Shaheen Bagh, India’s citizenship law protest site, Delhi’s newest food hub

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Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim enclave in the Indian capital, has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from a site of political protest to a vibrant culinary destination. Once known for the months-long sit-in that garnered global attention, the neighborhood now attracts food enthusiasts from across the globe.

As twilight descends upon Chaalis Futta Road in Shaheen Bagh, the atmosphere is infused with the aroma of barbecued delights, and the street comes alive with the twinkling of string lights. This bustling market area has become a hub for iftar, the evening meal to break the fast during the sacred month of Ramadan. The energy of the crowd remains palpable throughout the night as people gather for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal preceding their fast.

Shaheen Bagh captured international headlines during the winter of 2019-20 when its residents, predominantly women, staged a prolonged sit-in along a highway connecting the capital to Noida, a satellite city. The demonstration was a response to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), enacted by the Indian government in December 2019 and recently enforced. The law aims to expedite the naturalization process for non-Muslim refugees from neighboring countries. However, protesters argued that it discriminates against Muslims and undermines the secular principles enshrined in the Indian constitution.

Despite its tumultuous past, Shaheen Bagh has now emerged as a symbol of resilience and cultural richness. The once-politically charged atmosphere has given way to a vibrant culinary scene, attracting visitors from far and wide. Amidst the savory delights and communal gatherings, the neighborhood celebrates its diversity and heritage.

In essence, Shaheen Bagh’s narrative has shifted from one of protest to one of inclusivity and gastronomic delight. It stands as a testament to the resilience of its residents and the transformative power of community spirit.

The occupation that persisted for over three months in Shaheen Bagh not only served as a focal point of resistance against the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also sparked a nationwide wave of protests. However, the momentum of the sit-in was abruptly halted in March 2020 due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite its conclusion, the protest left an indelible mark on the neighborhood, both in terms of its name and its burgeoning reputation as a culinary hotspot.

Chaalis Futta Road, which runs parallel to the New Delhi-Noida highway, was once characterized by a mix of shops, car repair stores, and a handful of eateries. However, during the prolonged sit-in, the landscape of the street began to evolve. Sanaullah Akbar, a 27-year-old resident who actively participated in the protest, reminisces about spending hours at the local tea stalls engaging in political discussions. It was during this period that the emergence of cafes and biryani stalls started reshaping the culinary scene. Visitors from various parts of the city would join the sit-in and subsequently explore the burgeoning food options in the vicinity.

Food, beyond its sustenance, became a vehicle for fostering connections and camaraderie among individuals. Tanushree Bhasin, a Delhi-based writer, emphasizes how the act of sharing meals, whether over cups of tea, homemade biryani, or simple home-cooked dishes, facilitated meaningful interactions. The protest served as a catalyst for breaking down social barriers, as individuals from diverse backgrounds sat together, forging bonds that transcended mere acquaintance.

Even after the conclusion of the protest, the allure of Shaheen Bagh persisted, drawing visitors not only for its delectable cuisine but also for the sense of community it engendered. The market’s popularity received an additional boost through social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, which showcased its culinary offerings to a broader audience. Consequently, Shaheen Bagh has become a magnet for food enthusiasts, boasting a diverse array of culinary delights ranging from traditional Mughlai dishes to flavors from Arab, Afghan, Turkish, and Italian cuisines.

Historically, the old part of Delhi, particularly around the iconic Jama Masjid, was renowned for its iftar offerings. However, the spotlight has now shifted to Shaheen Bagh, thanks to the prominence gained during the protests. Mohammad Danish, the 23-year-old proprietor of House of Delhicious (HOD), one of the area’s oldest restaurants, attests to the transformation, noting the gradual emergence of the food market over the past four years.

The culinary landscape of Shaheen Bagh has been further enriched by the establishment of renowned Mughlai food eateries such as Javed Famous Nihari, Zehra Biryani, Aslam Butter Chicken, Karim’s, and Qureshi Kabab in recent years. Arshad Jamal, the 42-year-old owner of Qureshi Kabab, attributes the success of his business to the burgeoning food market in the area.

In essence, Shaheen Bagh’s evolution from a site of political activism to a thriving culinary destination symbolizes the resilience and adaptability of its residents. Beyond its gastronomic offerings, the neighborhood embodies the spirit of inclusivity and communal harmony, fostering connections that transcend societal divides.

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