Women and Students Are Leading India's Citizenship Protests

Women and Students Are Leading India's Citizenship Protests
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
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In India, women are leading protests against the government's discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act by staging indefinite sit-ins.

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NEW DELHI — Amid two months of violent crackdowns on students and Muslim communities, protesters against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are demanding a secular republic guaranteed in the Constitution. 

The new law, which expedites the naturalization of non-Muslim refugees from three nearby countries, also excludes Dalits and lower caste groups who have historically held the least capital and privilege in India. The controversial CAA is coupled with a plan to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would require all Indians to prove their citizenship.

Indian protesters, especially among the youth and the women, are collectively reimagining what it means to be Indian and rediscovering India’s constitutional values. 

In New Delhi, violence broke out on college campuses as police and mobs attacked student protesters. Low-income Muslim neighborhoods have seen police vandalism, arbitrary arrests, and repeated crackdowns. 

Najma, 21, who requested anonymity, has been participating in the protests at her local polytechnic college every day at Shaheen Bagh. “Muslim men are being continuously harassed by the BJP government, women have a bigger responsibility to protest through our continued presence. Surely, they cannot beat us too!” she said. 

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Young girls draw sketches near the protest site in New Delhi's Shaheen Bagh area, India. Muslim women are transcending the confines of their homes to lay claim to the streets of this nondescript Muslim neighborhood in the Indian capital and slowly transforming it into a nerve center of resistance against a new citizenship law that has unleashed protests across the country. 

In India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 200 million and 20 percent of which are Muslims, a dozen cities have witnessed large-scale state violence. The nationwide death toll has already surpassed 24, with thousands more charged, detained, and arrested. 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s ruling party, and its leaders have repeatedly called the protesters “anti-nationals” instead of responding to their concerns. 

However, the protesters have become more creative and unconventional in the face of danger. In every major city, women are leading indefinite sit-ins, a model of resistance popularized by the Gandhian concept of satyagraha, or non-violent civil disobedience. They challenge the notion of protests being a disruption of routine with daily, ongoing sit-ins that have become a way of life. 

In Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighborhood in Delhi, women have been protesting around the clock, working out arrangements with local shops. Protesters have blocked a highway connecting Delhi with one of its largest suburbs, Noida for 50 days now. Artwork lines the roads, along with a public library, a medical camp, and communal kitchens doling out biryani, chai, and snacks. 

Some women bring their children along, cook food for their families with leftovers to spare for the communal kitchen, and tend to their children’s homework while listening to the speakers on-stage - day and night. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Children watch as Indian women hold hands to form human chain at Jama Masjid in protest against new citizenship law that excludes Muslims, in New Delhi, India, Thursday, January 30, 2020.

In Kerala, couples have held placards against the CAA during their weddings. Meanwhile, in Lucknow, police are snatching blankets from protesters on cold nights, blocking access to public toilets, yet the women have remained undeterred.

In many instances, women have been battling charges of sedition and rioting for their roles in protests. Sara Ahmed, 25, one of the organizers in Allahabad, quit her job and went canvassing door to door around the protest site to organize the sit-in. “The police filed FIRs against all of us, but we were even more determined. People came every day to provide food, blankets, medicine, and other necessities. All we had to do was resolve to sit down,” she said. 

As of February 1, 230 women-led protests across India have been recorded, with 87 indefinite sit-ins staged across the country. 

Sameena Begum, 45, a mother of two, who has been traveling to Shaheen Bagh from Noida daily for 20 kilometers, said, “We shall either die fighting or force the government to give us back our rights as citizens of this country." 


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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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