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'Problem With CAA Won't Go Away Because One Activist Joins BJP,' Say Shaheen Bagh Women

While BJP has been keen to project Shaheen Bagh protester Shahzad Ali's move to join the party as a kind of victory, the protesters who had populated the site are taking the news with a pinch of salt.

New Delhi: On Sunday, Neelkant Bakshi, head of media relations of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi unit, released a statement that said, “Shaheen Bagh social activist Shahzad Ali has joined BJP Delhi in presence of state BJP president Adesh Gupta and vice president national BJP and in-charge Delhi BJP, Shyam Jaju.”

“The enthusiasm with which Muslim brothers and sisters are joining BJP clearly shows that people of all religions have faith in the Modi government,” Gupta said on the occasion at the Delhi BJP office.

“Social worker Shahzad Ali, gynaecologist Dr Mehreen, former AAP worker Tabassum Hussain along with a large number of Muslim brothers and sisters joined the Bharatiya Janata Party,” said the Delhi BJP statement.

Shahzad Ali joins BJP. Photo: Twitter/@ANI

In the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, which has been the centre of the iconic sit-in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act for three months since December last year, the news was taken with a generous pinch of salt. “If somebody who was part of the anti-CAA protests has joined the same party that he was protesting against, he is just confused and doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong,” said a protester, requesting anonymity. 

According to the statement released by the BJP, while joining the party, Shahzad Ali had said, “Congress and other opposition political parties since 70 years have used Muslims for their political benefit where as Vazir-e-aazam jenab (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi Ji has done justice in every scheme with all casts and religions (sic)…I have joined BJP to prove wrong those in our community who think BJP is our enemy. We’ll sit together with them over CAA concerns.”

Who is Shahzad Ali, the anti-CAA protester who joined BJP?

In the release, Ali introduces himself as a “social activist.” To The Wire, he said, “I have been in the profession of mobile industry, in sales.” He added that he gave up his job and started full time activism some years ago.

Originally from Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, Ali has been living in Shaheen Bagh for the past 17 years. He told this reporter that as a resident of the neighbourhood, “Whatever social ills we have witnessed, we have been raising our voice against them every now and then.”

“We will continue to do so,” he added, “I joined the party yesterday. We will sit and clear whatever the problems there are. I am not in favour of Hindu-Muslim politics, I don’t want to get stuck in this. The nation should progress, and conversations should be around the vikas [progress] model.”

Protesters at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: Twitter/@natashabadhwar

He also attempted to analyse the role of the Muslim community in electoral politics. “We have been seeing that there is an existing narrative around BJP, that it is an enemy of the Muslims. But we have been voting for the Congress for more than 70 years. They have been doing vote-bank politics on our [Muslim] community. Today, we all know the condition that Muslims are currently in. But we have never voted for the BJP. Even though they don’t need our vote, they [BJP] are still in power. I am a peace-loving person. I will work shoulder to shoulder with Modi ji, and [if] I receive the party’s support, we will get more Muslims to join the party.”

Critiquing the AAP state government, he said, no work is being done in Delhi. “Whose government is in power in Delhi? Who is responsible for this condition? Eight graveyards in Delhi were captured. The details of the Waqf property were made published also. The issues on which AAP made their government [referring to water and electricity] are now a failure, and hence they are trying to find a new issue in the rape cases of Delhi, which have always been there.”

It was not clear to The Wire exactly which rape cases Ali was referring to.

Also read: 2012 Nirbhaya Case: Delhi Govt ‘Strongly’ Recommends Rejection of Convict’s Mercy Plea

Was he part of the Shaheen Bagh protests?

When asked if he was indeed a part of the protests at Shaheen Bagh, Ali said, “Since I am from Shaheen Bagh, of course I was a part of it. There are recorded interviews [which prove it]. Even then, I had been of the opinion that the end goal of any protest should be to have a dialogue. I still believe the same. I had spoken to the media during the protest also and said that whatever the problem is, we will sit down and solve it. There is no way to solve a problem without dialogue.”

Ali claims that more than 200 people from the neighbourhood have so far joined BJP. Asked for his opinion on the fact that he has joined the very party that brought the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act against which the protests all over the country had erupted and in which he had participated as well,he said, “Congress and AAP have both done less to explain things to people and more to lead them astray. Everybody just wanted to enhance their own politics. The conversation [on CAA] is only possible through dialogue.”

Shaheen Bagh on Republic Day. Photo: Raghu Karnad/The Wire

Ali insisted that his plan was to sit with [senior] leaders of the BJP and “clear the confusions” that Muslims have on the CAA. “Everybody’s views are different, we will listen and talk. The biggest thing is that, in my personal opinion, we have always thought of the BJP as our enemy. I have been welcomed by BJP members with so much warmth, it should be appreciated. By sitting at home and protesting against something, problems will not get solved. Problems will be solved only through dialogue,” he added.

Ali said the “most damage to us [the Muslim community] has been done by the Congress.” He added that it was Kejriwal’s responsibility to talk to the protesters, as chief minister of Delhi. “He should have come and made people understand. He is as responsible as Modi ji is.”

Not everyone is convinced of Ali’s credentials. Shoaib Jamai, who has been actively involved in the Shaheen Bagh protests since their beginning in December, 2019, said, “There were many people who used to come to the Shaheen Bagh for tea. Even Gunja Kapoor came to the protest, wearing a burkha. Does that mean she was a protester? Maybe he was part of the public, but he was not involved in any of the main meetings that some of us used to hold.”

Also read: Rightwing YouTuber Visits Shaheen Bagh in Burqa, Films Protesters

Gulbano, an elderly woman visible in the Shaheen Bagh protests and often referred to as one of the “dadis” (or grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh, said that there were supposed to be no politicians in the protest. “There weren’t any politicians in the protests, you know. People would come, speak, perform poetry and leave, ” she said.

She added that she does not remember seeing the likes of Ali active in the protests. “We don’t have a problem with BJP, but with the CAA and NRC,” she said.

Elderly women protest at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: PTI

Was he part of ‘pro BJP’ party Rashtriya Ulema Council?

On Monday, a day after he had joined the BJP, RTI activist Saket Gokhale tweeted saying, “Shahzad Ali was never a ‘Shaheen Bagh activist.’ In Feb 2019, Rashtriya Ulama Council had appointed Shahzad Ali as its Secretary for Delhi. Rashtriya Ulama Council is described by critics as a pro-BJP group.” He also attached an official appointment letter with the Tweet.

Ali confirmed Gokhale’s claim to The Wire, saying that he has been part of the Rashtriya Ulema Council for about eight months. However, he did not comment on the stance of the party.

Shaheen Bagh protester responds

Asma Abdullah, a resident of Shaheen Bagh and a regular at the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protests who calls herself a social worker said, “Shaheen Bagh protest was not just the voice of the people of Shaheen Bagh. It was the voice of many different people from different states who were against the CAA. This act talks about boycotting Muslims, and we are still against the CAA. We didn’t need the CAA in this country…B.R. Ambedkar had already laid down many rules which said all religions would be equal. The CAA violates this equality. When power came into the hands of some people, they started doing all this. There are many more matters on which work could have been done…employment, corruption, etc.”

A protestor at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Recalling her time at the protest, she said, “I used to stay at the protest site all day. I joined an NGO in February, and I used to work along with attending the protests. We would return home only after midnight.”

She says that she saw the news about anti-CAA protesters joining the BJP on Twitter. “I saw him [Ali] a few times at the back of the protest site. If the joining of Shahzad Ali ensures that there is dialogue on the CAA…I think that’s completely a myth. We kept protesting for more than hundred days, no BJP politician listened to us or had any dialogue with us. I don’t think the joining of one Shahzad Ali will ensure dialogue on CAA.”