There is a pandemic affecting the entire world which has claimed millions of lives. The entire functioning of economies, public and private institutions, schools and universities has been brought to a grinding halt. But not in India. Here, the Home Ministry along with its ever faithful State Police Departments have been quite busy. While migrants are dying everyday in trains and on roads, people are starving and surviving on dried leaves and dogs’ carcasses and the public health system is experiencing a massive collapse owing to lack of resources, the state has chosen to divert its energies towards executing an extremely violent, vengeful and sadist witch-hunt of innocent students and activists, especially women protesters who led the anti-CAA demonstrations in Delhi and all over the country before the lockdown.
Ever since December 2019, Muslim women from all across the country have been protesting against the draconian CAA-NRC-NPR legislations. These methods of protest were unique, peaceful and sought to question and redefine the very idea of nationalism based on a hateful communal model. It was a watershed moment for the women’s movement in India as Muslim women gathered in such strong numbers who were joined by other women and queer activists from all across universities and organisations (like Pinjra Tod).
This huge presence of women was unprecedented and the Shaheen Bagh sit-in inspired multiple other sit-ins across Delhi and the whole country. Subsequently indefinite sit-ins began in Hauz Rani, Khureji, Inderlok, Seelampur, etc. These sit-ins led by Muslim women were peaceful, persistent and gave a very clear message to the establishment that they could not be divided on the basis of gender, class, caste, ethnicity or religion and any such law that would divide on the basis of these factors would be unconstitutional.
Unlike how the media portrayed these protests to be violent and angry they were well structured and created awareness about citizenship rights through unique modes such as reading of the preamble, reading of the constitution, discussing pressing issues of education and economy with the people at the sit-ins, etc. However after the violent anti-Muslim pogrom on February 23rd where Kapil Mishra incited violence and caused Hindu mobs to attack Muslims in North-east Delhi, the state has aggressively clamped down on peaceful protesters.
Instead of arresting those who have been responsible for killing Muslims and burning down their houses, the state has been on a malicious witch hunt and falsely blamed activists, students especially women for the violence which they never incited or initiated. Safoora Zargar (member of Jamia Coordination Committee), Gulfisha (an MBA student who was coordinating the Seelampur sit-in), Devangana and Natasha (student activists from Pinjra Tod) and Ishrat Jahan (former Municipal councillor) are some of the women who have been arrested. Apart from them, Sharjeel Imam, Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal and Shifa Ur Rahman are other students activists who have been hounded for peacefully protesting against CAA.
Right to Dissent – A Myth in India?
The way the state is aggressively punishing peaceful dissenters, especially women reveals a very ugly side of the BJP regime which has been out in the open since the Bhima Koregaon case. Sociologists have compared how the Bhima Koregaon model is being replicated in these recent arrests to falsely frame innocent protesters. The nexus of the state and paid Indian media is working together to erase from public memory the legitimacy of these peaceful protests which were essential to preserve constitutional morality in these times.
Instead these protests are being painted as some violent uprisings. Similarly the Home Ministry is also seeking to victimise the very community which will be the most adversely affected after the implementation of the CAA. By turning the victims of the Delhi violence into perpetrators, the state has made it clear that it will do everything in its capacity to clamp down on dissent especially from minority communities, women and students in this country.
While Kapil Mishra who shouted “Goli maaro saalo ko” goes scot free, innocent students like Safoora Zargar who is 5 months pregnant languish in jail for no crime committed. Since Amit Shah was the mastermind behind CAA, it has become a matter of personal vengeance for the Home Minister to prosecute everyone involved in the protests. These protests brought together Muslim women, workers, students, Dalits, the queer community and countless other women from all walks of life. This unity posed a very visible threat to the Brahminical, authoritarian and patriarchal Hindutva state. The state along with the BJP IT Cell has left no stone unturned to frame the solidarity of these protesters as an Islamist-Jihadist-Feminist-Marxist plot to de-legitimise months of organised protests and peaceful dissent.
Disproportionate Number of Women Arrested
The incarceration and framing of activists like Safoora, Gulfisha, Natasha and Ishrat under the draconian UAPA reveals the anxieties of both a patriarchal state and a patriarchal society. It is difficult being a political woman in our society and articulation of independent opinion is met with severe backlash.
This specific targeting of women protesters seeks to send out a larger message to young women and women students that they should just sit in their classrooms and refrain from stepping out of their university spaces. The massive involvement of women students from AMU, Jamia, JNU, DU and other universities all across India in these protests has already received misogynistic backlash by people (including in some Left activist circles) who feel that it is not a woman’s place to participate in these protests.
It also raises important questions about a woman’s agency—are we so afraid of women becoming political that we constantly critique and infantilise them? This was observed during the Muslim women’s sit-ins where a fringe of people shamelessly questioned the agency of these Muslim women and called them the ‘stooges and puppets’ of outside, external forces. Moreover, these arrests seek to fracture the solidarity between the women of the students movement and the larger anti-CAA movement in India.
This attack on freedom of speech and dissent is an attack on all the students who seek to question, critically think and are not afraid to hold Governments accountable for their actions. These incarcerations also raise questions about the need for prison reform in India, and how the prison-industrial complex only seeks to serve the states and aids them in carrying out their hate politics by imprisoning anyone who questions them. At a time when various countries have set bare minimum examples by emptying out their prisons in this pandemic, our government continues to fill them up with innocent students, exposing them to the threat of Covid-19.
The state will continue to clamp down on protesters and activists especially from marginalised communities so that they can seek to divide and rule. Any sort of social solidarity spanning across people from different communities will always be a threat to this Brahminical state and they will do their best to further fragment us on the basis of gender, class, caste and religious lines. Thus, it is imperative that we hold on to our own values of socialism, of unity and keep on forging solidarity across lines to keep the spirit of the constitution alive in this country. We won’t let the sacrifices made by these brave and exemplary women go in vain—freedom and liberation shall come.
Featured Image Source: The Wire