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‘For a Muslim in this country, justice is utopian’: Aasif Mujtaba on curating photobook ‘Hum Dekhenge’

Delhi police personnel detaining the student protestors who were marching to the Parliament. (Photo by Farhan Khan in 'Hum Dekhenge')

The protest at Shaheen Bagh on the outskirts of Delhi against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) continued for over 100 days. The peaceful sit-in, led mainly by women, became one of the biggest protests of recent times, where art, music, poetry were practised as forms of resistance.

A photobook, curated by Aasif Mujataba and Md Meharban, tiled ‘Hum Dekhenge: Protest and Pogrom’, named after Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s popular Urdu nazm which became the motto of the anti-CAA movement, documents the protests as it unfolded.

 The photobook has 223 photographs from 28 photographers and artists, including the late Danish Siddiqui.

Excerpts from the conversation:

What inspired you to curate the photobook?

Aasif Mujataba: Two questions were there in my mind — one, how to capture the emotions? Because when you write a book, it’s very difficult to describe the rage, the anger, the feeling of being let down by the state and cheated by the state, that now your nationality is being questioned, you are being killed, but the rioters are complicit with the state.

The second element is, when it comes to Shaheen Bagh or the Delhi pogrom, there are two separate groups, the pro BJP, the pro Hindutva, the pro RSS, they left no stones unturned in maligning the protest at Shaheen Bagh by saying things like ‘these women are getting paid Rs 500 per day.’

The very first book that came out on Shaheen Bagh was controversial. It was a Hindutva narrative, and a false one. So, the first thing we asked ourselves was how to have a book that can show the true emotions of these people — anger and rage, when you are seeing the dead body of your son, of your husband or any loved one; how do we show this in an unbiased way?

That’s why we went with a photobook. Photographs are unbiased. The anger and emotion a photograph captures cannot be replicated in words.

The book is all about three ‘P’s – protest the Muslims had against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the propaganda by the right wingers, by the RSS, by the BJP, when they tried to demean the legitimate protests of Muslims at Shaheen Bagh and other places. The third P is pogrom. The pogrom that occurred in north-east Delhi, in full connivance of the state. The state was totally complicit and at places, if you see the photographs, police were not supporting the rioters the police were the rioters.

It’s also about three Rs – ‘resistance’ against the communal act, ‘resilience’ even after the numerous times you have killed us and arrested our leaders, and ‘remembrance’ We are remembering everything, every treachery. We are remembering every occasion in which the state had let us down, and we are not going to forget it.

 A page from the photobook

How was the process of bringing it together?

Md Meharban: I was there at Jamia Milia University when the violence happened on December 13, and then on December 15. I had captured it all and put it up on an exhibition in the university. Then, I put it up on Shaheen Bagh as well, all the while capturing the violence that unfolded across Delhi. I was also an eyewitness in the North-East Delhi violence. We had a good bank of photos by then, so we decided to compile it into a photobook that documents history and reaches more people. But it wasn’t an easy journey to get the book published. We were turned away by every single publisher in the country who publishes photobooks due to the content in the book. They were scared. We eventually published it with a local publishing house, which is a Muslim organisation.

Aasif Mujtaba: The Special Cell of Delhi police came to the publishers before the launch of the book. “We want to see the content,” they said. Against all odds, we got the book out. The entirety of the process took more than a year.

How many photographers have contributed to the book?

Md Meharban: About 28 independent photojournalists and artists have contributed. The book is dedicated to Danish Siddiqui, whose photographs we bought from Reuters. The images capture the protests around the country, from Kolkata to Mumbai, Delhi to Kerala, and beyond. We have kept the minimum age limit of the book at 10 years old because some of the images from the violence are very graphic.

How was the experience of documenting history while it unraveled?

Md Meharban: Throughout the 10-15 days that Jamia saw violence, I did not have the time to think or process it. I could not even sleep. I just took my camera and kept documenting things as they happened. While I was already working as an independent journalist, seeing your friends getting beaten up brutally and having to capture it was very traumatic. Later there were friends who said that I could’ve instead come to their rescue. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the exclusive visuals from the events. Danish Siddiqui, who used to be my mentor at the time, told me “Whatever is happening around you is history writing itself — capture it all. You won’t get the opportunity again.”

 A page from the photobook

What would you say is the relevance of this photobook during rising Hindu nationalism and attacks on minority communities across the country?

Aasif Mujtaba: The very first thing is, using the state machinery, you are demeaning a community, you are complicit in their killing. And for the minority, the double trouble is that even their pain is being shown in a different colour. After two years, I still see that people can’t understand why Shaheen Bagh got formed. Why Muslims were protesting on the streets was because there was a communal, Islamophobic act called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Shaheen Bagh went on for 101 days and there was not a single case of violence by the Muslims. It only happened when Kapil Gurjar opened fire. At Jamia, violence occurred only because of the police. There is a Muslim community that is visually shaken, visually angry, it’s clearly feeling let-down by the government. There is a community that has been killed in the past. Lots of members were killed, houses were burned, shops were looted.

During the North-East Delhi pogrom, more than 90 per cent of the deaths are Muslims, more than 90 per cent of the shops burnt were of Muslims, houses burnt as well. Then you have an FIR, and you are picking Muslims up. The High Court judge, Justice S Muralidhar, who ordered that an FIR should be launched against the likes of couple Kapil Mishra, was transferred. The judiciary was exploited by the central government. So the book and its importance becomes even more relevant for the state and for the people to know that the people of Shaheen Bagh had a very legitimate reason to protest. There should be some document that should tell the state that regardless of whatever wrong you do, this is just false. In the long run every falsehood will die out. The truth will prevail. None of this propaganda will stand. That’s why we have named the book ‘Hum Dekhenge‘.

The book was released ahead of the upcoming elections. What is the takeaway you hope for people to have?

Aasif Mujtaba: I would say that the CAA was one colossal moment that saw unprecedented participation from women of the country, Muslim women and people of all classes. Surprisingly, it vanished from the political narrative when it came to the assembly election. Through this book, we wanted to remember all the people who have been mercilessly killed for protesting for their rights. We wanted the people to have this memory of all the pain and trauma they have been through from two fronts — one is the Special Cell, Delhi Police, the might of the state and the fear that the government will come eventually to hunt us down like they have been doing. The second front is that of our own memory.

 A page from the photobook.

You were one of the organisers of Shaheen Bagh, and you have seen it grow. What did you hope it would symbolise?

Aasif Mujtaba: The very first day we started at Shaheen Bagh, it was nothing but a broken bench. The first speech that Sharjeel Imam and I gave was on the road. There was nothing; it grew gradually. Sharjeel and I had discussed how the ecosystem should be sustainable and community supported. It was always intended to be a movement not only against CAA but also against the day to day lynching, the communal judgment of the courts, the anger in the community. You can either channelise it through something constructive or it might cause some destruction. Shaheen Bagh was the constructive thing.

Shaheen Bagh was such a beautiful crucible that every identity came. The cultural identity, the societal importance — it all melted down at one place. But now, Shaheen Bagh in physical form might have been taken down, but the idea that people can organise themselves, people can come to the streets to protest, that idea is still there.

How are you expecting the book to be received?

Aasif Mujtaba: For a Muslim in this country, justice is utopian. Even if I’m just sitting in front of you and breathing peacefully, that is the most justice I can get. In these troubled times, we want the book to act as a memory. We want this book to be there on a shelf to remind people of how bad the state was and despite all the hardship, you even had the courage to protest. This is something we really wanted to achieve through the book, and that is how I hope people will accept it.