Women at Kolkata's Park Circus Prove the Indian Republic Has Come of Age

As the land is endangered, so is the home. When the home itself is in danger, then women have to step out of the home to save the home.

A republic truly comes of age when its women too claim it. The 71st Republic Day of India marked a proud year for this nation when its republic truly came of age.

When millions of women begin to insist that the state is a matter of res publica, a public affair, and not the private estate of rulers to decree as they please, then it marks a turning point in the history of the nation. When women take over public spaces in small towns and big cities across the country with the power we are witnessing today, then theirs is a force not to be underestimated; and when they claim in unison that it is their historical rooting in the soil of Hindustan that will determine their nationality, as well as the the place of their graves, then the authority of papers indeed does seem to decline.

On this Republic Day, Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan wore a festive look, with a profusion of orange, white and green balloons and streamers dotting the sky, and portraits of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, evoking the primacy of the constitution, towering high. Under the national flag that stretches across the entire length of the makeshift “stage” area each day, women and men of all denominations chant slogans; students perform rap, and musicians their songs; school students, escorted there in uniform by their teachers, read the preamble and sing the national anthem, ‘Saare jahan se achha’ and ‘We shall overcome’; and doctors march in to extend their solidarity.

Students from Alia and Brabourne, Bangabasi and Maulana Azad, and from Presidency, Loreto, Xaviers and Jadavpur,  have of course been holding strong in powerful solidarity with the women right from the first day. In fact, as one of the women said, Park Circus has become a “mini Hindustan”.

Women have finally claimed agency on the fields of this nation, and the anti-colonial movement is a constant reference point. Asmat Jamil, one of the women who spearheaded the Park Circus women’s protest, and has a BA degree in history from Bhawanipur Education Society, Kolkata, evokes the Rowlatt Act of 1919: “As Gandhi had declared a struggle for azadi in 1919, and the chants of freedom rent every part of this country, so we too have declared azadi now – the freedom to lay claim to our own land.”

Neelam Ghazala, the principal of a school who holds a PhD in the humanities from Calcutta University and posts in the executive bodies of several organisations, points out, “When the civil disobedience movement was launched, when the non-cooperation movement happened, the British lost their seat of power. We too are ready to put our lives at stake now.”

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What compelled thousands of women who had never stepped out in protest to take over the maidan with such vigour? Jamil, who has been coming here since the first day with 18 women from her family, explains, “If a housewife steps out then something extraordinary has happened, something really terrible has happened. Hindustaan ki sarzameen, the land of Hindustan, Hindustaan ki mitti, the very soil of Hindustan, beckons us in its sorrow. As mothers we understand the sorrow of this earth, of the mother who sees her children divided, their lives drenched in blood, their home poisoned with hatred. They have passed a law questioning our very right to our own land, now they are threatening our very existence, now we cannot keep quiet.”

As the land is endangered, so is the home. When the home itself is in danger, then women have to step out of the home to save the home.

This is a political notion of motherhood that transcends all strategic rhetoric. Right across the Park Circus maidan, women poor and affluent, non-literate and highly educated, all echo a powerful litany of grievances:

“They brought down our mosque, we said nothing; they threw our sons out of trains and lynched our men to death on the mere suspicion that they were carrying beef, we were quiet; they passed judgement on our personal laws, we had to accept it; they issued a partial judgement on Babri Masjid, we kept shut because we had promised we would; now they have attacked our daughters in universities…”

The daughters that were attacked in Jamia Millia Islamia, in Jawaharlal Nehru University and in Aligarh Muslim University were not the biological daughters of the Park Circus Women; they were the daughters of the nation.

The irony that the people who chanted “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” were the very ones responsible for the crackdown on the Jamia women, or the sidetracking of economic issues, is not lost on the protesting women either. “Those very girls, the women they wanted to educate, are now rising against the NRC and CAA,” says Jamil. Citing the inadequacy of rape laws and the effect of poverty on women, she points out that women wanted better laws against rape, they wanted the eradication of poverty, but the government instead diverted attention away from these concerns to the CAA. “We’re not fighting for religion, we’re fighting for humanity,” she asserts.

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Jaweriya Mehreen, a medical student, says, “Come and see if it is only Muslims protesting here. No, everyone is protesting – most of the time the microphone is in the hands of ‘non-Muslims’, and that is very good, that all are standing by us! It is good, for this government is the enemy not just of Muslims but of all those who are poor, who are illiterate, who do not have documents and who will suffer the most.”

Others cite the grim reality that lives are already at stake. “If they send women to detention camps, then you know what will happen to us – you know what is happening in Assam,” says one.

“If we are to die then why die in a detention camp, we will die fighting,” emphasises Ghazala, and states determinedly,  “Hamara kabrastan banega toh Hindustan mein hi banega. Hum Pakistan nahin jayenge (If our graveyards have to be built then they will be built in Hindustan. We shall not go to Pakistan).”

The dam has burst; it seems as if the terrifying culture of fear has killed fear. Instead, the women have laid claim to their azadi. Asked if one should safeguard their actual names, Baby Razia, a modest homemaker and social worker, responded spiritedly with: “Nahin nahin, likhiye na! Hum to Azad hain na! (No no, go ahead and write! We are a free people!)”

Republic Day at Park Circus. Photo: Kavita Panjabi

The police have tried to break up their demonstrations, but they have been resilient. One woman claimed that there are now over 40 women-led demonstrations in public spaces across the country. These include Shaheen Bagh and Khureji in Delhi and Park Circus Maidan, the Ekbalpur Nawab Ali Park, Watgunge and Nakhoda Masjid in Kolkata. Ghantaghar in Lucknow, Frazer Town in Bengaluru and Roshan Bagh in Allahabad too have all been occupied by them.

The protest has spread to smaller cities and towns too – to Muhammad Ali Park in Kanpur’s Chamanganj, Bhopal’s Iqbal Maidan, Pune’s Kondhwa, Jaipur’s Albert Hall, Raipur’s Jaistambh Chowk, Patna’s Sabzibagh, Gaya’s Shanti Bagh and other spaces in the towns of Kishanganj, Bahadurganj and Gopalganj in Bihar, and Berhampur in West Bengal.

In processions too women have made their presence felt – on January 6 this year, Malegaon saw an estimated 50,000 women taking to the streets to protest against the CAA, NRC and National Population Register, led by women students of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

Is this just a sudden widespread protest of Muslim women, or has it taken on the force of a movement that will last? No movement develops overnight, every movement grows out of seeds and has a gestation period, as this one seems to too. Ghazala says wryly, “Now people find it unique that Muslim women are coming out in such strength, but no one said a word, no one even seemed to have noticed when 30,000 women came out onto the streets of Kolkata, in hijabs and burkhas, protesting against the triple talaq law in March 2018…”

Incisive in her critique, she continues, “Such instant talaq is virtually non-existent amongst us, go check out the data, do the research and see…They made an issue out of a non-issue….That is not even a concern for us, our concern is poverty, lack of education and that we do not have enough money for medical treatment, these are our concerns.”

These protests did not flare up overnight. Shaheen Bagh has certainly been a major inspiration, but that is not all. There are several organisations through which women have been in touch with each other actively – the All Bengal Muslim Women’s Association that works for the empowerment of women; Azzumar in Ripon Street, that coaches women for exams and feeds the hungry; and the 30-year-old Khawateen Bedari Tehriq or the Women’s Awareness Movement are just some of them. Of late, educated women have also started legal awareness sessions in the maidan and elsewhere for their less-informed counterparts.

One of the major shifts has been that men are not only backing women’s massive entry into the public sphere, they are actually playing quietly supportive roles. A large number are self-employed in small businesses and hence have some flexibility with their time. Many have taken on the responsibility of sending the children to school or looking after infants while their wives are at the sit-in.

At Park Circus too, it’s men who handle the stores and supplies, and distribute the food, water and juice that ordinary citizens bring in for the protesting women and children each day; it’s men who remove the ground sheets each day for the municipality workers to come and clean the maidan; and it’s men who escort elderly mothers who come in from distant neighbourhoods to join the sit-in.

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There is also a leadership of professional, educated women who would put many intellectuals to shame with their power of critical analysis and articulation. Zoya Ayesha, a doctor, draws upon the principle that the law is none other than the will of the people, and asserts: “Why does our prime minister pay no heed to us? He should come, he should talk to us, he should talk to the people who have elected him.”

Zubia Nausheen, a medical student, cites the responsibility of the state to uphold moral action in the interests of all citizens, and points out the attempts to twist public morality: “…they are trying to introduce new laws, bring in new legislation, to make them legal first so that they can become moral, so that they can them implement them amidst the people of India. …This is not right and we do not approve of it. “

The women’s sense of social responsibility is as powerful as their critique of the state. Says one, “I have my papers, I belong to a well-established family, I don’t need to do this, but I am here for every single person who does not have her papers, who does not have the privilege of being able to fight at this level, for every immigrant…This fight is ours, we all have to fight together, stay together.”

Another young woman asks a profound question that calls into question the responsibility of all citizens of the country: “Our generation may have been given an education that says yes, so many Jews were killed during the Second World War, and that’s it. Yet our generation is the one that will ask, if so many Jews died during the war, how did Hitler manage to convince common people to kill so many Jews? We will not let that happen here. We shall overcome.”

The women of Park Circus are determined. They give lie to the claims some politicians have been making about women being used as a “front” by community groups or opposition parties. A large number of Muslim women today are saying, “We are educated women, we understand what is happening and we cannot sit quiet anymore.” These are women sensitive to their more reticent sisters.

When the 11-km human chain began to take shape outside the maidan on Republic Day, the women announced that they would not go out of the maidan but form the links in the chain inside. Not all women are ready to take the big steps yet, but the ones in leadership are learning how to involve them gradually, with patience and insight. Women’s education, local histories of activism with less privileged women, and the penetrating insight of an endangered people have been the bedrock of this transformation. “This is clearly a women’s movement now, and it will not stop,” they say. The pain and passion in their voices lends an intensity, a power, to their words that cannot be transcribed on paper.

Kavita Panjabi is professor of comparative literature, Jadavpur University and author of Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement.