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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 14 New Delhi March 21, 2020

The Quiet Revolution

Tuesday 24 March 2020, by Devaki Jain


In the midst of darkness, light exists—is a saying attributed to many great minds including Mahatma Gandhi. In the midst of so much hate, violent actions and speeches, feminists’ voices and actions rise like the lotus from the swamp. Muslim women have been sitting in various neighborhoods across India, peaceful, com-posed—the perfect Satyagrahis. No noise comes from there but once spoken to, they explain why they insist on calling attention, not only to the injustice but the ignorance behind the CAA and NRC.

 Visiting them, as I have now done in at least three of the sites, and in two cities, offers a lesson in the “how to” of resistance. Their faces do not show anger or exhaustion. They sit there with warmth and smiles on their faces, often children around them coping with weather, with the need for food, without any exhibition of how they cope. Visitors are welcomed.

 Women from the Muslim community sitting in public, in protests are a new image in India. They have mostly been perceived as ‘burqa clad’ or ‘veiled women’ walking in groups by and largely house-bound—peering at the roads below if there is a procession, highly invisible as political actors. This does not miss the fact that there are many remarkable women from the Muslim community in India—women who have held positions in governments, in academia, in theaters—strong and accepted. But that is a minority, the majority that we see on any progressive city’s streets is the highly covered woman in the back robe from head to foot walking in groups on the streets. In Delhi they are not covered in the burqa as they are, for example, in Bangalore, but covered their heads with scarves. They have not been a visible community of women in any of the public spaces that we are familiar with.

 But now in response to the announcement of the CAA and NRC, with a quietness that is still beyond comprehension, there are these large groups of Muslim women who have occupied spaces in most of the cities. Sitting without making noises, fuss or food arrange-ments around them. No tables and chairs but sitting usually on daris talking to each other, reading and very welcoming of visitors.

What are they sitting there for? They are protesting against implementation of the CAA and NRC. They are convinced that this will provide a form of filtering where they will be filtered out of India. Alongside they have symbols of their deep attachment to India—the national flag everywhere, Gandhiji’s photograph and so on. In some places like Shaheen Bagh, the site has become almost like an exhibition site with book stalls where you can sit and read books, space where children can be played with or taught but that doesn’t happen in all the sites. In Bangalore’s Bilalbagh, which is attached or proximate to a Masjid, there is no showcasing outside the 500 women sitting in.

For those who visit, what is exceptional is the complete calm and sweetness on the faces if these women. We are used to protest meetings of every kind—railway workers, government servants, teachers of the universities—their faces usually display their anger, their sorrow, their discontent but the faces of these women are totally devoid of any hostile expression, there is a calm strength.

It is almost unbelievable when one comes to any of these camps, as I did in Nizamuddin, on the day of holi (March 10, 2020), the women smiled at me and one or two got up and asked where I came from. And asked if I would like to speak to them. It was just like going to a home or a community meeting where everybody who comes from the outside is absorbed into the community with the kind of elegant hospitality which is quite rare in my experience of people who are sitting in protest. But across all these sit-ins is the strong determination that they cannot accept the implementation of the CAA and NRC and this protest will continue as long as that proposition or proposal continues. Attempts are being made of course to shift them so as to puncture their determination to even induce them on grounds of various offers to call it off, but there is so much smartness in them that they wait for the official announcement of the change in the mind of the government on such laws. How to interpret this collective courage—this sacrifice? In these gatherings it is difficult to find a leader—they are all leaders there, anyone will get up and speak, so there is no identifiable spokesperson of the community.

It is time that a broader base of citizens, apart from the government, understands the spirit of this effort and surrenders to it rather than fight it.

What would happen if they withdrew the CAA and NRC? Yes of course they cannot evict Muslims but then what would happen if they do not withdraw the CAA and NRC? Gradually more and more of the non-Muslims, students, citizens from women’s movement, workers movement will ask for justice for a community which is willing to do Satyagraha, to teach the government that this particular move is a camouflage for pushing out citizens who have belonged to a part of India’s history for centuries. This ploy will be exposed if they do not withdraw the CAA and NRC.

 The time has come for the government to withdraw it peacefully now before it gets much more clear to the world that this is a form of persecution and not merely a legal attempt to document who’s who? It is worrying that now,— three months down the line, riots have taken pace which have been attributed to both sides, distractions have been created largely to distract from the peaceful protests.

Wake up India! the women in the Shaheen Baghs are speaking to you!!

An internationally respected Gandhian economist, Dr Devaki Jain was a member of the erstwhile South Commission headed by Dr Julius Nyerere (1987-90); along with 26 other hand-picked economists she helped develop an action agenda for South-South economic cooperation.

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