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Chalo Nagpur: India’s women’s march against fascism and caste

17-03-2017-Arun-Pathak-590.JPG [Related Image]
Arun Pathak, politician of the Shiv Sena ('Army of Shiva') party, which has Hindu nationalist views Kaustubh Tripathi under a Creative Commons Licence

Women from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life spoke up for women’s rights in Nagpur, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

On 10 March, ‘Chalo Nagpur’ was the rallying cry of thousands of Indian women and sympathetic supporters. It means ‘Let’s go to Nagpur’, but ‘Chalo’ is also a sort of archetypal call for protest used since the start of the Independence movement in India.

Nagpur, capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra in the west of the Indian peninsula, was specifically (and rather boldly) chosen, because the city is the headquarters for Hindutva movement who have attacked Indian women for not being ‘traditionally dressed’, or for behaving in a manner which is judged unHindu or unIndian – by their own definitions.

Women from all over the country arrived at Nagpur to celebrate Indian womanhood, but also to register a huge protest against casteism, patriarchy and discrimination of all kinds. To quote the invitation that arrived to me, ‘The context for this event is one in which the walls of inequality and hate are growing high and stifling the expression of humanity. Voices raised against communalism, feudalism, casteism and patriarchy are being stamped out. It is critical to assert today that whether our identity is linked to caste, religion, community, sexuality, gender, disability, occupation or age, every citizen of this country should have access to their constitutionally guaranteed rights.’

Translated, this meant that the women were gathering to express themselves in a gigantic cultural programme against forces of hatred and intolerance on 10 March, the 120th death anniversary of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule, an inspirational woman who fought for dalit rights in the 19th century. Inspired by her strength and determination in spite of formidable odds, the women raised a collective fist against injustice and atrocities. Dalit women, Muslim, adivasi, bahujan, minority, differently abled, queer women, transgender people, sex workers, nomadic tribeswomen, students all protested together – for justice, friendship, peace, freedom, equality and respect.

The outpouring of emotion, pain and anguish when powerful women from all walks of life, transcending creed, caste, class, city and rural barriers come together is something phenomenal.

Manjula Pradeep, a dalit leader, says, ‘It was a historic event. Women from diverse backgrounds, with varying ideologies came together to express our anguish and fear at the increasing exploitation of women in the name of communalism, that is the big Hindu-Muslim divide, and the Hindutva forces humiliating and beating up women and men on Valentine’s day, in parks and on beaches, in the name of protecting Hindu culture and tradition, is horrible.

‘We do not want the country taken over by such people.

‘Also amazing is the fact that dalit women have finally carved out a space for themselves in the womens’ movement. We have overcome many hurdles. We were in the forefront of the organising and management of this event. We also funded it entirely on our own. Women paid their own fares, for their food, for everything. That’s rare at any kind of public forum.

‘We were so inspired by the success of this event, we plan to move nationwide and hold similar rallies in different big cities.’

Shabnam Hashmi is a Delhi woman from the opposite side of the spectrum: she comes from a privileged, elite background. But that did not spare her pain and suffering: in 1989, her activist brother was murdered while performing in a street play. Shabnam has devoted her life to fighting the forces of Hindutva and by organising for peace and harmony between Hindus and Muslims.

She says, ‘Chalo Nagpur was a rare, extremely vibrant meet which saw more than 3,500 women from diverse backgrounds coming together against patriarchy, upper caste domination and Hindutva. It challenged the patriarchal and fascist structure through songs, poetry, slogans, exhibitions and bold speeches. It generated hope that women and transgender people can be a formidable opposition to the growing fascist and anti women forces in India.’

It’s a rare note of hope in these troubled times. All power to our women.

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  1. #1 Cynthia Stephen 17 Mar 17

    Thanks for writing this. the mainstream media largely ignored the event.

    I just wanted to comment, however, on one aspect which is rarely commented upon. Any individual who makes a mark in public, whether as a writer, poet. movement leader, etc and who happens to be from the dalit community is always called a Dalit poet, writer, or leader. that is how Manjula Pradeep is identified in this story as well. But Shabnam Hashmi, though identified as elite, is not called a Muslim woman, which she is, of course. I dont blame Mari, because this seems like an unconscious default action by most commentators. But Shabnam Hashmi is not similarly labelled a Muslim woman.

    I have never come across notables from any other caste groups being identified by their caste or religious identy, other than Dalits. this would not be a problem, normally, but in the case of Dalits, it tends to mark them out as somehow different and hence separate. I also want to add that in under the relevant law, it is considered a crime to address any dalit by thier caste name in public as it is considered a pejorative or an insult. Just imagine, the very name of your community is an insult in polite society! this is so much the case that even the iconic and towering intellectual genius Dr. B R Ambedkar, who served the country in so many capacities, and built so many institutions, is still considered to be only a Dalit leader by most people in India and elsewhere.

    I just wanted to alert Mari to this phenomenon and hopefully the readers of the blog too, on this, and encourage a rethink on this practice.

  2. #2 mari marcel 18 Mar 17

    Cynthia, Thanks for the considered thoughtful response.
    Hugely appreciated

    I always write dalit leader, because I have watched Manjula grow in strength and power to become a real leader. And thats quite a feat.

    I agree with yr point, but I would not call Shabnam a Muslim leader as she is a leader of civil society and the peace, anti communal movement, not particularly or exclusively Muslim women. But thanks for taking the trouble to point this out.

  3. #3 Srikanth 18 Mar 17

    It is interesting to note Manjula Pradeep expressing her happiness on seeing ‘Women from diverse backgrounds, with varying ideologies (coming).. together to express.. ..anguish and fear at the increasing exploitation of women in the name of communalism.’

    A solidarity amid the diversity of problems they face.

  4. #4 Pamela Phillipose 18 Mar 17

    I hope you are right, Mari, in times like this one feels deeply pessimistic...

  5. #5 ludwig pesch 20 Mar 17

    Like all newint-readers, I look forward to hearing more about Indian women's determined efforts: to move society forward, reach out and setting an example that contributes to development all over the world.
    India's women are now fighting for nothing less than the future of ’the world's greatest democracy’. And countless Indian women have long shown their capacity to contribute to overall prosperity and peace that benefits society as a whole. Day in, day out, where and whenever given a chance!
    So it's more than heartening to learn about this ’celebration of Indian womanhood’; not merely for making protests heard and rightly so (’against casteism, patriarchy and discrimination of all kinds’). In and outside India we see the change Indian women already bring about in science, education, social and health services; and this on virtually every level though all too often underpaid, even unrecognized (unless favoured by luck, privileged background, or both.)
    Having met many Indian women educators, artists, doctors and other professionals over a period of some 40 years, I trust they'll neither give up easily nor be intimidated by self-serving (male) bigots whose words and conduct barely mask their sense of insecurity, their lack of direction, even a disturbing disregard for basic decency. These are failures future generations are bound to remember while hopefully manage avoiding, thanks to demonstrations of determination such as reported in this blog.

  6. #6 chandrika sen sharma 21 Mar 17

    How amazing that the women of India are standing up for what they perceive is abominable! Any little push against the gigantic specter of intolerance is admirable. ’Chalo Nagpur’ - a rallying war cry!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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