Every few days, Jaya Sharma’s phone would ping with WhatsApp messages from women: university students, Muslims and sex workers.
“The social, political, economic and cultural is no longer the sole domain of the savarna patriarch,” read one text message. “We shall decimate Brahmanical privilege and the centuries of oppression that it has generated. Our universities will not be turned into extensions of warped senses of savarna entitlement. Nor is it the playground for saffron, patriarchal hooliganism and violence. We will not let you carve your toxic discourse on ‘nationalism’ onto our bodies.”
Another message said: “Thanks to caste system and patriarchy, Dalit women are twice, sometimes thrice, marginalised and hence, lag behind other women in social, economic and political spheres and the reason for lack of improvement is the Brahmanical mindset.”
Yet another read: “This is why gay women and trans people, who struggle to live their life outside the rules of gender and sexual desire, are part of this fight against Hindutva and Manuvad. Hindutva is a show of hatred, exploitation, violence, atrocities, and aggressive masculinity. Our struggle is a celebration of love, freedom, equality, diversity, and justice.”
Sharma, who has been involved with India’s queer movement for decades, was thrilled each time her phone beeped. The messages proved that the legacy of Savitribai Phule was still alive, even 120 years after her death.
Born in 1831, Savitribai Phule was a social reformer and poet who championed the cause of women, widows and Dalits in 19th century India, playing a significant role in improving women’s rights. Apart from championing the cause of women’s education, Phule, a child bride herself, had fought against the practice of child marriage and worked to improve the lives of widows by staging protests against barbers to dissuade them from carrying out the unfair ritual of shaving the heads of widows. She even opened a care centre for pregnant women who had been victim to sexual abuse – at a time when such activism was strongly discouraged, even punished.
Sharma and the 30 other organisers for Chalo Nagpur, a women’s march against casteism and religious patriarchy, hope that March 10, the death anniversary of Savitribai Phule, would become an opportunity for women to unite in their demand for a secular, democratic state, free from discrimination, humiliation and violence. The organisers hope for a turnout of around 5,000-6,000 women from every marginalised group, including trans, queer and disabled women.
The venue of the march – Nagpur – came with its own set of logistical problems. Protests and marches in cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai were usually well-attended and well-covered by the media, but would the same be true for Nagpur? How would so many protesters get there? Where would they stay?
But Sharma and the organisers had chosen Nagpur for two reasons: when protestors gather at Indora Maidan, they would be less than 5 kilometres away from the head office of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation that has historically been seen as opposed to the rights of women, making statements which reduced their role to doing household chores and serving the men of the house. According to some RSS members, rape is a product of urban westernisation, and homosexuality, a “psychological problem”.
Apart from this, Nagpur also has an important role to play in the history of women’s rights.
“Nagpur is also the home of the movement by BR Ambedkar for the rights of women and the Dalit community,” said Vani Subramanian, film-maker and activist. “Savitribai Phule had worked in Nagpur. So, there is also a positive energy there that we want to harness.”
“Phule is an extremely important figure,” added Subramanian. “It would be a shame in a sense if she is only seen as a Dalit icon. She stands for much more, for principles of education and solidarity. It is classic casteism that she is seen as only a Dalit icon, but yes, [we are also protesting] an increased attack on Dalit people, on Adivasi people. Look at what’s happening to Radhika Vemula [Rohith Vemula’s mother]. I think this movement is a great way to celebrate her legacy.”
In India, Dalit women have been targets for violence perpetrated by the upper castes over the years. During the 2006 Khairlanji killings, four members of a family belonging to a Dalit caste were murdered over a land dispute, of which the two women were first paraded around naked in public, sexually abused and then hacked to death. Last year saw the rape and drowning of Delta Meghwal, a 17-year-old Dalit college girl from Bikaner in Rajasthan. Reports of rape of 12 minor Adivasi girls by their school teacher in Buldhana, Maharashtra, also emerged.
The organising principle behind Chalo Nagpur was the call against Hindutva, communal, Brahmanical, casteist patriarchal beliefs and Manuvad, a reference to the ancient legal text Manusmriti, known for its sexist and casteist verses – which equate women with animals, declare them to be the property of their husbands and father. Many of the verses describe a woman as an evil seductress and the root of all flaws that a man might have.
“We are existing in a society where the outdated and extremist outlook against women has been gathering strength – who is a ‘good’ woman, who is allowed to speak out, who isn’t, can they carry a mobile phone or not, wear jeans or not – these have become topics of national discussion,” said Subramanian. “We want to come together and fight against this.”
The logistics of a march
Speaking at a press conference a few days before the march, Shabnam Hashmi, a human rights activist and an organiser of Chalo Nagpur, had said, “I think this is the first time that Indian women from such diverse groups, different parts of the country and with different world views are coming together in such large numbers. We are expecting at least 5,000-6,000 women to join us at the march. And they are going to do this at a time when not just their rights are being attacked, but their existence in every sphere of life is being attacked in some way of the other.”
Even though the march has not been funded by a political party, Sharma described the initiative as political feminism expressing itself in cultural ways. “It is a political movement, rooted in intellectual theories and expressed via cultural mediums of songs, art and poetry. There is an intellectual understanding of the situation. In its basic form it is a critique of Hindutva and Manuvad, which marginalises women or subjects them to moral policing. It’s a way in which religious extremism is kind of used to implement patriarchy and those two forces come together to subjugate women.”
According to Sharma, Chalo Nagpur was inspired by the many student movements which India saw in the past year. “Whether it has been at Hyderabad University, Jawaharlal Nehru University or, now, Delhi University, the younger generation is making their voices heard and we felt like it was time to rekindle this movement that is a much older one but becoming all the more essential everyday,” she said.
The first phase of this movement against Manuvad and Hindutva was put into motion on January 3, Phule’s 186th birth anniversary, with an online video campaign. The group had invited “video selfies” from those wanting to raise their voices against Hindu fundamentalists and Manuvadis. The anonymous videos were shared on their Facebook page and posted on Twitter along with the hashtags “#WomenAgainstHindutva” and “#WomenAgainstManuvad”.
“I am a woman and a feminist activist,” said the voice in one of the videos uploaded on the YouTube channel Against Hindutva and Manuvad. “There are voices gathering around us, dark forces, that get shriller day by day. They speak of anger, hatred and violence. You’ve heard them and so have I. It is time to put a stop to it right now and say to them, ‘no’. We are a land, we are a nation that believes in diversity in peace and harmony and living with each other. We are Dalit, Adivasis, Muslim, women, trans, queer, disabled. All of us will gather together, raise our voices and raise our fists and say ‘no more’ to your hatred and ‘yes’ to love and peace.”
Around 21 testimonials by women from across religion and caste, those from the LGBT community and many living with disabilities were uploaded.
“The figure of Savitribai Phule, her contributions, her message, will remain significant in the life of anyone marginalized on the basis of their gender,” said Manjula Pradeep, a human rights activist and lawyer and a key organiser of the campaign. “Many in India still feel excluded and alienated as their rights are attacked and challenged again and again. This is not about the elite masses. The idea is to create a feeling of community, a sense of sisterhood.”
Many Muslim women sent in entries about the injustice of simply not being able to dress according to their own wishes or how they see the Hindutva ideology widening the rift between Hindus and Muslims.
Mariya Salim, another organiser of Chalo Nagpur, talked about her own experience as a Dalit Muslim woman, “As minority women, we become twice, even thrice marginalised,” said Salim. “I personally still face problem when looking for an apartment or a house because I’m a Muslim woman. It has been the same for the last four years. It’s very important that we don’t stay quiet anymore.”