KOLKATA: The night was cold but the fires were burning. A little after 8 PM, around 50-odd women armed with two dozen Indian flags and photographs of Ambedkar marched inside Kolkata’s Park Circus maidan and joined the protesters stationed there since morning.
Najma Khatun was among them. She has been a part of the protest against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act since the beginning of the new year.
A feeble looking Khatun raised her voice a notch higher to finish the slogan, “chudiyan pehen ke halla bol, halla bol... halla bol”.
After all, it is the chudiyan (bangles) wearing mothers and grandmothers of India who have been leading the fight against the Citizenship Act from the front.
The slogans take a jibe at the patriarchal government’s machismo which traditionally looks at ‘chudiyan’ as a form of weakness, often used to feminise their male counterparts.
Following in the footsteps of the women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, who have been protesting for over 40 days now, women from several parts of Kolkata are staging a sit-in dharna against the new Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The Citizenship Act fast-tracks citizenship for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan excluding Muslims.
Tumpa Mandal, who has been a constant at the protest, helped pass water bottles while continuously raising slogans. “I spent at least 3-5 hours here every day. The government is not only targeting Muslims but their main agenda is to target Bengalis and poor. We can’t let them do this,” she said.
By the time Mandal decided to make the homeward journey at 10.30 PM, over two thousand people could be heard raising their voices in unison from the other end of the seven-point crossing.
Women across religious lines, some with headscarves, others without, could be seen engaging in discussions.
Their collective roar echoed when a Trinamool minister took to the dais to read the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. Although, a big handwritten poster outside the cordoned area read “No Politics”, politicians from Chidambaram to Umar Khalid have been paying surprise visits to the protest site.
“Everyone is welcomed here as long as they leave their political flags outside the gate. This is a protest led by the citizens of India. We have come together under the Indian flag. We have not invited anyone,” said Alakananda Guha, a teacher from South Kolkata.
Over the course of six hours, the Preamble was read multiple times. While professors and intellectuals presided over the oration, at other times, it was young girls from the nearby slums.
This is perhaps the first time in the history of the Indian republic that the Preamble has been on the lips of so many people and the Constitution in their hearts.
13-year-old Samia agrees. Her introduction to the Constitution is only a week old and by this day, she has learnt the Preamble by heart and often leads oration sessions.
As a slum dweller, she says her opportunities are limited but now she aspires to be an advocate.
By the time the clock struck 12, almost half of the crowd had dispersed. Enter Navamita Chandra with boxes full of mehendi.
Once the henna cones were distributed among the women, their faces lit up with smiles. They got their palms painted with 'No NRC, No CAA' -- their way of celebrating the resistance. While the henna session continued, the crowd slowly started to thin.
Ismat Hussain was about to leave for the night when a man handed her a piping hot cup of tea. Hussain was one of the initial 60 women who converged on January 7 at this maidan in the heart of the city to give shape to the protest.
A mother of two, Hussain’s eyes were filled with guilt when her neighbour asked if she was ready to leave. She has been running errands for two weeks, arranging food and water for the women assembled.
But now her thighs were bleeding and she needed rest. “I have two daughters. They will be staying the night here. I need to rest tonight else I won’t be able to come here in the morning,” she said.
With more than 500 people still present after midnight, the slogans gave way to a makeshift mushaira, where people poked fun at the rich and privileged followed by songs against the oppressor.
The words of Iqbal, Faiz, Gandhi, Mehta, Tagore and Nazrul reverberated in the chilly air. While some sang along, others took out their mobile phones, documenting and archiving the words of protest. After all, “sab yaad rakha jayega”.
All eyes turned to the left of the maidan when a man in a shabby double-breasted blazer walked towards the centre stage. He said he had been to a wedding and wanted to be a part of the protest.
Around the same time, 60-year-old Sajda also arrived. Draped in a saree and hijab, the humble-looking woman sat down next to me. It was unusual for her to travel at such odd hours but there she was. Tears rolled down her eyes when I asked what brought her there. "Every day I come here, see the protest from outside and walk away. Today I gathered the courage to sit down with my sisters. Why are they dividing us again?” she asked.
The Park Circus area doesn’t hold a great reputation for safety, but with over a hundred women holding the fort, a sense of liberation has set in.
By 2 AM, the temperature had dropped three more degrees forcing people to take shelter under the tents where they engaged in songs, slogans and discussions. The state government had recently allowed the organisers to build tents in selective areas around the maidan and provided them bio-toilets after two weeks.
A woman with a five-month-old child trembled as she stood up for the national anthem, with a fellow protester lending a hand. She had been sitting in the corner, expressing her solidarity silently, after travelling for almost an hour to reach the protest venue. She promised frequent visits to the site.
To charge up the drowsy protesters, a man took charge of the mic and raised slogans in Bengali. ‘Lodai, Lodai, Lodai chai…,’ he continued for a full half-hour till his throat gave up. Over the years, the slogan has been popularised by the Left and now can be heard in places where the fire of revolution still burns.
The protest bore witness to a celebration of cultural pluralism, religious harmony and the vigour of women under the Indian flag.
At the verge of dawn, volunteers began their preparations for a new day. The cordoned area was cleaned up and there was a bonfire of the remains of the previous night. While we soaked in the warmth of the fire along with the first rays of the sun, six women appeared raising slogans. The resistance was alive.