When Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh became the focal point of the protests against the new citizenship law late last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party denounced those who had hit the streets variously as “”, “”, “”, “”, “”. This week, though, the BJP admitted over 50 people from Shaheen Bagh, including a few who had reportedly participated in the protest.
At a attended by Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta, about 200 people from Okhla, Shaheen Bagh and Nizamuddin were welcomed into the BJP. Gupta it proved “the faith of the Muslims in the party has increased”. But less than a year ago, his party colleagues were singing a different tune. On January 28, a week before the Delhi Assembly election, Sharjeel Imam was for sedition and under the anti-terror legislation UAPA for speeches he had made at anti-CAA protest sites. The BJP Imam the mastermind of the Shaheen Bagh protest. The party’s MLA Sangeet Som went to the of declaring that people like Imam “should be shot dead publicly”.
Pointing out the “hypocrisy” of the BJP welcoming “anti-CAA protesters” into the fold, the Aam Aadmi Party MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj told a press conference that it was proof that the Shaheen Bagh protest was the “brainchild” of the Hindutva party. He alleged that Shaheen Bagh was created and sustained to help the BJP polarise Delhi and gain Hindu votes ahead of the election. “The BJP has turned Shaheen Bagh into a gaali,” the legislator told Newslaundry, using the Hindi term for swear word.
So, who are these “anti-CAA protesters” who have joined the BJP? Newslaundry spoke with three of them – Shahzad Ali, Dr Mehreen Kazi and Mumtaz Khan – to trace their political journeys and understand their motivations for stepping into the very party they were presumably protesting against not so long ago.
‘Dost ya Dushman’
Shahzad Ali is the most prominent of those who have joined the BJP from Shaheen Bagh. Ali, who runs a mobile accessories shop in Shaheen Bagh, prefers to be known as a social worker. Ali said he regularly attended the protest but clarified that he was not part of any committee organising or coordinating it. “I have joined the BJP because I feel there is a need for dialogue,” he added. “The people of Shaheen Bagh need someone from the ruling party to come and talk to them. I want to be that bridge.”
The Shaheen Bagh stir was also recorded as an anti-BJP protest. When asked if he continued to be against the CAA, Ali wouldn’t respond. He was not in contact with the BJP during the protest, he said, but afterwards felt the need to engage with the party to find out if they were “dost ya dushman”, or friend or foe. “Very soon we are planning to do a big programme in Shaheen Bagh and ask more young people to join us,” he said.
Shahzad Ali joins the BJP.
A Shaheen Bagh resident who regularly attended the protest recalled that one night she witnessed Ali get into an argument with some of the people near the stage, an area that was kept mostly for women protesters. “Whenever he came to the protest site, he was always accompanied by a man named Mohammad Kayum who everyone knows is with the BJP. He used to create a fuss about wanting to sit on the stage and once even dragged a woman off the stage. The woman was shocked and in tears,” she said. The protester refused to be identified out of fear since many of the protesters are now being tracked down by the police and criminalised.
Before joining the BJP, Ali was with the Rashtriya Ulema Council, or RUC, a political party in 2008 in response to the . The RUC planned to contest the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election but, unable to find strong candidates of its own, ended up backing several Bahujan Samaj Party nominees. Previously, Ali has also shared the stage with Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party on multiple occasions. In the run up to this year’s Delhi election, the BSP chief Mayawati had planned to hold a rally close to Shaheen Bagh but cancelled it as she wanted to “stay away from it and avoid polarisation and help BJP”. Ali said he left the RUC because he did not receive “internal support”.
Shahzad Ali’s RUC appointment letter.
He alleged that the “Shaheen Bagh protest was started by the Congress and the AAP”. “Amanatullah Khan won purely on the basis of Muslim votes,” Ali claimed, referring to the AAP legislator from Okhla constituency, which includes Shaheen Bagh. “He came here once only for the sake of votes. Bhim Army also came here to make a political drama of Shaheen Bagh. When members of the BJP tried to come and peacefully talk to the protesters, Congress and AAP members did not allow them inside.”
Who were these members of the BJP? Ali replied that he was “unable to recall their names at the moment”.
In February’s election, Khan won by over 70,000 votes, defeating the BJP’s Braham Singh. Okhla recorded a voter turnout of nearly 59 percent. Given that the constituency, while Muslim-dominated, has a sizable Hindu presence, Khan likely drew significant support from the Hindu community as well.
“Who is this Shahzad Ali? Nobody knows him because he’s a nobody,” Khan responded when asked about Ali’s claims. “It makes no difference if he joins the BJP because he has no support in the area.”
Pointing to the infamous made by the BJP’s Kapil Misra ahead of the election, Khan argued the BJP consistently attempted to polarise the voters. “None of the people who joined the BJP are from our constituency and no one will be joining them either,” he said.
Anti-CAA, not anti-BJP
Unlike Ali, Mehreen Kazi, a gynecologist who has a practice in Shaheen Bagh, said she was never really interested in politics. “But right now, I am able to see the changes made by the BJP and I want to join in their efforts,” she explained her change of mind. “I also want to remove this perception that Muslims in India are feeling threatened because of the BJP. These are misguided claims made by other political parties, not by Muslims themselves.”
Kazi said she couldn’t comment on whether she was for or against the CAA and would have to consult with Ali before clarifying her position. She admitted, though, that she never once attended the protest in Shaheen Bagh. For Kazi, the motivation to join the BJP was to encourage other young women to follow. At least four other women joined the party along with her.
Mumtaz Khan too was previously associated with the Rashtriya Ulama Council. Khan, who runs an IT business in the area, said he got disillusioned with the RUC and joined the BJP. “I participated in the protest and I was very anti-CAA during that time,” he claimed. “But I only attended the protest and didn’t plan or organise any of it.”
Like Kazi, he refused to clarify whether he was still anti-CAA but insisted that “even when I was anti-CAA, I was not anti-BJP”. He also said his motivation behind joining the BJP was to erase the “false claim” of Muslims feeling threatened in India.
Both Kazi and Khan spoke reluctantly, repeatedly saying that it was best if we stuck to speaking with Ali as he was their leader. When Newslaundry asked Ali for a list of the people who joined the BJP from Okhla this week, he said he could not share it yet. Nevertheless, he provided a few names – Parvez Alam, Zeeshan Chaudhary, Mehraz Ansari, Mumtaz Khan, Javed Parsha, Monu Chaudhary, Mashoor Khan. He shared the phone numbers of three of them, of whom only Mumtaz Khan agreed to speak with us. Zeeshan Chaudhary and Parvez Alam insisted that they hadn’t joined the BJP and did not even know Ali.
Ashok Goel, the media head for Delhi BJP, too refused to share the list of the new entrants to the party but provided a contact for Kazi. Harish Khurana, another BJP spokesperson, promised to share the list of names but then stopped responding to us. The story will be updated if a response is received.
AAP vs BJP
In his press conference, Bharadwaj suggested that it was the BJP that had orchestrated the Shaheen Bagh protest and asked, “How did 10 women jam a six-lane Delhi-Noida expressway?”
But the three new BJP members whom Newslaundry spoke with denied having any part in organising or coordinating the protest. Asked about this, the AAP leader told Newslaundry that while he could not say with authority that the BJP had started the protest, it was obvious that the party sustained it. “A protest takes place for maximum three hours after which the police, especially the Delhi police, ensure that the protest is dispersed. How did the Shaheen Bagh protest sustain for 101 days?”
On Sunday, Bharadwaj fellow AAP worker Akshay Marathe who wrote that “that is undeniable evidence that a section of the protesters was adamant on continuing to block the street despite knowing the polarisation it was causing. That section joined the BJP officially.”
Asked what evidence they had that this very “section” had joined the BJP, Bhradwaj distanced himself from that particular aspect of the tweet. “No I cannot say for sure that this section has joined the BJP, “ he said, “but how else does one explain the sustaining protests?”
Dismissing Bharadwaj’s claims, the BJP’s Khurana asked, “Is his stomach hurting simply because Muslims are now supporting BJP?”
“Yesterday, Mr Bharadwaj asked why the BJP had allowed anti-nationals to join the party,” Khurana continued. “Why did his own party leader Manish Sisodia support the protest? Is AAP supporting anti-nationals now?”
He also asked why AAP had chosen to stay silent if they knew the protest was a conspiracy.
Responding to Khurana, Bharadwaj explained that AAP only had “circumstantial evidence” until now, but the induction of several Shaheen Bagh protesters into the BJP offered clinching evidence of the Hindutva party’s attempt to “polarise voters in a place like Delhi which has never before seen communal violence”.
About Sisodia’s support for the Shaheen Bagh protest, Bharadwaj said, “I cannot take responsibility for his personal opinion. Like Amanatullah Khan, he too felt that the protests were genuine and only pro-democracy. But from day one, I have been questioning why the police were not making efforts to disperse the protest.”
The AAP leader went on to allege that two distinct groups of people had protested in Shaheen Bagh. One was the genuine pro-democracy protesters. The other was BJP supporters who tried to stir trouble and cause violence. “Through a well-manufactured strategy, the BJP managed to convert Shaheen Bagh into a gaali across the country,” he claimed.
The media industry is in crisis. Journalists, more than ever, need your support. You can support independent media by paying to keep news free. Because when the public pays, the public is served and when the advertiser pays, the advertiser is served. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.