The dauntless women of Shaheen Bagh, who have continued a sit-in protest on the main highway between Delhi and Noida for weeks, braving harsh winter days and nights, have emerged as a national symbol of dissent against the National Population Register-National Register of Citizens-Citizenship (Amendment) Act regime. On December 15, after they stood up to the cowardly attack by police on Jamia Millia Islamia, the nationwide anti-CAA agitation found its heroes in Akhtarista Ansari, Chanda Yadav, Ladeeda Farsana and Ayesha Renna — all young Jamia students in their 20s.
Not far away, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aishe Ghosh, who was injured in the violent mob attack on the campus, has been leading a struggle against fee hike, thus seen by many as a symbol of accessible education for all.
In all these protests, where woman have emerged as leaders, there is common reference to Savitribai Phule and Fatima Begum Sheikh. The slogans reveal the spirit with which these women have been challenging the government — “Nahin Hindu, Nahin Musalman, Hum hain Savitri-Fatima ki santan (Neither Hindu, nor Muslim, we are children of Savitribai Phule and Fatima Begum).”
Nearly 170 years ago, Savitribai Phule had stood up against Brahminical oppression to fight for the right to education of women and Shudras. Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh too were pelted with stones by anti-social forces at the time. The succeeding generations of women who have been leaders in fighting discriminatory social systems, including the ones who have risen to the occasion during the anti-CAA protests, are all in the truest sense the daughters of Savitribai and Fatimabi.
On January 1, 1848, Savitribai Phule, along with Jyotiba Phule and Fatima Begum, opened India’s first school for girls. At the time, when social reform movements were dominated by upper-caste men, Savitribai, a woman from a Bahujan community, became a name in anti-caste and feminist reforms. The Brahminical social structure at the time denied education to women, OBCs and ati-Shudras (Dalits), and all customs were designed to preserve this structure. Reformers contemporary to Savitribai and Jyotiba took on the customs of widow re-marriage, child marriage, female education, ban on foreign travel, etc. However, most of them didn’t raise issues pertaining to Shudras and Ati-Shudras or address the root cause of the problem —Brahminical scriptures and ideology.
Savitribai and Jyotiba, on the other hand, through their writings, speeches and public interventions, attacked Manusmriti and Brahmanwad. They were among the first to identify the Indian social structure, characterised by an unequal relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed, and putting the Stri-Shudra-Ati Shudras, that is women, untouchables, tribes and all others, at the receiving end of the Brahminical order.
Savitribai was among the first to explain how Brahmanwad and Manusmriti “created a society based on inequality”, calling it “an inhuman ploy of cunning beings” in her poem So Says Manu. She was the first woman author to get published at a time when women were not even seen or heard. She also founded alternative systems such as Satyashodhak Samaj and Satyashodhak marriages. The genius of Savitribai in forging alliances of the marginalised can be seen from the barbers’ (OBCs) strike organised by her and Jyotiba in 1889 against the barbaric practice of tonsuring heads of Brahmin widows.
Savitribai’s life is testament to her fight for rights of all who were rendered second-grade citizens by the Brahminical forces, and her triumph over them. Maybe that is why, on her 189th birthday, women and members of the LGBTQ community organised a nationwide protest against CAA and evoked her legacy.
The apprehensions of women, Dalits, tribals, LGBTQ community and people with disabilities about the NPR-NRC-CAA regime are valid. These marginalised sections face further disenfranchisement with CAA and NRC, evident from a report by advocacy organisation Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS). The WSS study, conducted in Assam where the NRC was undertaken, found that women in general, and women from marginal and oppressed communities in particular, have historically been excluded from entitlements to land and education and have almost no documentation to prove their existence as citizens.
Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad raises similar concerns of how historically excluded Dalits, Adivasis and nomadic tribes would be the worst affected by NPR-NRC-CAA.
It is very clear that like the Manusmriti deemed Shudra, Ati-shudras and women secondary citizens, the NPR-NRC-CAA is designed to reject Muslims, women, Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, LGBTQ community and people with disabilities, and consolidate power in the hands of a few Brahminical forces. The legacy of Savitribai Phule along with Birsa Munda, Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar should serve as a constant reminder of this ideological struggle.
The daughters of Savitribai who have emerged as the leaders of this movement must form alliances and cross-sectional ties like she did. Like her, they need to write, speak and act on their words. They will be challenged, like Savitribai was, but they must speak up in their cities, towns and villages, in their universities and offices, on streets and and even in their houses, to save the Constitution and to make the constitutional dream of ‘justice, liberty and equality’ a reality.
In these dark times, Savitribai burns like the light of revolution. By retreading her steps, we will be able to reify the egalitarian society of her dreams.
Disha Wadekar is a lawyer based in Delhi
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines