“But who is organising this?” A friend asked me one evening last week as we sat in with other women at the anti-CAA protest in Delhi’s Hauz Rani locality. I didn’t have an answer to the question. But it wasn’t a question that bothered me.
There was no doubt that considerable organisation had gone not only into this protest but the many others that were taking place in Delhi and elsewhere — Lucknow, Allahabad, Kolkata, Kochi and Bengaluru.
No matter that the ‘shamianas’ in which the women collected were made up of stitched together plastic, large pieces of cloth and canvas, and the ground lined with bamboo mats or thin mattresses — but someone did put it all together. Just as someone arranged the food, the tea, the water and the ongoing programme of speakers, singers and other artistes.
But no one organisation claimed credit for any of the protests. The focus remained — rather, remains — on the issue and the collective nature of the protest, not the leadership.
My mind went back to the protests of the 1970s and ’80s in which feminists of my generation cut their political teeth, where we came together to fight battles against dowry, rape, caste crimes, unjust laws, better working conditions and more. Or the protests against the Bhopal gas tragedy and the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, which were not strictly about women’s rights only. Those, too, were leaderless.
It’s hard to identify a single leader who stood out in those protests or campaigns. Groups, yes — although even there, unless the protests were organised by political parties, it was hard to pinpoint one leading group.
Did we consciously decide there would be no leaders? I don’t think so. To us, the issues were more important than claiming credit for the fight. I recall that while there were differences in the way we understood certain situations — sometimes very sharp ones — the overall message was something we worked out together and agreed upon.
A great deal of organising went into the protests, and because there was no internet, and barely any phones, this took time. It sometimes took years to get a landline connection, and a call between Delhi and Mumbai cost a fortune. Every long-distance call had to be booked in advance; an urgent call — then known as ‘lightning call’ — was almost unaffordable. But we still managed to communicate.
When four lawyers wrote a protest letter against the Supreme Court’s 1979 verdict in the Mathura case — the court had acquitted two policemen accused of raping a young tribal girl in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra — it catalysed a nationwide movement and years of campaigning and coordinated action to change the country’s rape laws.
The organising generally began with a planning meeting. Venues could be people’s homes, or a public institution where we could sit in the lawns and talk; sometimes they’d provide a room where activists could meet. The first decision to take was whether a protest was necessary or if other forms of action would suffice.
If a protest was called for, then we had to next think of the messages to send out and whom to direct those at. Venues were chosen after considerable discussion, routes were finalised. A parcha was always a must: Printed on lightweight paper, it carried the message of the protest and had to be distributed to passersby, or inserted into a newspaper with the “permission” of the newsagent.
Parchas were also used for mobilisation, an essential part of any protest. For days before the actual protest, groups would go around campaigning, distributing parchas , talking to people, doing street theatre performances, pasting posters. Many nights were spent with buckets of glue and large brushes to put up posters on every available wall and other surfaces. And then there were other details. Men could help, but they were not to be at the forefront. The leading banners always had to be held by women, and, if possible, women across class and caste and religion.
In demonstrations sparked by the Shah Bano case (the Central government in 1986 overturned a 1985 Supreme Court verdict awarding her alimony), it was Muslim women who held aloft the banners; when the issue was the Uniform Civil Code, the front was more mixed. If there was a list of demands to be submitted, a small group would take on that task. Others would wait at an appointed venue, to hear about the outcome and plan the next steps. The women protesters of the ’70s and ’80s came out on the streets to amplify their voices of protest. Their counterparts today have taken over those very streets, painted and coloured them, set up libraries, created kitchens and tea stalls, delegated work among family members to keep the house running, and also convinced their men to pitch in. And it looks like they are here to stay.
Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;