Be angry, be heard

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on June 25, 2020

Rise to the occasion: You can’t be angry at one kind of injustice and not lend your voice to another   -  THE HINDU/ RITU RAJ KONWAR

Managing anger is often counted as a sign of rational human behaviour. But this very emotion fuelled generations of feminists to protest and continues to move people today

Twice a year, I teach a course in feminism and gender to young students. Our classes are often lively and engaging as the history we study is a living one, and students bring their doubts, fears, curiosities and questions to the discussions.

An issue that often comes up is anger. An emotion that is, unsurprisingly, a regular companion of the young. Are we right to be angry, the students ask. Is anger a permissible, productive emotion? Should we not protest when we see injustice? Why are we always told not to be angry?

There’s never a clear answer to these questions and our discussions sometimes become intense, not because we are on different sides — we’re not — but because the injustice of not being allowed to be angry exacerbates the anger the young feel. And as anger mounts, authority (call it power) comes down more harshly, thinking that suppressing it will make it go away.

But as we know from myriad experiences in our lives, this is not what happens.

With my students, because we focus on the history of the women’s movement, we’ve sometimes dealt with the question of anger by looking at the past. In the early days of the movement in India, when women of my generation were cutting their political teeth, I remember being in a permanent state of anger.

We were furious at being assaulted in buses on our way to college, at the authoritarian and discriminatory conditions in women’s hostels, at the devaluation of women’s autonomy that lay behind these... The anger only increased as we moved out of university: Why were women paid less than men? Why was there a glass ceiling? Why are poverty and hunger much harsher on women? What gave families the ‘right’ to kill or incarcerate their daughters for wanting to marry outside the boundaries of caste and class?

It was out of this anger that the many protest movements, which resulted in key changes in our society, were born. Had the women’s groups across India — and the many individual women who took up the baton — not been angry at the many forms of injustice women face, we would not have had the hard-fought gains we have today. Sceptics, though, may say these changes are hardly enough.

These stories came back to me as I watched the news, some weeks ago, of the arrest and re-arrest of three young women — Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal (both in judicial custody) and Safoora Zargar (released on bail this week). What were these women doing other than protesting what they saw as injustice? In a democracy, when citizens see a piece of legislation as unjust, they protest. They demand change. They know, as well as everyone else, that public protest is a key route to demanding change.

The entire battle for the removal of Section 377 was based on street-level protests and in-court battles. What were these women doing that was so different?

The commitment to fighting injustice, once it finds expression, can never be limited. You can’t be angry at one kind of injustice and not lend your voice to another. Activists understand this basic fact, and this is the ground on which alliances between campaigns and movements are built.

When thousands of young men and women joined the anti-CAA protests, this is what they were doing — carrying the everyday anger they felt to a much larger cause. They were not being anti-national. They, in fact, helped organise the protest meetings, sometimes even addressed gatherings, ran classes and libraries for children, and, most of all, expressed solidarity with the thousands of women who sat in peaceful protest.

Did they have murder and sedition in their heads? Did they not hold allegiance to India? Could there have been a different way — other than arrest and incarceration and allegations of murderous intent — to deal with this anger, to open up a dialogue, to listen?

If our earlier questions about anger were difficult to answer, these ones are not. Something that upsets my young students is not being listened to, not being taken seriously and not being understood.

Is it so difficult for those in power to listen to expressions of outrage at injustice? Even if they maintain that what is perceived as injustice is not actually so, it costs nothing to listen, and, hey, you might even learn something. Perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that when we protested all those years ago, there were people — some — who listened. Now there seems to be none.


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


Published on June 25, 2020

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