Women and students lead the resistance: songs of innocence and experience to the fore

Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, where women have been protesting for over a fortnight, is being called Delhi’s Tahrir Square. Campuses across the country have come alive with songs, plays, graffiti and posters

Women and students lead the resistance: songs of innocence and experience to the fore
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Amit Sengupta

A bonfire is not the only thing generating warmth in the winter night. Young boys and girls and ordinary citizens, both old and young, gather around the bonfire to listen to the two young girls singing. A student is playing on a drum. The foot-tapping song is a rhythmic chant: ‘Badho Jamia Zindabad/ Laro Jamia Zindabad (March on Jamia, fight on Jamia, long live Jamia)

Indulekha is a first-year student at the Government Law College in Ernakulam, Kerala. She was never a part of any campus politics in the otherwise highly politicised state. But in December she quickly became a cult figure on social media and all over television and newspapers. All that she did was to wear a hijab at a protest and carry a placard that read: “Mr Modi, I am Indulekha. Identify me by my dress!”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stated days ago at an election rally in Jharkhand that those protesting against the NRC/CAA/CAB could be identified by their clothes, referring unmistakable to the skull caps and the hijab associated with the minority community. This was soon after the spontaneous and unprecedented protests in the Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) campus and the police brutality that followed, which rocked the nation and drew international attention.

“When we came in the morning to take part in the protest, they were asking for ideas. This was something I thought of on the spot. Someone said then that the idea was not new, actor Anaswara Rajan had just posted a picture of herself in a hijab with a similar message. But I had not seen that. Later, it was decided that I would wear a hijab and display this message. My classmates, who were not part of the protest, helped me with the hijab,” Indulekha told The NewsMinute. She steadfastly supports the Indian Constitution, and especially Article 14, which guarantees equality before law.

Many non-Muslim girl students and women wore the hijab across the country to protest the PM’s tasteless remark. The picture of a student holding a placard aloft and flaunting his sacred thread, indicating his high caste Hindu identity, also went viral. Some students took off their shirts and walked with messages for the PM scrolled on their back and chest.

The police had, without much or any provocation, entered the campus of both Jamia and AMU, lobbed tear gas shells in the library of Jamia and shot at students with stun guns, leading to at least one of them lose his eyesight. Students were beaten brutally, even inside the hostels in AMU. Almost 30,000 AMU students, joined by their faculty, sat on a mass fast, reminiscent of the great fast by thousands of students in satyagraha at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, in June 1989.

Protests against police brutality made the national capital into a battlefield. The authorities retaliated by shutting down metro stations, by using water cannons in the bitter cold and by beating up protesters and break congregations with batons. Nothing, however, stopped students, teachers and parents from gathering at the police headquarters after midnight and make their voice heard.

Prohibitory orders under Section 144 were imposed on entire cities, in Uttar Pradesh on the entire state, in a bid to thwart protests. Peaceful demonstrators during the day were mysteriously accused of turning violent after dusk, thus justifying police action against them. Videos surfacing on social media indicated the role of outsiders and even some policemen instigating the violence. In one video, the policemen can be seen charging at a peaceful procession from behind, triggering a stampede and a wilder charge by the police. Reading the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, in English and in regional languages, became a routine as students evinced a desire to read and understand the Constitution and how it was drafted.

Significantly, while protestors held the tricolour aloft and raised slogans in support of the pluralistic, tolerant culture of the country while scattered processions in support of the government sported a sea of saffron and BJP flags. They also raised abusive slogans against perceived traitors. The Home Minister declared that time had come to teach a lesson to the ‘Tukde-Tukde’ gang while the Prime Minister seemed to support police action and reminded people that policemen served them. Not a word was spared for the students and the youth, 23 of them had been killed in Uttar Pradesh alone.

Jamia protests sparked a wave of defiance and solidarity on a national scale with a striking video of two girls and their friends who took on armoured police wielding their lathis ruthlessly; they became national and international figures of youth resistance. So much so, every solidarity protest in Harvard or London, among other places abroad, had their images on posters, especially the one in which Ayesha Renna, just about 22, along with her friend Ladeeda Farzana, both Muslim girls from Kerala, chased the cops out of the compound, did not allow them to beat their young friend Shaheen, and forced them to back off.

While they shouted at the aggressive and belligerent cops, spectacled Ayesha’s gesture of pointing one finger at the cops in a moment of fearless defiance, gripped the national consciousness. Ayesha told the media later that her parents and family backed her totally. “What is there to be afraid of? We fear no one, except Allah!” She and Ladeeda were emphatic in defying the conventional wisdom that women must keep their heads and voices low, not to protest, not to fight injustice. Women must also fight for justice, they declared.

Reshmi Priyam Roy is a Masters’ student in history in Delhi University, with no background in student politics. She wants to become an artist or a stand-up comedian. She picked up some roses on the way to a protest, all alone, to Jantar Mantar. She was deeply disturbed by the police atrocities in Jamia and elsewhere. She was afraid that the cops would beat her up too. So, the first aggressive policeman she saw, she went to him, and offered a rose. While the unsmiling policemen were stunned and remained speechless, students all over Delhi and elsewhere followed her example, asking nonplussed policemen to join them, roses in hand.

Roy argued that the NRC/CAA would cause pain to the poor and the Muslims. “It is like being questioned in your home. You will have to prove you are an Indian, no matter how Indian you are. It violates our Constitution and the secular ethos of our country. It will make life tough for everyone.”

“I come from Patna in Bihar where BJP and the JD(U) had an alliance during the general election and indirectly I voted for the BJP. India is a secular country, but BJP’s policies are dividing it on caste and religion. It should be stopped,” she told the Hindu.

“The CAA, according to the BJP party and supporters, is to protect the communities which are being persecuted on the basis of their religion in the neighbouring countries. So why does it not include the Rohingya Muslims or Sri Lankan Tamils and others? Nor does it include all India’s neighbours.”

Children jumping up and down in rhythm, shouting slogans and singing songs at Shaheen Bagh in Jamia is a moment of revelation and hope. Shaheen Bagh is becoming the Tahrir Square of Delhi. Actors stage a play called ‘Jamiawala Bagh’, which draws a large crowd every time it is staged in the open. Poster and photo exhibitions; performances and music. People distributing food, tea, water. Doctors attending to patients…women turning up night after night, chanting slogans, distributing food and tea, chanting slogans, keeping each other company—it is soul stirring display of solidarity and civil defiance.

It’s already been a fortnight and more but the stoic and brave mothers, daughters and sisters of Shaheen Bagh are refusing to move until NRC/CAA are rolled back by the Government. Thousands of local residents, especially women, are joining them in this 24/7 vigil, undeterred by the cold wave and the very real possibility of police action.

One of the most popular slogans here and elsewhere has been: Jab Hindu Muslim Raazi, to Kya Karega Nazi? Among many others, one of the iconic pictures in an unknown location is of a young woman in a hijab wearing a black jacket feeding her infant with a bottle of milk. The child sports a poster which says: No CAA, No NRC. The woman’s forehead has the painted message: I reject CAA/NRC. Along with the mother and child, there is a placard on the footpath: ‘Too many police, too little justice’.

Among posters that cropped up across the country, among them one in Kolkata in which Amit Shah is depicted as an ‘Urban Nazi’ to the adaptation of Gustav Clint’s famous painting, ‘The Kiss’, depicting Hitler kissing Modi, the movement is relying on dark humour and irony. The show of defiance is marked by the creative outpourings of brilliant students and teachers. Sporting bandage on their heads and blindfolding themselves in symbolic protest against the student blinded, this has been a spectacular show.

Five women, one graphic artist, and free-lance writers, started drawing Kollam (alpana/rangoli) near the busy square of Besant Nagar in Chennai. They designed the resistance to the CAA/NRC within the Kollam which is a traditional art in many parts of India. This was at 7.30 in the morning. They were arrested soon after and dragged away in police jeeps. Their lawyers who arrived to rescue them were also arrested by the BJP-supported AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu. In response, many others in Chennai and elsewhere began drawing Kollams on the stretch outside their house.

The spontaneous protests which started from the campuses in Jamia and AMU, have spread across India in a great non-violent revolution unseen and unprecedented in the history of the nation. From elite residential colonies in South Delhi and Gurgaon, to schools, colleges, markets and courts, the movement has struck a chord, with tens of thousands of people marching on the streets peacefully, in Bhiwandi, Guwahati, Shillong, Imphal, Agartala, Kurnool, Bangaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Patna, Ahmedabad, Trivandraum, Hyderabad, to the smallest towns in UP and Andhra Pradesh and other states.

Schoolgirls in pink hijab marched in Jamia, so did little boys in Mallapuram, Kerala. While Christian girls wore hijab while singing Christmas carols in Kerala as a rebuff to Modi’s ugly and communal statement, football stadiums in Kerala rocked with the slogan of Azadi, with players joining in. Indeed, a new trend has started in Kerala: couples getting married holding placards against NRC/CAA, and shouting slogans of Azadi, with families and friends joining in.

Young boys hold placards which read, ‘It’s bad, even engineers are joining in’. Or, ‘It’s bad, even South Delhi is joining in’. Indeed, students from various IITs, IIMs and private universities too have joined this movement in what is clearly a pan-India struggle against a communal and polarising new law.

Those who have been cynical about the young and millennials in India and other parts of the world, are now following the young, because they are the future of Indian secular democracy, and egalitarian modernity. It is they who don’t care for skin colour or religion, caste or status, who believe in a rainbow coalition of equality and justice for all, who dream of a beautiful and shared world of harmony and fulfilment.

The politics of hate and xenophobia is not their cup of tea, nor do they fear the dictators at the helm in Delhi who have been riding roughshod over norms, protocols and conventions. The millennials are not going to buy into communal polarisation, the protests seemed to suggest. The most heartening fallout, however, has been the revival of interest and a resurrection of faith in the Indian Constitution, a product of the great freedom movement in India, and drafted after several years of consultations and suggestions invited from the people. No wonder, the portraits of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh can be seen everywhere, from Jamia to the streets of Kolkata.

In Chile an old slogan has been resurrected. This is accompanied by classical opera in symphony with the protestors. It was first sung during the time of Salvador Allende, democratically elected president of Chile, and great poet Pablo Neruda. The song and slogan was famous during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who killed and jailed thousands of dissidents and communists. The slogan was first resurrected in its various adaptions during a long peaceful movement in JNU in 1989-90. It says: The People United Shall Always be Victorious. Or, The People United Can Never Be Defeated.’

Indeed, from the streets of Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Sudan, to the bylanes of Shaheen Bagh, Mallapuram, old Delhi and old Kolkata, the slogan has resurrected the clarion call for a non-violent revolution.

The young are drawing new art, making new music, producing innovative videos, painting stirring graffiti, singing new songs and reciting new poetry. They tell us a thousand stories of solitude and longing, of desire and aspiration, of ideals and innocence, of unfinished dreams.

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