Need to sustain women’s movement in the face of increasing state repression and surveillance

Dr Trupti Shah

Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) launched the  ‘Dr. Trupti Shah Memorial Series’ on Sunday, 7 May 2017. The theme of the first event was “Contemporary Concerns: Feminist and Environmental Movements in India.” The day-long discussion was held at Gandhinagar Gruh in Vadodara. Around 450 concerned citizens and activists from various parts of Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai participated in this meeting. A note:

Deepali Ghelani of Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) said at the inaugural session that this series has been designed to commemorate the life and work of one of Gujarat’s foremost academic and activist, Dr. Trupti Shah, who lost her life on 26 May 2016 after a valiant battle against lung cancer. An economist by training, Trupti’s life-long activism focused on women’s issues, communal strife, caste, labour and human rights. The women’s movement, environmental causes, and the wider struggle for justice in Gujarat and India lost a voice that never flinched from standing up for victims of exploitation, injustice and violence.

The series commemorates Trupti’s   ideals and commitment to these causes and aims to provide a platform for discussion and debate among grassroots activists associated with various people’s movements. Two such events will be organised every year through public lectures, roundtable discussions, study circles and film screenings.

Johanna Lokhande, a feminist activist moderating the session on contemporary concerns of India’s women’s movements identified four areas for discussion: How to face the onslaught of rising Hindutva and religious fundamentalisms, challenges of livelihood and citizenship, ways to build solidarities between various movements especially for the marginalised and how to sustain the women’s movement in the face of increasing state repression and surveillance.

Bakula Ghaswala, veteran feminist activist based in Valsad while reminiscing on her association with Trupti Shah said women should carve out independent identity as individuals and not replicate the patriarchal norms in their personal lives. She opined that Hindus who constitute India’s largest faith group should not have a persecution or fear complex and that casteism is a bigger threat that needs attention.

Anubha, Saumya, and Avantika from Pinjra Tod, a movement of women students that started in Delhi University but is rapidly spreading to campuses across the country, observed that university campuses are not equal spaces and are ruled by patriarchal norms. The government had failed to provide equal and safe public space for women and instead curtails their mobility in the name of securitisation. They shared how girl students in Delhi college campuses are contesting these controls on their mobility by reclaiming public space during night times, opposing control and surveillance, and demanding equal rights to all facilities to further their education.

Avantika said that the campaign which began in 2015 has three basic demands: setting up of sexual harassment committees in colleges, hostels and campuses, regulation of paying guest facilities and private hostels and roll-back of night curfews for girl hostel inmates. Commenting that the university campuses function like an “upper caste, Brahmin man” towards girl students, asserting control in the name of safeguarding and security, she said that Pinjra Tod attempts to build different protest culture from the prevalent political culture which is ‘masculinist’.  While this independent mobilisation and awareness-raising through creative cultural protests celebrating women’s resistance has received huge support from students, the challenge before Pinjra Tod is how they are projected negatively by the section media which sexualises their movement and turns a blind eye to their various campaigns against sexual violence by the state and caste violence.

Saumya made a nuanced argument about how Pinjra Tod is not an elitist urban movement but one that constantly attempts to recognise and affirm the different voices within their movement (non-urban, Dalit, tribal, minority). While addressing the important issue of controls on women students on university campuses, Pinjra Tod remains committed to building awareness among students of the continuum of patriarchal violence, from the family to the state, and against caste and communal violence.

Mumbai-based Hasina Khan of Bebaak Collective pointed out the struggles of Muslim women today are the same as women of other religions. She pointed out that negative media and mainstream stereotyping of Muslims and of Muslim women as burkha clad, head covered, controlled by their menfolk erase their multiple identities and discount their struggles for justice.  She said Muslim women’s groups are wary when the right wing Hindu groups and BJP claim to speak for Muslim women and Modi being portrayed by 24 hour TV channels as saviour of Muslim women on the issue of triple talaq.  She also pointed out that increasing ghettoisation, brought about by the current wave of communalism and communal violence in the country,  is witnessing conservative Muslim groups forcing Muslim women to seek redressal within the community and within the religious framework, although they have constitutionally guaranteed rights.

She also pointed out the adverse impact of the government’s beef ban on livelihoods of the Muslim community and their physical safety, which is further increasing the vulnerabilities of Muslim women. The concerted efforts of the government and the media to stereotype and villainise the Muslim community is making the condition of Muslim women worse and compounding the challenges before secular Muslim women’s groups.

The afternoon session was on contemporary concerns of India’s environment movements. Anand Mazgaonkar, moderator of the session, said with regards to environmental degradation,  it is a tragic-comedy of democracy that, like other movements like the women’s movement, sensitive people are called upon to protect the rights, not of the minority, but in fact those of the ‘marginalised majority’. The media, through invisibilising the voices of the oppressed and their issues, project the view that only a  miniscule proportion of society are affected by projects that severely impact access to natural resources that is the right for all citizens, not only a miniscule section of elites in society.  This aspect was discussed by all the three speakers, Shripad Dharmadhikary, Seema Ketkar and Lara Jesani.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, an engineer, activist, researcher, writer and educator working on water justice, discussed how rivers, considered nurturers of culture and society are being reduced to commercial ventures, to provide boating for pleasure, tourism etc., through Riverfront Development Projects whether it was the Sabarmati, Vishwamitri or the Ganga. He pointed out the senseless hypocrisy of calling rivers sacred mothers, and living entities, and then reducing them to tourist spots for corporate enrichment. Riverfront Development was not only environmentally damaging but also spawned corporate control of the land around the river. He strongly argued that if we were more judicious, just and futuristic in how we viewed rivers and water we would neither have droughts, displacement, and destruction of rivers nor inter-state disputes over river water sharing.

Seema Ketkar, a researcher, narrated the long struggle of the people of Jaitapur in the ecologically sensitive area of the Konkan in Maharashtra, against the proposed nuclear power plant. She  pointed out that common people who are usually considered illiterate are forced to rise up to challenge the State against its destructive policies and  projects that are considered ‘holy cows’, face up to violence and repression from the powers-that-be even as they continue their daily struggle for livelihood. The Jaitapur movement is a shining example of how women are mobilising against the nuclear plant that threatens to destroy their livelihoods, even in the face of state action against the movement.

Gitaben Gohil a former Sarpanch and currently member of Taluka Panchayat echoed Seema Ketkar’s sentiment and informed everyone about how women generally confined to their homes mobilised to resist the proposed Nuclear power plant in Mithi Virdi. As a result Government and NPCIL have been forced to look for alternative sites.

Advocate and activist Lara Jesani outlined the slow progress made globally in our understanding of the environment since the conference in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1970s, which also informed environmental legislation. She lamented how human rights, sustainable development and justice were trampled upon now in the name of development and how we were reversing the tiny bits of progress we had made since then. Unless there is course correction and broader awareness about the philosophy, spirit and letter of Environmental Law we are in for harder times. What emerged as a result of the two discussions was the need for collective resistance against the repressive state and patriarchal society. This demands debate and discussion among various movements, perspectives and ideologies.


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