Despite advisories to avoid public gatherings in order to control the spread of Covid-19, protesters at Shaheen Bagh, who have been on an almost 90 days agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act, said that they would continue with their demonstration, while taking necessary health precautions.
This comes on a day when the Delhi government ordered a ban any formal gathering of more than 200 people, including sports events such as the Indian Premier League (IPL). Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia on Friday asked people to avoid public gatherings and maintain “social distancing” as preventive measures. When asked if the order will apply to the ongoing protest at Shaheen Bagh, he said, “That (removal of protesters) will have to be done by the central government”.
“Yesterday, we issued an order to shut all cinema halls, schools and colleges till March 31.Today, in another order, we have banned any sports gatherings, seminars and conferences having 200 people or more. Beyond this, if people are still meeting in large numbers, we can only appeal to them not to do so. Public health should be of prime importance,” said Sisodia.
Reacting to the government’s advisory, Qazi Emad, media coordinator of the Shaheen Bagh protest said, “We respect the ban imposed by the government at cinema halls and events such as IPL. But those are a form of entertainment whereas our agitation is about our fight for survival. It cannot be compared.”
Advocate Anwar Siddiqui, a member of their legal team, said, “We will not take any decision on the protest unless Supreme Court directs us to do so.”
In order to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, hundreds of locals blocked the arterial road no. 13 A — that connects south Delhi with Noida — at Shaheen Bagh on December 15, 2019. In the three months that passed by, protesters have refused to vacate the spot unless CAA is repealed.
They also held a dialogue with Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors who presented their report to the apex court last month. The matter is listed for hearing on March 23. Several demonstrators at the spot said they were waiting for the SC directive to decide on a future course.
The CAA fast-tracks citizenship for people belonging to non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who entered India before December 31, 2014. The law has been challenged in the Supreme Court for being exclusionary and based on religion, and has resulted in widespread protests across India.
Since Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, health experts said exposure to large gathering increases the chances of contracting it. “People from all walks of life attend these gatherings. It is possible that they may have had some contact with those from affected areas or with those who were in contact with the affected. It can make the virus spread faster. The risk can be reduced if outsider contact is limited and the protesters are educated about the disease so that they recognise the symptoms and go for checkups and practice respiratory etiquettes and hygiene,”said Dr Jugal Kishore, head of the department of community medicine, Safdarjung Hospital.
The organisers said they are carrying out awareness programmes on coronavirus and educating protesters to wash hands and take other precautions. They are discussing options to hold a more “controlled gathering” as a preventive measure. “We will also be installing hand sanitisers at the protest site,” said Emad.
But doctors offer a note of caution. “Large public gathering is not a good idea and should not be encouraged. It should be stopped as much as possible as it is a risk factor in current circumstances,” said Dr Nevin Kishore, head of the bronchology department at Max Superspeciality Hospital, Saket.