The rise of India's angry young women
How are so many young women throwing off the yoke of a disabling system and standing up for what they believe in?
From an activist arrested for doing an FB Live in Lucknow, to a Kashmir poster in Mumbai, to a banner hung from a balcony in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar in front of a mob … what’s the common strand? Yes, the geography of protest is quite awe-inspiring. Yes, an Act that was attempting to regulate refugees—all religious groups, except one (well, the Jains are also not mentioned, but they are a wealthy lot and do not look for government succour)—has ended up giving refuge to a Pakistani poet in the Indian landscape of dissent. How did Faiz Ahmed Faiz, popular among a small niche of Urdu poetry aficionados, become the first one to be granted honorary citizenship by an Act primarily devised to exclude his community? Well, narratives have a life of their own: They cannot be always controlled by the bound script of political strategists. And the narrative being presently written in campuses and on the streets also has a gender.
Faiz was of course a commie, of the Soviet-CPGB era, and national borders cannot much contain internationalists. But it was Iqbal Bano in a sari that made his poem iconic. (Make no mistake, Faiz also had enough friends among Pakistan’s powerful elite, to have escaped the noose in his land multiple times!) Why are young rebels and their supporters going #HumDekhenge, for Deepika Padukone’s film Chhapaak, in a sense telling the powers-that-be #HumBhiDekhenge (… or, in a more street-savvy way, hum-bhi-dekh-lenge, ignore us at your peril)!And pray, who’s showing all this gumption? Not necessarily Anurag Kashyap— those of his fraternity are merely celebrity guest artistes in the ongoing carnival of protests. Not even Kanhaiya Kumar, despite JNU having been once his playground. It’s India’s angry young women.
They are opinionated. They are articulate. They are angry. They are not afraid to speak up. And they are leading from the front … out on the streets and on social media. How did this happen? How are so many young women throwing off the yoke of a disabling system, not caring for parental advice to play safe, to be safe, and standing up for what they believe in? In protest after protest, whether at Bengaluru Townhall or on the JNU campus (and now, St Stephen’s College) or the Gateway of India, it’s women who are shouting slogans, singing songs and reading out the Preamble. Not as part of the chorus, but as the lead. Look at Shaheen Bagh. This is the most abiding visual iconography of recent weeks.
How and why? Do they fear they will be disenfranchised, or is it because they know disenfranchisement already? Who else but women to appreciate the cruel irony of making land or property the primary marker of citizenship? Their angst does not come out of being suddenly jolted out of complacency: It’s a knowing, sad wisdom. When the state and its security apparatus cannot guarantee safety to its young women—when rape is offered as a daily punishment for daring to be equal—can they be expected to be cowed down by the same apparatus?
This is their moment. Their pushback is not just about citizenship but about the very right to exist without fear, without intimidation and retribution. In the ’80s, when the women’s movement was spreading across campuses, Kamala Bhasin’s chants for azadi from patriarchy, misogyny, from dowry deaths and forced marriages, for the right to work in every sphere and get paid on equal terms, were similarly popular. The scale was much smaller—there was no television or social media to amplify those voices. But always, laws had to be eventually amended.
It’s no surprise that it’s a woman filmstar who landed up at JNU and that other female actors have spoken up in favour of these young women protesters, who come from across castes and religions. They have dared despite the threat of facing vilification, physical attack, or boycotts for disagreeing with the dominant narrative. They are showing the nerve their male counterparts are not able to muster.
Why is a regime that regularly congratulates itself for political canniness unwilling to read the writing on the wall? Why do they not try to calm the rage? Simple, this is a movement about equal rights. The various strands—subsidised education, secularism, citizenship—are all subsumed under that. Solidarity, therefore, can only come from those who feel threatened. In the political context, it will get caught in the Hindu/Muslim binary, though it’s far deeper than that.
If the protests help consolidate Hindu votes in UP in 2022, and before that if CAA/NRC polarises the Bengali bhadralok in 2021, the BJP’s 2024 thrust is secure. Little wonder the Union home minister has vowed not to give an inch, and promised to fight the Delhi election on the CAA theme. No matter what their own internal survey seems to suggest about Arvind Kejriwal. For them, UP is a must win and Bengal is a dream to be conquered—those two big states can easily deliver another Lok Sabha, the state of the economy notwithstanding. Else, the government would have cared. About the middle class finding dissent to be kosher. About even elite campuses adopting the language of slogans—slogans that just the other day were seen to be markers of sedition. About the angry young women.