A lot has been written about the most translated author and political activist of India who wrote in Bengali, and her vast body of work that shaped subaltern feminism in Bengali journalism and fiction. Much said, much adapted in cinema and much taught in colleges at least as a part of Indian Women’s Writing paper, one would say. And yet, it is difficult to not return to one of her smaller but seminal work in these times when the Indian state is routinely performing uninhibited and unmistakable signs of fascism. A state that witch-hunts supposed anti-nationals who act against its standard propaganda of nationalism.
The work that I am referring to is Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi, translated from Bengali to English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and featured in a collection of short fiction titled Breast Stories. Set in 1971 amid the volatile political climate of West Bengal, it is the story of the Santhal tribal woman Draupadi or Dopdi Mejhen, the wife of Dulna Mejhen. Dopdi, herself a wanted Naxalite, along with her husband and their comrades, is responsible for the death of the landlord of Bakuli, and occupying upper-caste tube-wells during a drought.
Through a sustained search operation by the local police and army officers, led by the chief Senanayak, Dulna is hunted down and killed in an encounter and Dopdi captured. The armed and rebellious Dopdi, like her namesake queen Draupadi in the Mahabharat who was a threat to the patriarchal code of the Pandava court, is a challenge to the state authority. But unlike her epic namesake, Dopdi’s tribal identity and a marginalised Bangla dialect posits her as an outlaw.
Gendered Repression and the Gaze
If one looks at the recent arrest incident of 27-year-old Safoora Zargar under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) at a time when the nation state is already caught in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, it is not difficult to locate Zargar within Dopdi’s disenfranchised body politic. Zargar, an M.Phil. student at Jamia Milia Islamia, is over three months pregnant, and was arrested by the Delhi Police’s special cell on April 10.
She was later denied bail and, on April 21, charged under UAPA. She was part of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests organised by university students through December and January. She was arrested for allegedly leading the anti-CAA protest at Jaffrabad metro station in February. In a tweet, the Indian chapter of Amnesty International called out the Indian government for “ruthlessly arresting a pregnant woman and sending her to an overcrowded prison during Covid-19” and demanded her immediate release.
Elsewhere, Kashmir-based photojournalist Masrat Zahra, has also been booked under UAPA. In a recent interview with SheThePeople, Zahra said, “I am a journalist and not a social activist. I don’t have any political agenda and as a journalist, our work is to bring out authentic and verified stories without any bias.“
Earlier, The Indian Express reported that 30-year-old Rizwana Khatun had written to Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, narrating her ordeal when she was rushed to a hospital in Jamshedpur after she started bleeding. The pregnant woman reportedly said she was abused because of her religion and that she was asked to wipe her own blood. The incident resulted in her miscarriage.
Trolling and Shaming as State Control
On May 4, #SafooraZargar started trending on Twitter and a series of slanderous tweets emerged with the aim to character assassinate and slut shame the young student activist. The toxic tweets activated by Hindutva IT Cell members spewed venom through the derogatory language and visual implications. Even as Delhi BJP MLA, Kapil Mishra, conveniently urged his followers not to link Zargar’s pregnancy with his Delhi riots-linked comments in what was supposedly amusing, men and women expressed their horror at Zargar’s “loose morals”.
Some linked the last day at Shaheen Bagh as her honeymoon without a condom, some said how the “Shaheen Bagh ki sherni” came back as a gavin (pregnant cow) accompanied with a cartoon of a woman with an explicit stomach carrying a pumpkin on her head; others maligned male members of the Sikh community on how they were distributing “biryani” in exchange of free sex. Questions were raised on whether she was pregnant outside wedlock (she is married incidentally) and the legitimacy of the unborn child; questions that had absolutely no bearing on her arrest and the charges levelled against her. After the #freesafoorazargar campaign led by womens’ rights activists and organisations, the Delhi Commission of Women conceded to issue a token notice to Delhi Police for arresting Zargar.
Questions of a woman’s marriage/singlehood, partner/husband, pregnancy/motherhood are ought not to have any bearing upon delivering constitutional and non-discriminatory trial. Yet, the troll machines, and by extension a large Tweeting Indian public who came out in their support, made it the Hindu Rashtra’s business to ask private questions to Zargar on a public platform.
Rape and Resistance in Devi’s Draupadi and Today’s India
The misogynist and Islamophobic slut-shaming belongs to a checkered body of verbal abuse levelled against individuals branded as liberals and therefore anti-nationals. That agents of the ruling political party’s IT Cell had the sanction to do this without fearing impunity or public outrage testifies to our times wherein abuse is legitimised if the enemy can be identified. In this case, they were successful in establishing Zargar as belonging to the enemy camp—Islamic anti-nationals and terrorists who were protesting against NRC-CAA, whose biggest agenda was to malign India—and therefore she deserved no sympathy, forget respect.
Rape, as Devi reminds in Draupadi, ceases to be a sexual act; it is a physically performed act of total state control that aims at stripping the victim of “honour” and forcing her to complete submission. It takes one back to the “Ekattorer Naari” or the “Women of 1971” who embodied a unique positioning during the intense political violence from March to December 1971 vis-à-vis the Bangladesh Muktijudhho (Bangladesh War of Liberation) and the Naxalbari movement of West Bengal.
Fictional narratives and memoirs reconstructed through oral histories documented experiences of women as victims of state and police torture. In West Bengal, sanctioned state violence on Naxalite women prisoner’s bodies perpetrated by authorities are well documented in such memoirs, and the experiences reveal from being force stripped, beaten repeatedly and raped under police custody. Such abuse was ritualised along with verbal violence filled with sexual insinuations and aimed at psychological breakdown of the victims.
#SafooraZargar troll operation is akin to a state operation that used voyeurism, verbal violence and predatory rape-culture language on a virtual platform. But this is not 1971, it is 2020 and the 2019 national election was reportedly campaigned out on Twitter and WhatsApp; in essence, these virtual platforms are co-opted by ruling (and also oppositional parties) to swing popular sentiments and engage in victim shaming. The normalisation of rape culture and gendered assaults are signs of a state that brooks no resistance and is intolerant of free speech and dissent in the face of a singular nationalistic agenda. A state that alienates its “untamed” citizens.
In Draupadi, Devi resists this alienation.
Devi writes: “At 8:57 Senanayak’s dinner hour approached, and saying, “Make her. Do the needful,” he disappeared. (Draupadi, later) Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. She senses that her vagina is bleeding. In the muddy moonlight she lowers her lightless eye, sees her breasts, and understands that, indeed, she’s been made up right. Her breasts are bitten raw, the nipples torn. How many? Four-five-six-seven-then Draupadi had passed out.”
In the epic, the Aryan heroine Draupadi evoked her god-friend Lord Krishna who clothed her even as Dushashan relentlessly tried to disrobe her. In Devi’s story, Draupadi-Dopdi refuses to be re-robed and turns the perpetrator’s violence in his face by reserving her right to clothing:
“(Senanayak to officer) Where are her clothes? Won’t put them on, sir. Tearing them. Draupadi’s black body comes even closer. Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand…. Draupadi says… What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?”
As Zargar is shamed, Zahra charged for her work and Khatun degraded, and hundred others whose stories are not even reported or documented and therefore rendered voiceless—women, as under all regimes with totalitarian tendencies, are reduced to symbols of being “corrected” and “purified” by state agencies as a means to teach lessons to others.
Dopdi’s resistance ensured that her story was not exercised in erasure. From Ekattorer Naari to the “Dadis of Shaheen Bagh”—protest and resistance present an alternative to repression.