Finding India on the Streets

The following is an excerpt from a poem by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, a protest poet and founder of Sar-e-Rahguzar : Poetry on the Streets.

Mera Desh Jal Raha Hai

Magar jaltey mulk mein lagi aag ko bujhaane aa gayi hain sadak par

Ungli uthaati, Naarey lagaati, Ummeed jagaati, Gaaney gaati


Sar ko dhakey, ya baal kholey parcham le kar

Shor machaati, barricades giraati, Mardaani siyasat ko munh chidhaati

Hum auraton se khabardaar, Sun lo pukaar, ab khabardaar,

Naya savera hoga zaroor, Ab badlega zulmi dastoor

Sadak par dekho aaye hain ab

Toofaan log, aftaab log, Bebaak log, lajawab log,

Ummeed ke aabshaar log, Haq ke pehredaar log

Gali bazaar log, Ek do nahi hazaar log.

My Nation is Burning

But, they have arrived on the streets to extinguish this burning nation

Pointing fingers, shouting slogans, inspiring hope, singing songs


Some of them cover their heads, others leave their locks flowing

Upsetting the order loudly, knocking down barricades, Mocking the Patriarchal government

Beware of us women, Hear our cries, now, beware

A new dawn will arrive, These oppressive norms must change

Now, they are on the streets

Fearless people like a storm, warm people like the sun, Frank people, wonderful people

People who are waterfalls of hope, People who are protectors of rights

People in every street, every corner, Not a few, but a thousand people.

India is simmering in a severe winter this year. From Delhi to Chennai, Guwahati to Mumbai, India has been consumed with civil unrest. Indians from all walks of life have taken to the streets in protest of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been declared ‘fundamentally discriminatory’ by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Amazingly, it is the women who are at the forefront of these protests, revisiting the founding principles that the Indian constitution was built on, as they question the Indian state’s policies and actions. Traditionally, women have been excluded from political spaces. Therefore, observing women not only participate, but organize, fund, and lead the ongoing Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests has given a new breath to the resistance. The starkest examples portraying this new dimension of Indian political culture are from Aligarh, New Delhi and Bengaluru. In Aligarh, women have taken over streets by coming out in great numbers, occupying government buildings and addressing the media, all to reject the controversial law. These women have braved heart-breaking police brutality, Section 144 curfew impositions and internet and communications bans along with most of Uttar Pradesh. So far, 19 people have been killed, 1,113 people arrested, and 5,558 people held in preventive detention in the crackdown on the protesters.

In the capital city of New Delhi, the ripples of unrest traveling in the country are magnified. In 2018, India was ranked as the number 1 most dangerous place in the world for women to live in. New Delhi has the highest percentage of crime against women in India. It is especially miraculous for women to come out and protest on the streets given the environment of fear that was created by the gang-rape and murder of a veterinary doctor in Hyderabad (November 27, 2019).

At Jamia Millia Islamia, a prestigious university in the heart of Delhi, the female students initiated protests against the new Citizenship amendment. The Delhi Police responded with heavy-handed repression, including invading the university premises and girls’ hostels without the permission of the Vice Chancellor. They even fired tear gas shells into the university library. Protesters have marched to the Rashtrapati Bhawan and Mandi House, seats of government in Delhi, which were water-hosed and live bullets were fired at the students. However, their protests continued in the face of such illegal and inhuman suppression.

These women have used social and news media strategically to counter the effects of internet bans and curfews imposed on the capital. They have come forward to protect their fellow protesters, amplify their voices and establish their presence in a dangerous political space. More importantly, they have left behind expectations of being saved by someone else.

Another heroic instance of women building the resistance from the ground up is in Shaheen Bagh, a quiet locality in the more subdued parts of New Delhi, which has been the hubbub of protests for the past ten days. More than 2,000 women occupied the Delhi-Noida Kalindi Kunj highway, completely obstructing traffic, displaying placards of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi and author of the Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar. In contrast with the pro-CAA protests that have used the flag of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Shaheen Bagh is filled with the colors of the Indian flag, proudly proving the dedication of these women to their country. On New Year’s Eve, Shaheen Bagh rang out with the voices of women, joined by the people of Delhi, singing age-old ballads: voices calling out for azaadi (freedom); voices celebrating revolutions; voices denouncing oppressive ideologies; voices; loud and powerful voices defying traditional barriers. At night, when the other protesters leave, women bring out mattresses and settle down for the evening, covering their children up against the biting cold, never leaving their vigilance posts or worrying about the duties of their homes.

Research done by Erica Chenoweth, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Maria Stephan, program director at the United States Institute of Peace, has shown that non-violent civil resistance is twice as likely to be successful in achieving its goals than violent movements. Women’s presence maintains the non-violent nature of a campaign and women’s participation in civil resistance increases the probability of a successful campaign proportionally.

Women’s presence in protests leads to calm and non-violent resistance that helps achieve its goals through increased participation from women. We can see this research in action all the way south in Bengaluru where women used a law that prohibits their arrest before sunrise and after sunset to shield male protesters from attacks by the police. Women-led protests have created an environment of all-inclusive struggles so that the resistance isn’t labelled as communally charged.

Civil disobedience in India in 2019 has been coloured by this striking contrast from the past, where more and more women are joining and leading social justice protests. Women are participating and organizing, finding venues, designing graffiti, and making posters. Women have been funding the resistance and when not out on the street, arranging food for protesters. Women are using their own bodies as tools, protecting people, getting arrested, and facing violence. They are creating legal sources for protesters to be bailed out and shaping the media narrative.

Women are speaking out, ensuring that their voices are registered, and are continually finding creative ways to express their dissent against the CAA. On the way to that goal, women have buried a few other obstacles to their empowerment. 2020 is a year where women have carved an unforgettable space in India’s political culture.

Written by: Kavya Srivastava, F21