Why women? Why are they protesting (when they should be at home cooking and cleaning and looking after their children)?
You’ve heard that question, in its many variants, since the anti-CAA protests erupted in mid-December 2019. So have I — most lately last evening, when a few of us were discussing contemporaneous events.
Part of the discussion was triggered by a post I had written yesterday about the Woman in Red who became a totem of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, and of Marianne the young drummer girl who triggered the march on Versailles that proved to be seminal in the French Revolution. And the talk veered, as such talks inevitably do these days, to Shaheen Bagh.
It only occurred to me gradually that the question stems not from genuine curiosity, but from a puzzled bafflement — a sense that authority, which knows how to use brute force against the dissenting male, is stymied when confronted by a defiant, determined woman. Remember these moments?:
The thing that baffles me about the “Why women?” question is the tone of irritated wonder, as if this were something new and strange. The small group I was with last evening was mostly young, all but two still in college; it was supposed to be an informal chat about narrative writing but it became about the protests, and “Why women?”
I wondered at the time whether this was one of the signs of an age where information is so plentiful that we consume everything but retain nothing. Women leading protests is not only a phenomenon as old as protests themselves, more often than not it is the participation of women that has tipped the scales (again, this is an essay for another day).
So, as aide memoire, here she is, the woman protestor, in all her avtaars: Defiant, determined, gentle, fierce, tearful, joyful, proud, implacable…
This list could go on but I’ll stop here, with a bonus link I found on Huffington Post that rounds up ‘60 stunning pictures‘ of women in protests around the world.
Meanwhile, back in the here and now, Delhi police has filed an 800-page chargesheet in connection with the December 15 violence at Jamia Milia Islamia University, when rioters had set fire to buses and private vehicles. 17 people have thus far been arrested in this connection.
Not a single one of those arrested is a student. And yet:
Remember the spate of videos that mysteriously leaked the other day, purporting to show that the students had indulged in violence, and the police had entered the university campus as a result? (The police are reportedly now trying to figure out how they leaked. It is problematic for them on two counts: One, it is hard, actionable evidence of unprovoked brutality that damaged property worth over two crore; more importantly, it totally demolishes the concerted, coordinated efforts over time to paint the protestors of Jamia as destructive rioters). Remember the India Today ‘expose’ of rioting students? Remember the breathless, condemnatory reporting that appeared in Times of India, Mirror Now, Republic, Times Now, DNA, Zee, Aaj Tak and other outlets, all unquestioningly toeing the official line handed to them, never mind if in the process they were criminally slandering a university and its students?
Remember the manufactured consensus that while the police action was bad, so sorry, what to do, they were only doing their duty and the students deserved it? (The media’s role is laid out in this Alt News fact-check).
Remember the police denying that they had fired on the students, and then back-tracking after an internal investigation revealed that shots had in fact been fired? Remember how, during the Delhi election campaign, BJP leaders had repeatedly demonised the JMI students, with Kapil Mishra slyly equating them with Kasab, of 26/11 infamy? Remember Nirmala Sitharaman accusing Sonia Gandhi of “shedding crocodile tears” on behalf of the brutalised students? Remember Amit Shah saying in one breath that the “police did not go after students”, and in the very next breath saying “Don’t you think that the police should take action? Police have to take action because that is their duty and the right thing for them to do.” Remember Shah justifying the police action on the grounds that students pelted stones?
Remember the Supreme Court — the CJI, no less — in a remarkable example of circular logic refusing to hear an urgent petition against the state-sponsored violence on the grounds that “the rioting must first stop”?
Remember how, less than 24 hours later, several police officers from the area had been mysteriously transferred? It turns out that the Special Investigation Team, in the wake of the outing of compelling videographic evidence, has asked for the duty roster of policemen who were stationed in the area that night.
Here is the thing — the police acted as they did because they had a sense of impunity, the surety that there would be no consequences. Such an assurance had to come from the highest echelons of the police — and they, in turn, would never have passed such orders without the nod of the ministry they report to. Which, in case it needs reminding, is the MHA, under Amit Shah.
Now cracks have begun appearing in the official version, and these cracks are widening by the day. The SIT says it will be questioning those policemen who were on duty at the time, and hint at the possibility that FIRs could be filed against them. If that happens, and admittedly that is a big if considering what is at stake, then low-level cops will crack, and talk about the orders they received. This whole sorry chapter isn’t over yet, not by a long way.
In other news, senior advocates Sanjay Hegde and Sadhana Ramachandran, on the directions of the Supreme Court, visited Shaheen Bagh for initial discussions with the protestors intended to find a solution to the blockade, now into its third month. They were welcomed with a standing ovation.
I was following the events live across various social media channels, and the moment that stood out for me was when the interlocutors suggested that the media be asked to leave, to which the response was “We are fighting for freedom, and we will not allow anyone’s freedom to be taken away.”
I began this post musing on women leading protests, and why male authority figures find it bewildering. I’ll circle back to it on this note: Though there are literally dozens of SB-style protests around the country (Frontline has an extended essay on this; here is a story of how, thanks to police brutality in Chennai, another Shaheen Bagh has sprung up there and, by way of thumbing their collective nose at the police action on Valentine’s Day, played host to a wedding), the original Shaheen Bagh has become a persistent, annoying burr under the skin of the government as evidenced by the continued efforts to demonise it.
TimesNow ran a breathless, high-decibel ‘Big Story‘ on how Teesta Setalvad — another woman activist, another red rag for a patriarchal government and its propaganda wings — had been “coaching” Shaheen Bagh protestors on how to talk to the SC-appointed mediators. Um — so? How exactly is it a problem for protestors — lay protestors, unused to the ways of courts and lawyers — to take advice?
Elsewhere, Facebook users took to circulating what they claimed are images of condoms found in the gutters of Shaheen Bagh — reminiscent of the BJP MLA who claimed “that daily 50,000 pieces of bones, 3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette “pieces”, among other things, are found at JNU, where girls and boys dance naked at cultural programmes.”
In passing, why does right wing propaganda, particularly where women are part of the protests, depend so much on sexual innuendo? Meanwhile in UP, yet another BJP MLA has been accused of serial rape.
PS: I am off this blog till late Sunday evening — a workshop, and a couple of other commitments, therefore.