The girl had sun-bleached hair and worn-out clothes. She had used her solemn little face as poster space: NO CAA on one cheek in red ink, NO NRC on the other, demanding a repealing of India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. There was a cross mark on her forehead for additional emphasis. She held up the paper poster in her hand more prominently when she saw I was taking a picture of her. She didn’t smile or pose, but wanted me to see her verses scrawled in Hindi. They pleaded for her right to remain Indian.
The girl was at a demonstration in Calcutta, at Park Circus Maidan. Here, at the expansive grounds surrounding a big mosque, a continuous sit-in by mainly Muslim women has been going on for days, as has another in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Both these peaceful protests represent a momentous change in India’s activist and feminist history: this is the first time that Muslim women, traditionally conservative, have entered the public domain as a body of citizens – resolutely, peacefully, and in their thousands. Yet this is not an Islamic movement. It is a massive, informally organised pan-religious protest that is part of a larger all-India anger. On one particular day this January, newspapers reported 3.5 million people from all religions gathered against the divisive new legislation that alters India’s secular Constitution.
When you stand across the road facing the mosque and sweep your eyes around the immense roundabout on which seven major roads converge, you see the Islamia Hospital, biryani houses, kabab shops, smaller mosques.There are avenues named after Suhrawardy, one of Pakistan’s prime ministers, and Syed Ameer Ali, a founder member of the Muslim League. The inhabitants of this neighbourhood are predominantly Muslim, although it is a multi-faith area with two prominent churches and the Don Bosco School. This is the centre of Calcutta. Radiating from Park Circus is the old northern neighbourhood of Tagore’s ancestral home, Jorasanko. There are plate-glassed new developments as you move towards the airport. Close by in South Calcutta are trendy cafes, galleries, and malls where in many apartment blocks Muslims cannot rent or buy at all.
I had heard the sit-in at the mosque was being led by women. When I went in through one of the many gates, I could at first see no women at all, only men in their hundreds streaming in for afternoon prayers. A male voice, hoarse with emotion, was audible over a loudspeaker from a concurrent demonstration on the other side of the grounds. Decades of living in North India, one of the world’s most violent regions for women, has given me hair-trigger instincts about personal safety that I share with most female friends. We tend to be jittery in all-male crowds. But here in eastern India a solitary woman in a crowd of men was only an object of curiosity. I asked one of the men where the women’s sit-in was and he pointed me to it.
Despite the Citizenship Amendment Act having gone into law, there was passion and determination, but no sense of despair at the mosque. Ironically, the outcome of a law designed to silence Muslims had given them a voice. The winter air was smoky and sunny, dust blew around in clouds where the women were seated on thin rugs. Yasmin, whom I sat next to for a while, wore a pearly burkha and a continuous delighted smile. She lived on the other side of the city and was usually busy working at home. She had decided to set everything aside because it seemed imperative to participate: she might have no home to be busy in if this law were not stopped in its tracks. She took pictures, she ate the biscuits and fruit being handed out, she looked curious and animated.
Someone offered me a bread roll and a bottle of water, many came up to chat. Near me were three young women in chic burkhas with pockets roomy enough for mobile phones and wallets. The oldest of them, a recent psychology major from Bihar, was less optimistic than Yasmin. “We will keep fighting, of course,” she said, “but now that it is a central law, how much can the states really oppose it?” She paused to listen to the slogans in the air, chanted through a microphone. Anyone could grab the microphone, and the women were grabbing it fearlessly. Between slogan shouting, two teenagers shared study notes for college exams. In a state whose chief minister supports the protests against the law, this was political demonstration crossed with Sunday picnic.
A Central government that had hoped to isolate and polarise Hindus and Muslims has failed spectacularly. And opposition to the law has for the first time dissolved the immobilising fear of an intolerant regime that has pulverised dissent through tax raids and arbitrary arrests. These Muslim women are far from alone in their opposition to the new law: people in general are protesting in their millions. As in popular protests globally, the young have taken charge, but more surprising in a country as patriarchal as ours, women have – and, to everyone’s surprise, Muslim women.
The prime minister visited Calcutta and left the day before my trip to Park Circus. Didi in Calcutta, a Hindu woman, is his fiercest opponent despite their shared religion. Narendra Modi had to cancel his visit to nearby Assam for fear of protests, and here in Calcutta city-wide hostility was dealt with by airlifting him from his plane’s door to his first destination. The grimness of his face as he left a rebellious state said it all: for this muscular Hindu male to be so visibly crossed by Muslim women, and by a woman chief minister, was to suffer the most unanticipated humiliation of all.