On December 21, 2012, the streets surrounding Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi was teeming with thousands of people out in anger against the brutal rape of a 23-year-old girl. The savagery involved in the incident had appalled the country. The protests in Delhi soon found an echo all over the country. Never before had an entire country anywhere in the world come out in vehement protest against the inability of the government to provide adequate security to women. The incident was soon followed with some significant changes in laws regarding rape cases in India. The Delhi gang rape case and the protests against it went on to become a landmark moment in the history of the feminist movement in India.
While the protests against the Delhi gang rape went on to acquire international stature, it was definitely not the first instance when women or women related issues became the face of a social movement in India. The feminist movement in India has come a long way since its inception in the nineteenth century when the mother figure was upheld as the epitome of strength, protection and endurance and used for the sake of achieving both gender equality and nationalist goals. By the twentieth century, the feminist discourse in the country evolved to widen the concept of equality, including within it issues related to a woman’s right over her body, her control over her life and the legality of crimes related to women. Overtime, on various instances women have risen in unison not just for gender related issues, but also spearheaded some significant socio-economic movements in the country.
On International Women’s Day, here is a tribute to few moments in contemporary Indian history when women have come out on the streets to hold mass protests demanding their rights.
The Chipko movement
Concerned with the preservation of ecological balance, the Chipko movement in the state of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh) started in the early 1970s. The protests were against the government’s policy of handing out contracts to industrial giants to utilise forest produce for making profits. The movement had started off under the leadership of the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS). However, despite repeated protests the forest department went ahead and auctioned out about 2500 trees of the Reni forest. While the DGSS planned out a demonstration against the auction, the local government conspired to keep all male activists away from the region.
In the absence of men, it was the women of the village who took it upon themselves to step out of their homes and face the industrialists head on. Gaura Devi, a middled aged Bhotia woman was the one to spot the men of the company who came to fell the trees. She immediately mobilised about 30 women to lead the movement. Challenging the men to first shoot her down before touching the trees she forced them to retreat. Soon after the state government investigated the case and withdrew the company from the Reni forests. This incident sparked off similar movements in other parts of the sub-Himalayan region such as in Gopeshwar (1975), Bhynder valley (1978) and Dongri Paintoli (1980).
While the Chipko movement was primarily a protest demanding ecological protection, the involvement of women in the forefront gave it an added impetus of women asking for a stronger representation in decision making.
Jagmati Sangwan’s movement against khap panchayats
In 1995, a young boy in Jind district of Haryana had married a girl from his village against the orders of the khap panchayat. As a punishment, the panchayat members ruled the rape of the boy’s 12-year-old sister. What ensued was a bitter struggle between the men and women of the village, the men being supportive of the ruling of the panchayat and the women vehemently protesting against it. Headed by reformer Jagmati Sangwan, close of 1000 women were part of the protest, many among them were married to the men who supported the panchayat ruling.
This was one of the first mass movements organised by Sangwan. Over the years she went on to spearhead a strong women’s movement in Haryana, mobilising close to 50,000 women to join the Janwadi Mahila Samiti. She along with her supporters led passionate campaigns against female foeticide and honour killing in the state. Her biggest target were the Khap panchayats, who she believes operate along the notion of women being the honour of the family.
Naked protest of Manipur’s mothers
On July 11, 2004 a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama was picked up by members of the Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force unit in India) in Manipur on allegations of her being part of the banned People’s Liberation Army. Next morning, she was found raped and murdered with bullets pumped into her vagina.
Five days after the murder, 30 women came out on the streets of Imphal in protest against the army atrocity against Manorama. Stark naked, they walked down to the Kangla fort in Imphal where the Assam Rifles was stationed, carrying a board that read ‘Indian Army rape us.’ “We are all Manorama’s mothers,” screamed the women. The shocking protest eventually resulted in the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla fort.
Anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh
In the early 1990s, women in rural Andhra Pradesh took it upon themselves to fight against liquor dependency among their men and the subsequent verbal, physical and emotional abuse that followed. They had just one simple demand: “no drinking or selling liquor”. Led by a woman called Sandhya, the movement began as a dharna at the collectorate followed by the demand to stop sale of liquor in the village.
When liquor packets reached the sale counters, women rushed there and destroyed them. They later marched to the chief minister with a letter written in blood stating “we do not need liquor that drains our blood”. When the CM refused to ban liquor, they decided to sleep across his door, preventing him from leaving the house. Once they realised the futility of pleading for official intervention, they decided to reform their men on the home front. Soon enough, they declared that any man found drinking would have his head shaven and anyone selling liquor would be marched through the village on a donkey.
The women led struggle ultimately led to a statewide ban on liquor in 1995. Remarking on the uniqueness of the movement, political scientist Kancha Ilaiah wrote that “the methods that they use are neither Gandhian nor Marxian but uniquely their own.”
In 2002, Suman Singh Chauhan of Badausa in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda was faced with an incident wherein her friend had been beaten up by her alcoholic husband. She gathered some of her friends and neighbours and rushed to her friend’s house and thrashed her husband publicly. This incident sparked off the origin of a group of women vigilantes in Badausa who took it upon themselves to correct social evils.
Calling themselves the Gulabi Gang (pink gang), the group did not just limit their activities to a fight against gendered social evils, but rather battled against several other wrongdoings such as hoarding, bribery, caste discrimination and several others. Wearing pink sarees and carrying bamboo sticks, they frequently resorted to violence in order to make their voices heard.
Badausa is listed among the 200 poorest districts in India and engulfed in problems of illiteracy, caste and gender violence. Most of the women in the gang belong to the Dalit community. Speaking to BBC, the current self proclaimed leader of the gang, Sampat Pal Devi is reported to have said: “Nobody comes to our help in these parts. The officials and the police are corrupt and anti-poor. So sometimes we have to take the law in our hands. At other times, we prefer to shame the wrongdoers.”