Revolution, thy name is woman
Amid a cacophony of blaring vehicle horns, a faint voice, intermittently interrupted by the screeching noise of the microphone, is carried faintly over the air as one passes through Badkali Chowk in Nuh’s Nagina on a warm February afternoon. As one inches closer, the speaker — a middle-aged woman in a green salwar-kameez, her face covered with a ghunghat (veil) — can be seen addressing a crowd of people seated on the ground, at a sit-in protest that has been taking place daily since January 30.
“Hindustan hamara hai (India belongs to us). We will continue to live here with our children, no matter what. We are not going anywhere from our country and will fight to be treated as equal citizens,” says the speaker, Tai Hazra, evoking a thunderous round of applause from the audience.
Hazra is among a few hundred Muslim women participating in an indefinite sit-in protest that has been taking place on a patch of land barely touching the edge of Badkali Chowk’s main road, about 70 kilometres from Gurugram, for over a month now. The women, along with men and children, have been protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The citizenship law accelerates Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who came to India on or before December 31, 2014. Critics of the law say that it violates India’s secular Constitution by making religion the criteria of citizenship. Muslims allege that the CAA and NRC, when implemented in conjunction, could potentially disfranchise them of citizenship. Countrywide protests against the law have been raging on, with the women-led sit-in at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, in particular, garnering massive local and international attention. Women at Shaheen Bagh have occupied a road for more than two months now, and the sit-in has acted as a template for scores of protests all over India.
The sit-in at Badkali also takes inspiration from the Shaheen Bagh protest and was started on the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi by two social organisations — Mewat Vikas Sabha and Mewat RTI Manch. While the protest was started by men, the number of women protesters has swelled from 20-50 in the first week to 400-500 now — an impressive number for a region like Mewat where women are rarely seen participating in public gatherings or are passive bystanders at best.
Compelled to step out
“Women in Mewat do not step out of their homes, unless absolutely necessary. No one likes to sit on the streets. We have been compelled to come out and protest since our haq (legitimate right ) on this country is now being threatened. We will not go anywhere until this kala kanoon (black law) is withdrawn. The women in Shaheen Bagh are fighting for the same cause as us,” says Bano, a homemaker, who is at the protest site with her 11-month-son Razik.
When the burqa-clad woman first joined the sit-in, she was nervous and sceptical about sharing a space with so many unknown faces. The dire circumstances, however, compelled her to step out and make her voice heard, says Bano. “We are facing a crisis. There is a threat to our citizenship and our rights. Silence is no longer an option. If we do not speak now, it will be too late,” she says.
After waking up at 5 AM and completing her daily chores— feeding the cattle, watering the fields, making breakfast, and cleaning up—she heads to the protest sit-in at Badkali Chowk, with her youngest Razik in tow. Sitting for hours under the sun with a distracted 11-month-old is not easy, but she remains unfazed. “These days, I try and complete my work early so that I can join the sit-in before noon. We often recite the afternoon prayers at the protest site and head home before the Maghrib (evening) prayers in time for dinner,” says Bano, as she raises her fist or claps to the rhythm of slogans flowing from the stage, while her son Razik holds the tricolour.
A makeshift wall of resistance is placed against the stage near the Babool trees, under whose limited shade Bano and the other women sit. Multiple photographs of police action against students of Jamia Millia Islamia and images of anti-CAA protests from different parts of the country are plastered on the wall under the banner of ‘symbolic and iconic images’ along with the many popular slogans that have gained currency during the countrywide protests. A flex banner adorned with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and words from the preamble to the Constitution in Urdu and Hindi hangs in one corner of the stage, while another banner in English reads ‘Withdraw CAA, boycott NRC’. A poster mentioning the names of the protesters who were killed in anti-CAA protests across the country is also placed on a pole that supports the canopy over the protest. Amid all this, there are young boys going around doing different chores such as distributing tea and bananas, offering water, fixing the sound system, and noting down the names of the speakers who address the gathering.
Women with children sit huddled together on the extreme left corner of the tarpaulin sheet, while the remaining portion of the sheet is occupied by men in much greater numbers. With the number of women swelling in the past few weeks, a separate section has been created to accommodate more women. Among them is 33-year old Tahira, who stepped out of her house to participate in a protest for the first time on February 5, inspired by the resilience of women at Shaheen Bagh. “A danger is prevailing over Muslims today. If the NRC is carried out, Muslims can be stripped off citizenship on various pretexts. Like most people, I was worried too, but was hesitant about stepping out. My husband showed me videos of women in Shaheen Bagh sitting in protest. He said that there was no reason to fear, and many other women were out on the streets, taking part in the protest,” says Tahira, who is accompanied by her nine-year-old son at the protest and has left behind a five-year-old at home.
On the day HT meets Tahira, she has brought along her mother-in-law Nasri to the protest site. “She was working in the fields, but I told her that she must join the protest along with everyone else,” Tahira adds with glee as Nasri nods in agreement. “They should take back the law which is causing so much chaos across the country,” Nasri says.
Nasri’s son and Tahira’s husband Arshad teaches at a college. After finishing teaching classes during the first half of the day, he joins the protest. He has been a regular at the site. A month of the sit-in protest, he says, has been a testimony to the resilience of the women of Mewat. “Women in Mewat are not encouraged to step out due to poor awareness. However, just like the women in Shaheen Bagh, women in Mewat have also been protesting for a month now. They have yet again demonstrated that they are more powerful than men,” he says.
He adds that the recent riots in Delhi have also galvanised more protesters. “The riots in Delhi have created a palpable sense of fear and there is a complete breakdown of trust in the state. Everyone can see how communal riots engulfed Delhi and things went wrong. They understand that keeping quiet against the NPR and NRC is no longer an option,” he says.
Amid the fear and grief, the protest at Badkali has become a symbol of strength and resilience, says Tahira. “The numbers here have multiplied since the riots and people are more united than ever before. People are keeping rozas (fasts) and praying for the people who were killed in Delhi,” says Tahira.
Fighting for their rights
While Bano says that the law is stacked against Muslims, she insists that the protest against the CAA is aimed at safeguarding the ethos of the constitution and ensuring that women are not deprived of their citizenship. “There is a lot of love between different communities in Mewat. Our protest seeks to save the constitution and is not a Hindu-Muslim issue, as some would like to believe. Our protest is against the NRC, which will have serious consequences for women of Mewat since not everyone in Mewat has documents due to low literacy levels,” she adds.
Her sentiments are echoed by other women at the protest site. Most women share that the burden of an exercise like the NRC would have disastrous consequences on people in Mewat, where literacy levels are poor and people do not have documents in their names. Nizri, another regular protester at the site, says that she is unsure of her age and has no documents to prove the same. “Ghani umar hai. Umar na jaanu. Kaaghaz kahane se layenge. (I am very old but don’t know my exact age. Where will I get the documents from?),” she says.
Now or Never
Siddique Ahmed Meo, community historian and social activist, who has been a regular at the site, says that the number of women participants has swelled in the past one month. Meo says that with increasing awareness of the ramifications of the CAA and NRC, women are motivated to join the movement. “The number of people participating in the protest has increased manifold since the time the protest started. Since the beginning, we treated the sit-in as an educational exercise, one that sought to inform people about the CAA, NRC, and NPR. People understand the consequences of all three, which has driven both men and women to step out of their homes,” says Meo, adding that such mobilisation of women towards a cause is unprecedented. This mobilisation can be attested by the fact that a whole new section had to be created to accommodate the growing number of women protesters.
Mewat Vikas Sabha president Salamuddin says that between 150-400 women participate in the sit-in on a daily basis—a milestone in many ways. “Before the anti-CAA protests, women in Mewat had not even participated in a rally. Now, besides sitting on dharna, they speak up freely on the mic, express their views, and sometimes, even recite nazms,” says Salamuddin, who attributes the development to an awakening consciousness among women across the country. He says that many women have developed an understanding that a process like the NRC is likely to have adverse consequences more for women than men since most of them don’t have documents. “Most people receive news through their children or various channels on the mobile phones. Due to the reach of social media, the message of protesting women in Shaheen Bagh and other places is reaching women in Mewat,” says Salamuddin.
Defying prohibitory orders
The protesters have been defying prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that have been in place since December 25. The Nuh administration had imposed Section 144 across the district from December 25, 2019, till February as a preventative measure against disruption in the law and order situation. Section 144 was imposed for the second time in Nuh on February 25. “The whole of Nuh area, within 3km on both sides of the highway, and areas under the municipal limits of Tauru and Ferozepur Jhirka are under Section 144. Four FIRs were registered in February,” says Jaibir Singh, Inspector (Security), Nuh. Singh says that the police have filed several complaints since the sit-in is being carried out without permission. “We have registered a complaint against those people who are protesting against the NRC and have started a dharna without permission. Section 144 is also imposed in the area and any protest being carried out without permission is illegal,” says Singh.
Mewat Vikas Sabha president Salamuddin says that in the aftermath of Delhi riots, senior police officers had approached the organisers to call off the protest. “While they did not pressure us, police officials asked us to call off the protest. We, however, refused. Our protest has been peaceful so far and will remain that way,” says Salamuddin.
With the sit-in completing a month, protesters are stepping up their efforts and adopting different strategies to oppose the CAA, NRC, and the NPR. On the 34th day of the sit-in on Tuesday, protesters started a relay hunger strike with two people—a man and a woman each. The protesters will be sitting on a daily hunger strike, starting from today, the organisers said. In the next few days, specific days will also be utilised for a silent protest.
A senior advisor within the government refused to comment on the matter.