In India: Not Shields but Swords
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Written by: Vrinda Sood
Edited by: Anna Mohan, Khushi Karnawat
In early January 2020, Amir Aziz, an alumnus of Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi and an artist, performed a poem titled "Yeh Hain Jamia ki ladkiyan" (tr. 'These are the girls of Jamia'). It was an ode to the women who over the months of December 2019 and January 2020, became the face of one of the biggest protest movements seen in India.
The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), previously the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), is the contentious piece of legislation at the heart of hundreds of thousands of people across India coming onto the streets. The Act is an amendment to The Citizenship Act from 1955, which paved the way for those affected by religious persecution outside of India to find a haven within Indian borders. The Act conspicuously leaves out Muslims; thereby, denying the Muslims fleeing religious persecution the opportunity to become legal immigrants to India.
This Act not only contradicts the spirit of the Indian constitution, which clearly states that India is a sovereign, socialist, and secular republic by singling out Muslims. When taken together with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens, the Act directly affects low-income women in India the most.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register of all Indian citizens, which is going to be put into effect nationwide by the end of 2021. The core purpose of the document is popularly known as "detection, deletion, and deportation". It initially began in Assam in 1972, when East-Pakistan independently declared itself as Bangladesh, this led to many immigrants entering the country. Fear that these foreign nationals would cause the Assamese people to "lose" their identity led to a push for them to be deported. The move to implement NRC by 2021 rests on the rhetoric of fear, and the growing bigotry towards, and persecution of the Muslim population in India.
However, implementation of the register most affects those who do not have the proper documentation to prove their citizenship, regardless of religion. A large part of this population is women from low-income backgrounds. These women, especially in rural areas, often do not have basic documentation like birth certificates, which can serve as citizenship proof. Further, given the patriarchal laws of land ownership in India, most women do not lay legal claim to the property they own.
The CAA is an inadequate method of determining citizenship; it specifically harms those with intersectional identities. Transgender communities in India, who reportedly are not recognised by the Indian government and could be rendered stateless. Even when these communities have the ability and resources to procure and file for documentation, the lack of any non-binary category present in the forms, means they are forced to accept either a male or female category.
The fear of potential statelessness is not just paranoia; it's based on reality. ANI reported that a petition had been filed in the supreme court regarding 2,000 transgender individuals in Assam who have been left off the National Register of Citizens.
Hence, at the beginning of 2020, several parts of India saw massive protests against these laws, led by women and transgender communities.
Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi.
Shaheen Bagh is home to many students from Jamia Milia Islamia University. A key sight of large-scale government crackdowns against the protesting Muslim student population. The brutality of the police as enacted upon innocent students shocked the nation. In contrast to the violence committed by the police, the protesters gathered peacefully. They occupied the Kalindi Kunj Road, a major 6-lane highway bordering Shaheen Bagh and South Delhi. The streets were filled with thousands of women, in their colourful Hijabs and Burkas.
"It is not for fun that we have gathered here. We are suffering, our families are suffering, but we won't rest till this draconian law is recalled," said a woman protester.
As we witness an uneasy calm in Shaheen Bagh, the crowds emerge in Singhu this year. Instead of the vivid colours of hijabs, this year we see thousands of Punjabi farmers in their turbans and long beards protesting the three farm bills passed by parliament earlier this year. The bills are said to be anti-farmer and would leave many farmers at the mercy of corporations.
Striking similarities emerge – the sudden announcement of the laws with a little prior conversation, the framing of the new acts as being for the citizens as opposed to the reality of harm caused, and the peaceful protesters being met with water cannons and tear gas shells in the middle of a cold winter.
In Shaheen Bagh, the leaderless peaceful protest saw women taking shifts to protest and had spaces set up for rest and nourishment, self-education, art, and street theatre. Poetry, art and music were central in overpowering the violence. What started as a 15-person protest blocking a 6-lane highway in North Delhi on December 11, 2019, swelled up to a crowd of 50,000 by the end of January. The protest inspired several others to come out to speak across India and an outpouring of support from all corners of the world.
An unexpected leader emerged, Dadi (Grandma) Bilkis Bano, also referred to as Shaheen Bagh Dadi. The 82-year-old made it to the list of Time's most influential people of 2020, interestingly Narendra Modi was also featured. She sat alongside hundreds of other women, protesting the CAA, and became a prominent face of the movement. Recently, amid the farmers protest she was escorted away by police from at the borders of Singhu and recorded as saying,
"We are daughters of farmers; we'll go to support farmers' protests today. We will raise our voice, and the government should listen to us."
For many, in positions of privilege, the protests could be regarded as mere inconveniences: days of internet shutdowns, blockades on major highways, and restricted mobility. However, the frustrations voiced in auto-rickshaws missed the gravitas of the situation. This was not just politics.
This was not an intellectual debate about Modi or the BJP, but rather these protests are situated in the real-life experiences of those oppressed in our society. Policies, Politics and Protest impact lives.
The protests, while still focusing on the unconstitutionality of the CAA and NRC, became a push-back to the much larger Hindutva agenda of the BJP and repression of minorities by the State. In a quote to Time Magazine, Medha Patkar, lead campaigner of the Save Narmada movement mentioned, "You need women when the fight is going to be long and hard; The speciality of a women-led movement is that they can be sustained longer. Women don't give up," Patkar says. India sees these women as shields, she says. "But in fact, they are the swords."