrastructural logic. These are the cracks through which a new pedagogical intent has re-entered into the pristine confines of elite-academia, both in terms of curricular interventions as well as redistribution of lived experiences.

Shaheen Bagh as a Dissensual Paradigm

On 15 December 2019, the Delhi police unleashed unparalleled violence on the student community of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) who were protesting against the anti-Muslim character of the CAA. As a response to police atrocities in the JMI University campus, protests erupted across various parts of India. One protest camp was set up that very night right in the middle of one of the major highways that connects commercial hub Noida with Delhi, nearly three kilometres away from the JMI campus, in Shaheen Bagh. Primarily occupied and organised by Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh, this protest site has heralded a new chapter in the politics of the capital city-state. Until that moment, Shaheen Bagh was a non-entity. Even if present geographically, among the liberal-citizenry it existed mostly as a Muslim ghetto, signifying a spot that reaffirms their own islamophobia. Like the traditional velivadas, it has characterised the exteriority of the city – an untouchable skin that produces repulses in the body of the polis and its (secular) political ethos and imagination.

Shaheen Bagh permanently occupies the highway, converting it into a site of protest. It is not a venue in any conventional sense; instead, it is a clear indicator of the ways in which infrastructures have been reinvented. The ever-evolving morphology of this site resists existing architectures of political imagination. On site, there are constant speeches of solidarity, poetry recitals, testimonies, performances, and so on, from the temporary stage that has been set up. Behind, around, and besides the stage are demonstrations, temporary libraries and reading rooms, art camps, and poster making workshops, precarious monuments to name a few.

In any visit to Shaheen Bagh, one encounters the presence of contrasting intensities. Speakers from all walks of life occupy the temporary podium. While one may not find a common narrative among the array of expressions and articulations, one witnesses without exception the intensity of the listeners—often applauding this polyphony of opinions, ideas, and articulations. But the listeners are not mere spectators; in fact, the constructed stage is for the lesser-mortals. The women are themselves, both, the stage and the enactment. Unlike the bourgeois public sphere where production of consensus (of and through speech-acts) is essential to its functionality, these sites are beyond the confines of a singular and cohesive narrative. It is rather the polyphony of the articulations and the intensity of reception which constitute the strength of this coming-together. The false depth of the proscenium and the cohesiveness that it produces to the narratology, and the centrality it ascribes to the protagonist is dis-placed by a new spatial and immersive logic. It opens up the creative moment of politics over and above the highly orchestrated representational politics that otherwise dominates the political discourses of the Left.

I use the word ‘creative’ here in a very specific sense. Innovation, creativity, and so on, are often used as extensions of an existing morphology of concepts and percepts. But here, an elusive yet concrete, a mobile yet rooted, an angry yet joyous, a confronting yet celebratory, form of collective becoming achieves new speakability, moving beyond the grammaticality of representational idioms. It is creative because of its fermented nature where the victim and the heroic submerges, resurges, and enfolds, thus producing unforeseen assemblages of affinities and affective domains. The topography of the pre-existing infrastructures of politics and the surety of their solidity and coherence is upstaged here by rather defamiliarising topological moves that transgress the circles of thoughts into forms of ovals, to spirals, and back.

Walking into the protest site at Shaheen Bagh, you encounter people rehearsing the art of sloganeering—the topology of rehearsing itself is the creative moment of the protest. They are acts of spontaneous extensions, de-formations, and re-inventions. There are aspects of repetition, but they defy the protocols of mimesis. Such acts of repetition have to be read not in the conventional sense of repeating the same-old-thing but as a politico-linguistic strategy. It is not the recurrence of the same-old-thing over and over again. Here to repeat something is to begin again, to renew, to question, and to refuse remaining the same. The reclamation of the political symbols of national importance, re-citation of revolutionary idioms, the re-distribution of the word aazadi (Freedom), and so on, need to be located in this specific context.

The evocation and celebration of the Indian constitution and recitals of its Preamble are some of the other recurring features of this movement of resistance. There are several reasons behind these repetitive acts. One obvious reason is the defining ethical content of the Preamble which guarantees equality among its citizenry and the way that it defines India as a secular, socialist, and democratic sovereign republic. Another reason is that it works as a platform to evoke the chief-architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The anti-caste crusade of Ambedkar has an enlivened traction among the dalit-bahujan and minority communities. At the same time, one cannot reduce these evocations as a mere espousal of constitutionalism. Instead, perhaps, this can be described as a rare instance since the adoption of the Indian constitution where it has acquired its constituting function of a (coming-) community, than as a mere book of reverence. Noteworthy here is the fact that the constitution exceeds its juridical dependence and becomes the constituting agent of the political. The hermeneutical axis of the constitution is shifted away from the domain of the experts (and/or law-makers) towards the people at large. In fact, the constitution emerges as the people’s document and they assume the role of the creative interpreters of it against the tyranny of juridical devaluation of core universal principles.

Unlike the juridical imagination of the constitution as the basis (or the stasis) of the republic, it acquires here the performative potential of the infrastructural object. The constitution becomes an affective object and its existence is an outcome of relations among people who are not only constituted by it, but are also the primary constitutive agents of it. While the mere reliance on (human) rights-discourses reduces politics into a domain of juridical debates, this new infrastructural politics brings it back into the domain of popular contestations. This is the pedagogic lesson on ‘jurisprudence’ one learns from the ferment of the moment.

Care of the Self as the Care of the Other: The Muslim Women of Shaheen Bagh

The resilience of the women of Shaheen Bagh is a story of epic proportions. The polyphonic character of this epic produces an epistemological crisis in political thinking, be it in terms of its pragmatics, protocols, vocabularies, or idioms. They not only make new thinkability possible, but also provide an expressive idiom for the unthought. In fact, the Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh constitute a new body-politics ingrained in an ethical ‘care of the self’. A mere historicisation of women’s presence in politics (or women’s movements) alone may not enable us to experience the intensity of this embodied event. The problem with facile historicisation is that it heavily relies on the creation of stable categories. They are incapable of engaging with the affirmation of difference. Such representational logic may create a false depth and mediate everything, but it mobilises and moves nothing.

Most of the accounts on the Shaheen Bagh protest, despite best political intent, fall prey to this representational logic. Perhaps, what this moment demands is a ‘conversion’ which enables one to see our old ways of thinking for what they are, in order for us to make sense of its morphology, mechanics, technics and design. It is the moment of realisation of the morbidity or dogmatism of our own thoughts and actions. The locus of freedom here becomes the body of the participants themselves. One may say, perhaps, it marks the dawn of a new critical ontology of politics—a threshold where the borders between bodies become porous, and their identities fluid. They are fractal images of the becoming-political of the world; they exceed topological imagination. Perhaps, more than the immediate outcome or debating the success or futility of their protest, what is significant is the fact that they are the ‘event’ of becoming the ‘political-of-knowledge.’ And their afterlives will undoubtedly produce, shape, nurture, equip, and celebrate a coming-community-of-politics.




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Santhosh S. Written by:

Asst. Professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University of Delhi.

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