Saturday, February 23, 2013

Notes From The Fringes

If you follow this blog then you know that over the last 2 months I have hovered around one of the many movements that have gained strength in the weeks following the Dec 16th gangrape.
I say 'hover' because I'm drawn time and again into a space I'm not sure I understand in its entirety. But still I go.
I go because I want to learn what women across this country are thinking.
I go because I want to learn what women across this country are feeling.
I go because I want to understand their, our, history of struggle.
I go because I want to appease the part of me that has suffered violence, harassment & injustice.
I go because I am curious about the men who turn up to watch.
I go because I am curious about the men who turn up to support.
I go because I am curious about the men who own these issues as their own.
I go because I want to add my voice to a movement that might get lost in the din of several other problems this country faces that are 'more critical' than women's issues.
I go to soak in the collective energy of a group of women, standing together, unapologetic about putting their needs at the top of this nation's to-do list.

So once again, some really rubbish photos and a brief description of proceedings as they unfolded on the 21st of February at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. 

The 'People's Watch Over Parliament' was purposed towards reminding the Indian Parliament, on the first day of the Budget session, that they had a serious responsibility to discuss the Justice Verma Committee recommendations & rethink the hastily drafted anti-rape ordinance.
The idea of this gathering at Jantar Mantar was to stay put on the streets from 12 to 5pm. 
I was only there till 4:30 and don't know what happened after. 
But for most of the hours I participated in the 'sit-in' (with a sore bum to prove it) I heard many speeches & performances (music, poetry, dance, theatre). Here are some highlights.


Some sloganeering (from the Bekhauf Azaadi repertoire) to get the crowd pumped up, a musical performance & some hulchul near the stage (which later turns out to be Shabana Azmi) and things get underway.

Ranjana Kumari begins with a reality check. 35 years of experience in trying to push women's issues into the consciousness of our political machinery has taught us one thing, she says. 
It is not priority for this session of parliament to discuss the JVC recommendations or the ordinance. 

(This is a much needed reality check for those of us who are new to activist movements. In the past weeks we've had a corruption scandal, riots over price-rise and a series of terrorist attacks.  These are bound to get the attention of the House and national media before gender justice makes it to the floor. Us lot had better be mentally prepared for disappointment.) 

Some more music. 'O Ri Chiraiya' is a hot favourite and it won't be the last time we hear this song this afternoon. (The song actually grows on you if you dissociate it from the memory of Aamir Khan's Social-Cause-Game-Face.)

Next Binalakshmi Nepram speaks. She speaks of having just met with Irom Sharmila, who has a message for the protesters in Delhi: "Don't let my life become a drama." By this, Nepram explains, Sharmila means that the movement requires more investment from us than just appearing at protests and invoking her name.

She (Nepram) speaks of aligning movements from other parts of the country (like the northeast & Kashmir) with the Delhi one. She tells us how the AFSPA (instituted in 1958 in what was supposed to be a temporary provision for 3-6 months) has overstayed its welcome (to put it mildly) and how the women of states like Manipur, Nagaland and Kashmir have suffered in its shadow.
Her pitch goes up a notch and one can sense her deep frustration as she explains how opposing the AFSPA does not make the women of these regions 'anti-national'. 

(When activists like Nepram speak it's easy to see how women get the shorter end of every stick - be it communalism, casteism, regionalism, poverty you name it. And this is what places it at the top of India's 'to-do' list. I can't imagine the horror & humiliation of having to repeatedly prove your allegiance to the country in order to get social justice.)

Then, there is movement from the sides of the crowd. A high-energy group of young women dressed in grey & red descends upon the gathering. They occupy the area just in front of the stage. These are the ladies from Delhi University's Maitreyi College. 
And they go on to put up a gutsy, funny and no-hold-barred streetplay on India's dodgy relationship with its women.

This street play has a way of divesting patriarchial tropes of their power over our collective minds and presenting them stripped of logic. Of showing them up as jokes that everyone can laugh at. (There's a lesson in here for all of us who ask what good a campaign like 'Slutwalk' is.)

They use real ad campaign slogans, misogynist comments of political leaders, statements made by military & government spokespeople, quotes from Bollywood etc. Without twisting the actual words, they use their tone, body language and theatrics to say: ISN'T THIS BLOODY RIDICULOUS? It is right? Right.

(And suddenly these immovable traditions, this 'maryaada' we've unthinkingly accepted, loses meaning. I can tell you there were some men in the audience who were a sight to see. They would laugh because it was all so obviously funny but then they would stop and look confused. Then laugh again.)

Speaking of men, let me break the chronological telling of events and bring in Gautam Bhan, who directs his speech towards the men in the audience.

He's the Boy in the Brown Sweater (with mic)
He asks: Have the men, who've collected to support 'Bekhauf Azaadi' understood what it means and what their role in it is? Bekhauf Azaadi necessitates the shattering of patriarchal structures. It has implications not only for women but also men. 

He also addresses the dangerous notion of making sexual violence laws gender neutral in India. Gender neutrality may be sold as a means to achieving equality but it's a red herring. Unless the inequality in society is accounted for, it is more than likely that sexual violence laws will be used against women & men who are on the wrong side of the patriarchy debate.

He underscores the fact that feminism is not anti-men and us citizens can't afford to be divided on the basis of gender.

In my favourite bit from his speech, he says that protesting isn't enough. We must make the time & effort to understand the political nuances of what's being demanded, granted and debated over.

It's nearly 4pm. Lawyers have spoken, as have activists from groups working on dalit causes & human trafficking issues. One fellow called Vidrohi has recited 3 poems that I haven't quite understood. Kavita Krishnan gets up on stage.

She is an incredible orater, always able to draw in attention, no matter how distracted the crowds may be.
She speaks of 'naitikta' or morality and how it's used & abused to preserve patriarchal structures. (Apparently there's a Delhi Police banner outside all women's colleges in Delhi that lists out a series of 'dos and don'ts' that must be followed to be safe in the city. Apparently no such banner has popped up outside any other type of college.)

She tells the delightful tale of meeting Union Home Minister Sushil Shinde, who seems most foxed about what women really want. 
The way she tells it, I imagine him shaking his head sadly, looking hopeless yet secure in his knowledge that his people did everything they could do to protect women, by drafting an ordinance that no one asked for.
Krishnan talks about how she & other leaders attempted to explain their points of view. But what language do you use to explain your stand when the other person has already decided it for you (and isn't really interested)? 

And so she talks about the lack of seriousness accorded to issues affecting women. At its best relegated to 'not so critical'. At its worst, twisted into devious machinations of women, who've gained quite the reputation for being liars, manipulators and all-round troublemakers ('narak ka dwaar' is the phrase she used) throughout our mythology.

(Fun fact: In Urdu & Arabic speaking parts of the world the word 'Dajjalan' has been flung about. There is even a wikipedia page about it. Thanks @imsabbah)

Some of Us Jolly Narak Ka Dwaars

The crowd has grown in the past few hours. Some folks from a neighbouring protest ("We Want Gorkhaland!!") have spilled into this one. Chaiwaala, papadwaalas, chaatwaalas and vadaawaalas have started networking. One lone fellow from a 'rival' 16th December protest walks around forlornly sporting a 'Hang The Rapists' signboard (What's happening in that head of yours, sir? I'm curious but timid to ask.) The newsreporters have finally settled down. 
As the clock inches towards 4:30 pm, I get up to leave.

I don't know how the rest of the evening panned out. 
As for the pariament, there was buzz that the issues would be discussed the next day in the Rajya Sabha. But then the Hyderabad blasts happened so I don't know about that outcome either.

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