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.