The anatomy of a protest in Kolkata: slogans, courage and a night of many firsts

Shamik Bag
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In solidarity: The sit-in at Park Circus, Kolkata (Photo: Partha Paul)

It is a little after midnight and a rising breeze has lent fangs to Kolkata’s otherwise pleasant winter. A couple of hundred people, a majority being women, huddle together in warm, intimate clusters on foam mattresses spread on the open field till things hot up with a renewed burst of sloganeering, forcing everybody on their feet.

“This is what you’ll have to say after me,” a college student and campus activist handholds the crowd, almost overwhelmingly Muslim women, into the magnetic world of collective political sloganeering. “I will say, ‘NRC ko, NPR ko tod ke dikhaya hai (We have destroyed the NRC and NPR)’, and you will say, ‘Desh ki mahilayon ne rasta dikhaya hai (The country's women have shown the way),’” she says. The chorus is instantly picked up and is deafening.

While men clap and cheer from the fringes, the ladies who form the core ring of dissent at Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan let their voices rip through the midnight hour: “Down with the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Down with National Register of Citizens (NRC), Down with Modi-Shah, Down with the RSS”, and while at it, “Down with patriarchy” too. Murdabaad. Murdabaad.

It is when she realised that a “conspiracy” was afoot to make them outlanders in their own desh, compounded by the horror she felt on seeing visuals of “RSS men in masks beating up girls inside the JNU hostel” that 45-year-old Asmat Jamil decided being just a mother to three children wouldn’t suffice to assure their future, or that of the Indian Muslim community at large. “We are all children of this country and Modi must realise the pain when a child is asked about the authenticity of her mother,” says Jamil, her frayed emotions expressed in a mix of Urdu and Hindi.

Jamil is given to feminine references, highlighting the role of Muslim women in the Battle of Karbala or that of Rani Laxmibai, the Hindu queen of Jhansi, while fighting the British. Other than being a homemaker, she also runs a social organisation in central Kolkata which imparts after-school tuition and sewing training to underprivileged girls. Two days after the JNU violence of January 5, Jamil led a group of 60 Muslim women, mostly from the Taltala and Park Circus neighbourhoods, to start a 24-hour vigil against the Centre’s “discriminatory” policies; to protest against the violence at JNU and Jamia Millia University; and in solidarity with the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, where a similar women-led 24-hour sit-in is currently on.

Most Muslim women here have scored many “firsts” — first time they have joined a mass protest; first time they have been “politicised to an extent where we are forced to leave our homes and children,” according to 33-year-old mother of two, Nuzhat Parveen; and first time they are spending vigilant nights outside of their homes, something we don't do even while celebrating Eid, says Nargis Noor, a burqa-clad 17-year-old.

It is 1.30 am. Nargis is here with her parents and younger sister. Their father, a man in burnt orange-dyed long beard and skullcap, goads the sisters to speak in English with me — the girls are students of the city’s English-medium Jewish Girls School, which, belying the global history of Jew-Muslim conflict, has majority Muslim students. “Some of my Hindu friends from school had joined the protest earlier today,” informs Nargis.

Indeed, since day one, the round-the-clock Park Circus Maidan protests have had an ecumenical ring around it. Within an hour of the sit-in commencing on January 7, Jamil informs, student-activists from Kolkata's Jadavpur University, followed soon by Presidency and Calcutta University students, joined with their zeal and counsel. With increasing participation, going up to a few thousand on certain nights, members of student organisations affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist/Marxist-Leninist, Marxist-Leninist Liberation) and the Trinamool Congress, have jostled for sloganeering space. The presence of dozens of children of the women protesters, and representation of Kolkata’s civil, liberal and progressive societies have bestowed an element of the carnivalesque to what is otherwise an occasion rife with insecurity, fear, anger, and, undeniably, a mass reaffirmation of national pride.

Despite the state government not providing written permission for the protests, thereby denying the women protesters proper toilet facilities, loudspeakers or even the right to put up a tarpaulin shield against the cold, the Park Circus women vow to not let the resistance assume any particular political shade.

“This is our fight. India’s fight,” says 25-year-old law student, Shafqat Rahim, on a night when, for the first time in her life, she will travel back home alone in a cab at daybreak. “Teri shakti, meri shakti, nari shakti, zindabaad (Your power, our power, long live, women’s power)”, was one of the slogans Firdous Saba, physics student at Aliah University, wearing a floral hijab and a constant smile, had chanted in a bewitching two-hour long session of lung power one night. “Empowered women are the backbone of any revolution,” she states. “And we are not going anywhere.”

Shamik Bag is a writer in Kolkata