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.
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.
Spin — the massaging of facts to make them palatable or, as someone once put it, “the artistic moulding of the unshapely clay of truth” — is not new. David Greenberg, in his book Republic of Spin, traces its origins back to the ancient Greeks (though they called it rhetoric back then).
What is relatively new is that spin is no longer an activity that follows in the wake of facts — it has replaced facts. A case in point is the video that surfaced (linked in my previous post) late Saturday night, of the police action inside Jamia Milia Islamia University on December 15.
Within hours, the Crime Branch released two other clips, widely publicised by various right wing handles, which show incidents from before the police entered the library premises. Here is the first one:
It shows a milling throng leaning over the railing of a balcony, jostling for a better view. It shows the students entering the library. It does not show the stone pelting the post alleges.
A close relative, of hard right persuasion, sent me this clip with similar claims, excoriating me for supporting the JMI students who, he said, were “jihadi thugs”.
Where is the stone pelting? “This clip shows the scene immediately after they threw stones,” said my relative with fact-free conviction. I reminded him of a scene from an old Malayalam movie, where a bunch of conmen flog paintings to the relatives of dead people. In one instance, they tell the son of a dead man that his late father wanted a picture of a horse in a grassy meadow. But when they unwrap the canvas, it turns out to be bare. Where is the grass, asks the son. The horse ate it, says the conman. So where is the horse? Arre, when the grass is gone, what will the horse do there? When the grass grows back, the horse will return.
Which brings up the second clip:
The video shows students rushing into the library seeking shelter. It also shows some students already there. The messaging says it shows riotous students “after damaging public property” rushing to hide from the cops. What is the allegation that these students came here after damaging public property based on?
And all of this is prelude to this third clip:
This clip shows police — some with masked faces — entering the library and beating up students armed only with books.
An officer of Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police-rank, who is part of the probe into the violence that erupted during protest in and around Jamia Millia Islamia on Sunday, denied that the police entered its library and thrashed students.
“A DCP-rank officer took a video in which it is shown that students were asked to leave the library… they were then taken to a safe place with their bags on their heads so that they would not be hit by stones. Whether the library was ransacked is a matter of investigation. Our force did not enter the library,” the officer said.
So that is lie number one: The police did enter the library. Can we agree that this is now beyond dispute? Can we therefore agree that the police lied?
The exculpatory narrative is that the students damaged public property outside the university, then ran into the campus; the police entered on their heels and beat them up. Take those points in order:
One, the police on December 17 arrested ten people for the violence outside the university that they used to justify their intrusion onto the campus. None of them were students. Also: The police announced a Rs 1 lakh reward for information on those who were party to the violence outside the university on December 15.
In other words, those already arrested — on the basis of evidence, presumably — were not students; as late as February 10, the police was still looking for information on others involved in the rioting. How does that jell with the argument that the students inside the library — none of whom have their faces masked and are, therefore, easily identifiable — were responsible for the violence?
And if they were in fact responsible, as is being claimed not by the police but by propagandists, why have they not been arrested and charged? Why is the police, almost two months after the incident, still looking for information?
Secondly, and crucially, how did the police enter the campus without permission? Here is JMI VC Najma Akthar setting out the issue:
“I object to just one thing. We are with police when they have to look for criminals. But when they are coming to a university, they have to ask us so my proctor goes with them. That’s the only protest. Secondly, our university’s name should not be dragged in because we have nothing to do with it,” Akhtar said.
“If they (police) had asked us, we would not have denied permission. We would have asked our proctor to accompany the officers so that he could help them identify the students and ensure they are not humiliated. My university is closed and we are on vacation. Most of my students have already left the campus. How can we have 20,000 students participating in the protests?”
A contemporaneous account is worth reading for context, one that inter alia talks of police entering a mosque within the campus and beating up students who at the time were offering namaz. Were they chasing rioters? That remains one of the unanswered questions lost in the din.
Give the police the benefit of doubt, however. Say for the sake of argument that they were chasing rioters armed with weapons and stones the CCTV footage was not able to pick up. Then think ahead to the events of January 5, involving the same Delhi police, at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The police report of that incident says that there was a spell of violence earlier that afternoon; that a senior police official had toured the area and assured himself that the situation was under control. Then this:
The second spell of violence started before 6 pm, when members of the JNU Teachers’ Association and some students had gathered at Sabarmati dhaba for a ‘peace march’. According to eyewitnesses, the protest came under stone-pelting by masked men, who then barged into the nearby Sabarmati hostel and ran riot.
At around 6.45, the VC sent a message to the police asking for increased deployment at the main gate — this, while masked and armed thugs (unlike the ‘evidence’ being trotted out about JMI, here the videos clearly show hammers and iron rods in the hands of the marauders) subsequently identified as belonging to the ABVP were running riot inside. The police received numerous calls about the ongoing violence, and therefore were clearly aware of what was happening inside the campus. And then:
“The policemen found a group of 40-50 rioters carrying sticks were vandalising properties in the hostel and assaulting students there. The police used a public address system to warn the mob not to damage property and disperse peacefully. Despite warnings, the mob continued the violence and paid no heed to the police orders,” Arya said.
The Delhi police enter JMI without permission and beat up students who had no visible, demonstrable connection to any violence. One student lost an eye as a result of the police action. The same Delhi police, on actually seeing a group destroying property and assaulting students, is content with asking them to be good boys and girls and stop misbehaving — an appeal the rioters paid no heed to. What is the police supposed to do in such a case?’Stand by and watch’ is the wrong answer.
There is more:
However, despite already having the university authorisation to intervene, as per the FIR, the police force stopped at the gate and waited for an official permission to enter the campus.
What explains this behaviour? The lead paragraph of the story cited above says:
As a mob wielding sticks, iron rods and hammers assaulted students and damaged property on Jawaharlal Nehru University campus on Sunday night, police teams stood outside the gate and entered the campus only at 8pm. The police explained that they were waiting for an official permission from the varsity administration to enter the campus, as required by the law.
Waiting for official permission as required by law. The same police that 20 days earlier entered a university campus with no permission.
Unless the law referred to above was passed after December 15, the police who entered JMI were in clear and flagrant violation, yes? The supposedly exculpatory videos being passed around are therefore worth bupkis, yes?
Further, if permission is not given, the police cannot enter a university campus even if it knows there is violence within. Vide:
At 6.24 pm, after violence had broken out, Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar messaged at least three top senior police officials. Strangely, instead of asking them to contain the violence quickly, Kumar said, “Considering the volatile situation in JNU campus, I request you to station police at the gates of JNU campus so that they can quickly reach the trouble spot in the campus if a law and order situation arises.”
“In case a law and order situation arises”, says the VC — while rioting was actually going on within the campus. What qualifies as a law and order situation, then? One more unanswered question.
In any case, the law-abiding Delhi police waited outside the gates, at the VC’s instructions. And then?:
What followed was dozens of men, their faces covered with mufflers, chanting slogans — “Desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalo ko”, “Naxalwad murdabad’ and “Na Maowad, Na Naxalwan, Sabse Upar Rashtrawad” — not allowing ambulances to reach the campus by puncturing tyres and smashing windows. They did so next to a police barricade and in front of a police detention van, with many of the men chanting slogans of ‘police zindabad’.
They also did nothing when scores of ABVP supporters, including a good number of middle-aged men, started harassing journalists, students and ordinary people waiting outside the main gate, hurling abuses and forcing them to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. They even assaulted India Today reporter Ashutosh Mishra as he was reporting live, calling him a “jihadist” and “Naxali”. Rohan Venkataramakrishnan of Scroll was surrounded by a mob as he tried to record a video on his phone, pushed around and hit on the head. He said several policemen were standing only a few metres away, but they didn’t intervene. Siddharth Ravi of the Hindu was gheraoed by masked men outside the campus. Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry was told to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” by two men outside the gate. The very next moment, a policeman approached and told him, “Bhaag yahan se.” Go away.
All of this happened outside the gates. Accepting that the police did not enter to contain the violence within because they didn’t have written permission, what stopped them from intervening in such clear instances of violence outside the gate?
At every single point in the whole sorry mess, the actions of the police fail even the bare minimum scrutiny. And this is the police force we are expected to believe. While on that, Home Minister Amit Shah (who directly controls the Delhi police force) spoke at an official function yesterday, and this is what he had to say, just hours after the videos of the police brutality in JMI surfaced:
“Despite all the anger and provocation, Delhi Police should remain calm but it should also be ready to deal with the miscreants with firm hands to protect the people.”
Remember this example of the police being “provoked” but still remaining “calm” and protecting the people with “firm hands”?:
Meanwhile facts, like murder, will out. A few more videos have now come out.
While on unanswered questions, here is one more: How did these videos leak, and from where? JMI universities had earlier said the police had taken CCTV footage for their investigations (which, two months later, are still going on). Which means the police, and the HRD ministry that controls them, are the only ones with access. So who leaked? Why? (As I was writing that, I remembered a Sir Humphrey Appleby line from Yes Minister: “The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”).
In context, remember also that on the exact same day, December 15, there was a similar police action in Aligarh Muslim University, resulting in widespread injuries.
All of the above are facts. Now for a segue into supposition/deduction: The protests in the wake of the passing of the CAA caught the home minister by surprise. And — since that is the only method he knows — he responded by unleashing his police force in an orgy of violence, hoping to terrify the protestors into submission. The protests escalated as a result — so he used a tame VC and the uniformed personnel as enablers, but this time relied on the private army that masquerades as the BJP’s student union to indulge in another orgy of violence. Because bullies will be bullies.
In other news, Donald Trump is coming to India. We are building a wall to ensure that no eyesores — you know, poor people living in slums — spoils the schmooze-fest of two of the world’s leading narcissists. It is estimated that Rs 100 crore or more of taxpayer money will be spent on “beautifying” Ahmedabad — in other words, in creating a Potemkin facade of prosperity — for a visit that will last for three hours. And 10,000 policemen will be on duty to ensure that, god forbid, no protestors sneak into the celebrations.
But that is okay, we are told, sometimes you have to spend money in the larger interest — which, in this case, is the Indo-US trade deal all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have been working on for more than two years now. In its desperation to get something out of the visit, India announced its readiness to permit the import of US chicken legs, turkey, blueberries, cherries and various dairy products.
All to no avail. USTR Robert Lighthizer was expected in India this week to sit with Indian officials and iron out the details of a trade deal. He has, however, informed the Indians that he is unable to travel — which basically means the deal is kaput, at least for now. And to make things worse, the US putting India in the list of developed nations means further economic strife. But never mind, we will have a grand event, with lots of pictures of Modi and Trump traveling on a road strewn with Rs 3.7 crore worth of flowers, and…
In other news, after Amit Shah announced the other day at the TimesNow summit that over the next three days he was ready to meet anyone who wanted to discuss CAA and related issues, the dadis of Shaheen Bagh took him at his word and announced they were marching to his residence to seek an audience with him. The march was blocked, and permission was denied. Bonus in this story of the incident is the lead image (which I am using as the cover image for the day) of the dadis blessing the police officer with whom they were trying to negotiate permission. In passing, the Supreme Court begins hearing the government response in the hearings into the Shaheen Bagh protests.
We will shortly get a Ramayana-themed train, yay, with bhajans and everything. We spent Rs 644 crore in four years to promote Sanskrit, also yay, though the story doesn’t say what this promotion consists of, and what the outcomes were. The Modi government wants scientists to research the possibility of creating shampoos, oils and cancer-curing drugs from cow dung, very much yay. Modi himself spent Sunday unveiling another statue, this time in his home constituency.
And since we could use all the distractions we can get to deflect from anything resembling actual news, the always reliable Subramanian Swamy has asked that investigations be reopened into the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi because apparently, it cannot be “fully established” that Godse was the killer, and there is something about an “Italian revolver”, and… oh well.
In good news — or at least, in terms of clutching at straws — Supreme Court Justice JY Chandrachud spoke out against the criminalisation of dissent (The full speech is here, and it is worth reading):
“The blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to protect constitutional values and the promotion of deliberative democracy,” he said.
While on justice, earlier today the Supreme Court told the government that it has to give permanent commissions, and command posts if eligible, to women who opt for it. The ruling has retrospective effect.
“The Centre’s submissions that women are physiologically weak are based on a deeply entrenched stereotype that men are dominant and women are basically caretakers. Taking care of family is a woman’s job. This is deeply disturbing,” said the SC.
And because we could all use a laugh just every once in a while:
Update, 7.30 PM: The JMI video leaks are beginning to give the sense that someone’s bright idea boomeranged. If the original idea was to give the cops an out, to excuse their behaviour, the exact opposite is now happening as streams of new videos are being outed and more lies thereby getting exposed. Here is the latest in the series:
Remember that the cops justified breaking the law and entering the campus without permission by saying they were in “hot pursuit” of rioters.
Asked why police had earlier denied entering the library, (Special SP (Crime) Praveer) Ranjan said Delhi Police stood by their position that they “entered the campus in hot pursuit after rioters started going inside the campus and began pelting stones at police”. He said that “there is a video of the Joint CP requesting them to talk”.
So much for that. And my understanding is that this is going to get much worse. Which leads to a thought: When people protest against a government, one of the major tipping points happens when people within the establishment begin siding with the protestors, either overtly or covertly (at some point, I hope to do a longish essay on how various protests in the age of social media and citizen journalism played out). This is now beginning to feel like one of those moments: the leaks are coming from inside the system, not from the protestors.
The Chandigarh government has apparently decided to monitor the length of skirts worn by women in discotheques.
What elevates garden variety moral policing into the realm of inspired whatthefuck-ery is this bit:
The committee has decided that they may refuse permission to bar owners to run in case of “exhibition or advertisement of scantily dressed women” and “indecency” or if it is “seditious and likely to excite political discontent.”
However, no one knows what is the definition of “scantily dressed women” or “indecency” or “seditious” mean.
How do you even manage to bring “sedition” and “political discontent” into this?
The Maharashtra government today defended its decision to have dance bar shows beamed live to police control rooms through CCTV cameras, saying the idea was to prevent young girls from being exploited.
The government, which filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, also asserted that the fundamental right to privacy didn’t extend to public places.
On February 24, the court had slammed the plan as “absurd” and said it would impinge upon an individual’s fundamental right to privacy and also a bar dancer’s right to eke out a living.
Seriously? You want to sit in police control rooms and watch girls dancing?
“Girls don’t study properly if they have mobile phones, and they can get into all sorts of bad situations,” Thakor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview. “Let them study, get married, then they can get their own phones. Until then, they can use their fathers’ phones at home, if necessary.”
In the Mehsana district, unmarried women found using mobile phone would be fined Rs 2,100, while informants would be rewarded Rs 200, as per the new diktat.
I wonder, in passing, if any serious attention is being paid to the effects of cellphones on boys below the age of 18?