It is with deep dismay that we have read the Statement published last month on The Wire.in (subsequently, Round Table India and Maktoob Media), raising serious concerns about the nature of Pinjra Tod’s politics and its internal processes. These are concerns for any progressive movement and the subject of many ongoing debates in the political milieu of the country today. Signatories to the statement are friends that we have lost on this journey; some among them having played an important role in shaping it from the time of its inception. Their absence in the movement remains with us and the criticisms they have placed have been the cause of renewed and an even more systematic thinking through for the entire movement. Some of the conclusions they have arrived at have been points of long drawn out political debates internally. Significant investment has gone into these questions through engaging in different issues and movements, observing and learning from them, and reviewing our own collective positions through such participation.
We share many of the concerns raised by the signatories, yet differ from the conclusions that they arrive at. We feel that this difference in conclusion owes as much to a difference in political outlook as to a difference in experience. Therefore, in responding to these assertions we have not only tried to revisit some of the experiences of the movement, but also some of the debates which have taken place within, including with the signatories of the Statement. We hope that the response will open up a space for productive engagement within the larger women’s and students’ movement.
- Some Preliminary Reflections
The statement put together speaks of discussions panning over a period of almost 4 years given that the signatories have had varying degrees of engagement with the movement, have remained active and left at different points of time. Those from the LSR team distanced themselves around March-April in 2017 after intensive discussions, two of them being active from the very beginning of the movement. In the case of Jamia are people who dissociated very early on, while two others were active till the previous semester. The movement in this entire period has gone through many phases. As an independent movement of women students, emerging out of spontaneous struggles in a turbulent political context, we have not enjoyed the benefit of a well-defined and stated, prior political articulation. Instead, both the form of the movement and the demands have been products of constant discussions and decisions taken in open meetings. These discussions while being informed by a political imagination challenging structures of caste, class and patriarchy also emphasized on ensuring the active participation of a heterogeneous set of women students in putting this imagination into practice. These processes allowed many students to own such a political imagination through their own struggles and initiatives as participants of Pinjra Tod, despite this not already being laid out as in a manifesto or established as a formal criterion of membership. This has both been a strength and a challenge. Informed by a recognition of some of the criticisms reiterated in the statement and strengthening our capacity to overcome these, over the past year the movement has invested significantly in internal processes towards evolving an organisational structure and a political common minimum which we hope shall help address some of the concerns raised in the statement.
The feeling of alienation, hurt and of being let down shared by the signatories, however, is our greatest collective failure. Such a feeling is the most damning for the movement, which has constantly tried to be an enabling space, and a support system for women in their journey of political exploration. A sensitivity to individual experiences, taking into account differing social histories and locations have been important and recognised aspects of our internal processes. Being active, or engaged in the decision making processes of a movement are not necessarily enough to ensure that a person does not also feel alienated from its processes, or find themselves on the margins. In a milieu so internally fractured, brutalising people into insensitivity towards each others vulnerabilities, the experiences of marginalisation shared by the signatories are reflections of how far and deep the struggle must go to build lasting unities and spaces of security. Any such experience was not inevitable, and must be attributed to the lack of political maturity and capacity of the movement collectively, and all those participating in it individually. Those of us who remain in the movement today, stay here committed to the responsibility of continuing to learn from our struggles, in building firmer solidarities, unities, and our own political understanding towards better equipping ourselves to ensure that no others feel similarly in their engagement with the movement.
- Points of Clarification
Reinvestigating our own processes since, we have found ourselves at a loss in identifying instances for the attribution of such alienation to conscious acts by the movement: of using Dalit, OBC and Muslim women as “tokenistic gestures only needed to step up and be seen when Pinjra Tod needed to showcase that it did have Dalit, Muslim, Tribal women in its organization.” Such an approach is completely contradictory to anything the movement has stood for, and how it has understood its struggle against Brahmanical Patriarchy as such. It has constantly maintained that the struggle against Brahmanism or religious fundamentalism or capitalism is a struggle that all women, including ‘Savarna’ ‘elite’ women, must fight as a necessary part of their own emancipation. The illustration offered for such an argument in the Statement that, “Marginalized women were only called in when they needed to write a post on Delta, Jisha or Hadiya” too, we were not able to trace back. All these posts were written, like most other posts, by a process first of volunteering on the WhatsApp groups, and subsequent discussion and revisions made to the initial draft, either in meetings or on the WhatsApp group.
Signatories to the statement who have been active organisers of the movement have also occupied positions of ‘leadership’ within the movement; represented the movement in protests, public meetings and before the media, on issues pertaining to the demands of the movement beyond their particular identities. They have written statements, conceptualised and led protests on a range of issues. They have also been consistent participants in the decision-making processes that have evolved within the movement. The invisibilization of these roles played by some of the signatories themselves, and over significant periods of time would be unfair, both towards them and the movement as it was during their presence.
Unfortunately, the statement released by ex-members completely discounts all the conversation around the politics and processes of the movement that they themselves have participated in and developed, and bases itself on a very selective account of it’s activity. It also erases the presence of all among us — Muslim, Christian, Sikh, practicing, non-practicing, Dalit, OBC, Tribal, non-mainland, Kashmiri, north-eastern, queer women — who do not fit the Hindu-elite-savarna-cis-hetero assumed description of the oppressor. We are, and have been many more of us here than the statement has acknowledged. We find it unfair that the statement closes off to us this space that we have built for ourselves through much effort – in saying that Pinjra Tod’s ‘time is up.’ This continues to be an important space for us, even as we engage with the limitations and challenges that the movement is confronted with. We respond to the statement as women who themselves come from different caste, class and religious backgrounds who continue to participate in the movement. We assert this now, only because in the logic of the statement, any discussion of our politics without this initial clarification of fact becomes a futile discussion.
Our contestation is not with the assertion that Pinjratod isn’t a Dalit, Bahujan, Muslim, or a working class women’s organisation or movement. It is not, and has never claimed to be. Nor has it ever claimed intersectionality as a political framework. Our difference lies in the assertion that this does not make Pinjratod a savarna – Hindu – or elite women’s organisation, unidentifiable with the concerns of Dalit, OBC, Muslim or working class women. Nor does it imply that we aren’t invested in the struggle against caste, Islamophobia or exclusion of women from non-elite classes in educational spaces. There is also the charge that the movement has remained “stagnant on abolition of curfews and demand for cheaper hostels”. In fact, along with these demands, we have simultaneously invested in a host of issues faced by women on campus such as the need for basic infrastructure, against discrimination based on caste, religion, race and region in university and private accommodation, implementation of reservations and redressal of sexual harassment. Many of these have been part of the very first charter of demands submitted by the movement to the DCW in 2015, and various university administrations over the years.
We continue to organise around these demands and beyond, as part of a larger uprising on these issues across campuses in the country. Even if these demands seem frivolous, petty, and meagre, these are demands towards which women students are organising themselves through their own initiative, contributing to the politicisation of women as well as society on the whole. It is also worth thinking why movements remain ‘stagnant’ on their demands? Why do workers continue to raise the ‘stagnant’ demand of a dignified, living wage or limited working hours? Why do farmers keep demanding minimum support prices and policy change? Why do women keep raising the ‘stagnant’ demand against sexual harassment? We believe it is because these demands call out the farce of accommodation within the system of these sections and cannot be completely resolved unless the entire status quo changes. The demand for non-discriminatory rules and accommodation for all women have occupied a similar place in our struggle.
- Building a Mass Movement Against Brahmanism, Neoliberalism and Patriarchy
An important part of the social and political relevance of the movement comes from the fact that through consistent struggle on immediate demands, it has marked a point of entry into the political space for a lot of women not already engaged in or exposed to political organising. The question of the relationship between the expression of spontaneous outrage, and a more ideologically informed organisational process has confronted us through out the struggle. Most students participating in a protest for the first time, while angry and fighting out on the streets, also come in having given little thought to issues beyond their immediate outrage and carrying all the contradictions that society carries within itself. How does one engage with a ‘mass’ of women, ready to identify with the movement in a moment of spontaneous outpouring, and yet still very far from being active participants of the everyday collectivity, discussions and experiences which pave the way for greater political reflection. Who among them constitute Pinjra Tod? What is the significance of such mass agitations by women on streets and campuses which have for a long time not witnessed such protests? Should progressive groups engage with such moments or distance themselves from them on the basis of their obvious political limitations? What is the role of activists within a movement, and what are the burdens put on them by spontaneous movements, partly of their own making but beyond their control?
The process of engagement and politicisation is an important part of shifting the commonsensical consensus away from the status quo and towards the fulfillment of our demands. Despite the wide resonance enjoyed by the struggle against curfews, the demand continues to be faced with much apprehension and fairly high stakes for those coming out on the streets for it. A vote against the curfew fetched merely 6 supporters in a GBM called by LSR hostellers in 2015, a massive protest of over 500 women organised again by the LSR team in September 2016 prefered to stick to PG areas and not directly confront the Principal, because of the high-handedness of the administration. This had significantly shifted by the second round of LSR protests in Nov 2018, when women students jammed the road for hours and faced police action to force the Principal and the administration to address them on their demands. Prior to the protest, the administration tried to placate the students by announcing some changes in hostel rules. As Pinjra Tod we rejected these ‘piecemeal’ changes, and decided to go ahead with the protest demanding accountability on our full Charter which included removal of curfew, implementation of OBC Reservation, PwD accessibility, removal of local guardians and interview system for hostel allocation, non-merit based hostel allocation & other demands. The final negotiations saw the administration quashing all demands with the threat of a massive fee increase and disciplinary action against protestors.
Reading any of these moments as freeze-frames instead of locating them in a history of organising over years in particular contexts, will be counterproductive, as it has been in the Statement, where a single person voicing a concern about “the impracticability of implementing OBC reservations” has been extended to the entire movement compromising on that demand. This is even more unfortunate as the movement in LSR in 2018 was much stronger and politically sharper than it has been before, and succeeded in establishing OBC reservations as a basic demand of the movement, continuing to mobilise and campaign despite the pressure of not only the administration, but also a sizeable section of the student body, particularly many inside the hostel, who actively campaigned against the demands and protests, calling them the handiwork of “outsiders.”.
That our classrooms are divided on lines of caste and class, that privilege is deeply entrenched in our educational institutions and that even political organising in society functions on these existing structures of association constitute the very reality that we are struggling against. It is important for the movement to create space for women students across locations to hold a stake in and frame the demands and nature of this space. Decisions such as speaking in Hindi in meetings, having meetings in central locations, rotational allocation of responsibility have been attempts in this direction which have emerged through concerns raised by various members active at different points of time, across the spread of the movement. Among the numerous instances of tensions and divergences encountered in this process of coming together, one has also seen people grow and change through such struggles. Not only do people gain the strength of challenging their disprivilege through collective strength, they also come to re-evaluate their privileges in the light of the stakes imposed on them as students, as those speaking up against the administration, as people with different social and political identities. This has brought women, from varied backgrounds to do politics much beyond their immediate struggles on campuses and looking towards a much wider horizon of social and self transformation.
A facilitation of unity does not foreclose struggle within the movement. Neither does a movement bringing together women from different social backgrounds automatically become a “homogenous” one, as asserted by the signatories. Collective struggles re-articulate our individual identities. It allows us a new subject location, based not just on the predetermined social location we are born into, but a politics that we put into practice together. As the journey unfolds for each of us, we realise that if hostel rules change, fees rise; when struggles for reservations succeed, institutions get privatised; when ICC committees are constituted, governmental intervention in college matters buttress the impunity of those in power; when women go out in the world and choose who they shall love, a heightening of religious and caste antagonisms threaten their dreams, punish their desires; women fight to wear what they want and then find that freedom turning into shackles of beauty standards dictated by the market. One struggle leads to another, and each one demands a wider set of solidarities, a further rethinking of who we are and want to be.
In looking through our own struggles, and trying to learn from the rich legacy of the women’s, anti-caste, workers’, land rights and other progressive movements’, we have found ourselves coming to a conclusion that the present political dispensation requires an ever expansive mobilisation of all those at the receiving end of its oppression. The political imagination of Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh who sought the right to education for women across castes, has left an important example for us to learn from. They campaigned convincing parents to send their daughters to the school, while people opposed them and threw mud and cow dung at Savitribai as she went to teach. Jyotiba and Savitribai also organised a barber’s strike as a means of enforcing reforms for ‘upper caste’ widows, and maintained active connections with the emerging trade union militancy of the Bombay mill workers among their many different engagements. It is indeed their political imagination that we find deeply relevant for our own political project and seek to build upon. Neither was the struggle against Caste divorced from the struggle against Patriarchy for Ambedkar, who while laying out the political programme for annihilation of caste, speaks also of the struggle against the regulation of sexuality of caste Hindu women, even resigning from the Constituent Assembly on account of the Hindu Code Bill. Does the fact that we learn from Ambedkar, Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh amount to ‘appropriating’ their struggle? We do not think so, and find that such an outlook does disservice not only to them, but countless people, named and unnamed, who have propelled history forward, whose legacy we bear and are accountable to.
- Contesting Political Imaginations of the Struggle over Public Institutions and Spaces
The movement has developed in conversation and contestation with other political discourses influential in the students’ and women’s movement. The dominant discourse around gender has been of a neo-liberal individualised ‘my choice’ variety of feminism pushing women to seek upward mobility and a limited freedom from patriarchy for their own self, without taking a stake in challenging other forms of oppression, or even condoning their participation in those structures on the basis of them being women. The hype around women CEOs & entrepreneurs, military commanders, or even around an unqualified assertion of ‘choice’ reflects such an approach. While these assertions are a reflection of changing gender dynamics in society, the movement has from its very initial period strongly contested this as a sign of success, or a tenable ‘objective’ for a progressive women’s movement actually invested in dismantling patriarchy as a whole. Such a discourse has percolated into our college spaces, endorsed by the administration and the state, through WDCs collaborating with NGOised networks like One Billion Rising, or the selection of UGC ‘Gender Champions’ in colleges, besides being propagated by popular ‘desi intersectional’ feminist portals.
This discourse has actively tried to co-opt whatever movements and initiatives have developed from among women students themselves and has also constantly tried to club Pinjra Tod in its framework, even as the movement has consciously maintained a distance from and challenged these kind of discourses. We have repeatedly, over the years, refused numerous invites for ‘collaborations’, panel discussions, talks, meetings, conferences, awards, photo-shoots etc from corporate-funded NGOs and media platforms, from international organisations such as the United Nations etc. Pinjra Tod has enjoyed much, yet selective, media coverage. This coverage has primarily represented the movement as raising questions of mobility for women disconnected from our other demands which could not fit easily into the ‘choice’ and ‘parity with men’ framework being promoted by the media-state-corporate nexus. Therefore, such a foregrounding by the media is not always a reflection of Pinjra Tod’s ‘priorities’, but instead of how the dominant discourse seeks to fit the movement into its own agendas. So, while a march organised in LSR in 2016 witnessed tremendous media coverage given that a prominent women’s college was involved, many other initiatives, say such as a protest called by Pinjra Tod in April 2017 after the suicide of a Dalit woman student in SOL, or the PG Surveys through 2016-17 and consequent Jan Sunwai, or the struggle against the removal of 8 Dalit women sanitation workers in Undergraduate Hostel for Women(DU) in 2016, protests against rise in hostel fees in Jamia in 2017 & 2018 — barely saw any media coverage at all.
On the other hand, certain tendencies within ‘Bahujan’ politics influential in academic institutions have not only disconnected the specific struggles of marginalised women from other demands of the students’ movement, but have placed them in opposition. The recognition of the particularity of a person’s social location has been extended to understand social identity as directly and singularly defining a person’s politics. The significance of the struggle for marginalised women to enter and survive these toxic Brahmanical and Islamophobic universities is directly connected to the structural transformation of these spaces, which is a necessary condition for such survival along with people’s well being, dignity and security. This would include many shared concerns such as that against autonomy and privatisation, basic struggles for making institutions accessible for the widest set of people, against fund/seat cuts, against fee hikes, against restrictive hostel rules, demands for affordable accommodation, public transport and mobility etc. Through hierarchizing struggles, and seeing the specificity of social location in a deterministic way, such tendencies have argued that the priorities of marginalised women are inherently and always different from, if not opposed to, that of the rest of the women students.
This logic has also confronted us in our meetings and campus spaces, and even during internal correspondence and discussions with the LSR signatories back in 2017 through claims such as: the immediate struggle for marginalised women is against the savarna class/room-mate rather than against the administration or landlord or that the demand against curfew is inherently ‘a savarna demand’ because it puts at risk the entry of bahujan women into the university as families might be reluctant to send them to a hostel with ‘no rules’. It was also argued that bahujan women have always occupied public space, and so the struggle for access to public space and resources is not relevant for them or that the struggle against ABVP on campuses (such as the Ramjas incident, Feb 2017) is a ‘tussle for hegemony between Savarna right and Savarna left’ holding no significance for the lives of marginalised students. When asserted in this manner, it creates an impossibility of dialogue. Any political difference or contestation then runs the risk of being seen as disregarding social experience. However, in articulating a political position, a collective must take into account a variety of experiences, where each experience is both enriched by its location and also limited by it; besides also being ideologically informed. The wide resonance of the movement has manifested in struggles of women students from multiple social locations and identities, in Delhi and numerous towns and cities across the country. Women students associating in different ways with the movement, have led struggles against hostel rules and fee hikes, against securitisation, against Hindutva violence, for public space/resources, for futures other than compulsory (heterosexual-endogamous) marriage, simultaneously challenging administration, society & family — throwing open political imaginations and ideological possibilities that contest such formulations.
When unfolding in the university, these different logics also produce a new common sense of an individualised way of dealing with structural questions. The long history of struggle for inclusion is most readily accepted in the form of arguments such as ‘pass the mic’ (and perhaps only palatable as that?), which while raising important concerns, ignores the fact that inclusivity and intersectionality can be paid lip service to, while other questions about corporate funding of conferences can be left unchallenged. This has reduced the stake in social transformation to a performance of guilt, or ‘calling out’ while keeping social difference and the impunity of those in power intact. A similar contradiction was seen playing out in the debate on the ‘List of Sexual Harassers in Academia’ by Raya Sarkar which while being inspired by the #metoo moment in the West, made a very specific intervention in the Indian context. The issue of Sexual Harassment has a long history within the women’s movement and the very recognition that the normalisation of sexual (mis)conduct must end and be recognised as ‘harassment’ requiring legal redressal is owed to the active struggle of feminists around the world. Yet, with the low ebb of the women’s movement the agenda of Sexual Harassment got increasingly disconnected with struggles for employment and dignified working conditions and limited to the institutional workings of Anti Sexual Harassment Committees. This isolation resulted in institutional mechanisms themselves becoming ineffective and leaving the problem intact, if not aggravated by greater precarity of work as a whole.
In such a context, the ‘List of Sexual Harassers in Academia’ responded to a widely encountered experience of women students and academics in top universities. The debate within some sections of the women’s movement after the list created a polarisation between ‘naming and shaming’ v/s ‘due process’. Most damagingly, this shut down spaces for recognising the limitation that the women’s movement had suffered in failing to keep the system under pressure and keeping the mechanisms working and effective. On the other hand, those propagating the list contributed to the erasure of the long history of struggles behind addressing sexual harassment by adopting and further pushing such a false dichotomy by branding institutional mechanisms as means of scuttling ‘justice’ — even as the women movement has critically engaged with the necessary limitation of law, and known that law is not justice. Posed in such dichotomous terms, the basic requirements of relief for the complainant, and institutional action against the harasser were summarily dismissed on the account of the difficulty of engaging with institutional mechanisms. In Sarkar’s own words the list was “not prepared with institutional action in mind, but as a cautionary list for students” assuming “harassers will continue to hold their positions of power.” What was meant as an attack on “Brahmin patriarchy and Brahmin hegemony” operating to a particular effect in the very particular context of research in elite universities was transplanted into all university spaces and upheld as an epitome of the new wave of struggle against sexual harassment.
As it gained commonsensical social media approval and in such circulation got further disconnected from any anti-caste or anti-patriarchal politics as such, proposals of numerous similar lists started popping up across colleges, unleashing the full implication of the valorization of “naming and shaming” and of ostracization as a strategy for dealing with the play of everyday power dynamics. The call for public shaming of anyone named on these lists ignored the fact that the self appointed executors of such sentences, employers, peers etc will not always act out of a collective power of the oppressed, but by the power invested in them by the caste and class advantage they may have compared to those being named and shamed, thereby reproducing oppression along those lines — this being similar to what legal systems of redressal also regularly enact. The dismissal of institutional mechanisms also threw into the bin nuances of how caste, class, sexual orientation and personal histories burden spaces of interaction in the university. At the same time, dubbing the method as a ‘bahujan’ strategy further mapped the debate on to caste identity completely disconnected with issues of political framing or context, whereas in fact, many ‘savarna’ women were active supporters of the list and that critique of strategies of ostracisation have been an important part of interventions made by Dalit feminists for a long time. Not taking into account these contestations, anything apart from an absolutely uncritical celebration of the List was seen as ‘savarna rape apologia’.
As a movement, we had continuously engaged in mobilising against sexual harassment in the university for at least three years before the “list” came out, and had been doing support work in different such cases while pushing for the formation and functioning of institutional mechanisms. As such, we, had a first hand experience of both the difficulty of putting such mechanisms in place, where there were none to begin with, and getting them to deliver relief, as well as significant concerns about the limitations of Lists as an alternate strategy for dealing with sexual harassment. When the first List was published on Facebook in October 2017, an open meeting was called in DU for students to share their opinions on the moment and to reach out to anyone who needed support, with elaborate discussions continuing parallely on the WhatsApp groups as well. These processes were not bound by the vested concerns of any individual to protect their friends as has been claimed in the statement, but were collective processes of debate and deliberation, open for all to see and engage with, which some of the signatories were not only privy to but also participated in. Debates raged, yet could find no consensus, till the time of the second list naming activists from the Dalit, OBC and marginalised communities came out and was received by a paralysis on the part of many of those propagating such lists, demonstrating its contradictions and limitations.
We know how difficult it is for women to even register complaints or testify or even come to terms with violence in a system which makes them question their own experiences – we understand the need for exploring all means possible against such a system – individually, movementally, legally. It is in this spirit that we maintain that the limits of the law will only be pushed by an active women’s movement coexisting with feminist jurisprudence. That having a collective too is a source of strength and emotional and material support. As such, during that period in late 2017, it was clear to us that the task of the movement was not to simply participate by locating itself somewhere on the polarised binaries being created in online discourses, but to continue to organise and collectivise to confront the questions of sexual harassment in different ways – often outside of legal framework, through collective intervention, confrontation, mediation, and not overly relying on police. Placing it in a simultaneous continuity of the struggle towards questioning the repression and regulation of desire, of securitisation of womens’ bodies, which contributes in creating the ground for threat to violence.
As a movement located primarily in educational institutions, these contesting approaches towards institution and the kind of political intervention required in their context have been subject of extensive conversation amongst us over the years. We find that educational institutions are designed to accommodate only a few and leave out the majority. Today most regressive changes to the education system are being legitimised on account of equal numbers of men and women or the rising numbers of marginalised students on campuses. These numbers however conceal the increasing precarity on which this access is premised. We have seen how the State has systematically cut down funding from public education, imposed 10% reservation for EWS under the General category students, discounting the need and misrepresenting the very logic of caste-based reservation. In such a context, the structural limits of greater bargaining power facilitated by recognition, representation and social mobility for marginalised communities cannot be fought without fighting the institutions that set the unjust terms of such an inclusion. This does not mean an abandoning or not prioritizing of the demand for inclusion or representation, but that it be articulated in greater connection with the struggles for restructuring institutions and access to public resources. This struggle, while embedded in the particularities of different locations, becomes not the burden of one section of women to fight alone but a shared political project.
- Contributing to the Struggle Against Brahmanism from the Location of a Women Students’ Movement
The struggle for annihilation of caste is a basic pillar of the struggle for the end of patriarchy and has been an important dimension of all our work. We have also learned much from anti-caste struggles as they have asserted themselves over the past few years in the country, both within the university and beyond. Pinjratod actively mobilised among women students to participate in programs taken by the movement for land reforms sparked off by the protest against atrocities of 6 dalit youth in Una, Gujarat. A team was put together at short notice to visit Shabbirpur in response to a call for solidarity by the Bhim Army. These have all been instances of important solidarities and conversations building up across separate struggles, and also opening the possibility of an overlap of these struggles, across differences of particularised experience and nature of oppression – based on a political horizon emerging out of a shared objective — that of an equal and oppression free world.
The basic demand of the movement against the imposition of curfew has also, from the beginning, understood it as an institutionalisation of brahmanical patriarchy, the regulation of interaction between people of different social locations through the reinforcement of parental and social control (embedded in caste, class and religion based hierarchy) over women’s sexuality through the university. The different degrees of access that different sections of women have to public spaces brings to light the systems’ unity of interest in variously exploiting women from different backgrounds. Even as marginalised women may occupy public space in greater numbers, it becomes important to interrogate the nature of this occupation, which has itself been marked by histories of violence, humiliation and dispossession. Take for instance, the fact that women students continue to be locked up under a ‘curfew’, while on the other hand, labour laws are now being ‘reformed’ to ‘allow’ working class women to work night shifts in factories. It illustrates how the system in protecting its Brahmanical -Neoliberal-Patriarchal interest, needs to simultaneously make certain women’s bodies available in the public sphere for exploitation while protecting others to maintain the ‘purity’ of its class and caste structures. The struggle to access public space in a way that they are not only nominally ‘reclaimed’ by some, but become secure for all is premised on breaking this distinction between the ‘good woman’ and the ‘bad woman’, the ‘protected women’ and the ‘available women’, and can only finally succeed though contingent unity across these divisions. Understanding how caste, class and heterosexuality frame our lifeworlds as also our struggles – can lead to affinities across our immediate identities in a world where one structure of oppression not only ‘intersects’ another, but constitute each other in forming the present brahmanical-patriarchal-neoliberal system of oppression.
Pinjratod has raised the demand for abolition of curfew in conjunction with that of construction of affordable hostels for all students, strict implementation of reservation, against fees hike, non-merit based allocation of hostel seats, demanding street light, affordable public transport, regularisation of rent in PGs, implementation of PwD reservations, against CCTV and biometric surveillance, and others. Situating this demand in a wider political framework, and distinguishing it from a ‘choice based’ articulation of the same, we have vehemently opposed any idea of freedom which can only ensure ‘safe’ and equal access to the public sphere to select few women who are able to afford private transport, cabs etc. at any hour of the day. The movement has therefore fought for formal freedom of mobility through the removal of curfew, while simultaneously raising demands of having better lit streets, while denouncing police patrolling as the solution, and also affordable and accessible public transport in order to ensure a substantive freedom of movement for women from different sections of society.
The movement has also tried to build a discourse towards a more holistic understanding of university and public spaces. Many efforts have been taken in this direction, like PG surveys exploring issues of restricted access to secure accommodation through high rents and recognising the differential treatment of students on account of their regional, religious, caste identities or non-normative lifestyles; engagement with public sites in residential areas around campus through Jan Sunwai, and Hamara Mohalla meetings and film screenings. This has also helped build a community of support that women students can immediately draw upon when faced with discrimination or harassment by either their landlord or a fellow roommate, friend, partner, family, etc.
- Engagement on questions of Religion and Belief
In the present context of the rise of Hindutva forces in the country and the consequently increasing religious polarisation, debates around how a movement engages with religion has become a pertinent question. In such a context the movement has stood against against the persecution of minority communities and the communalisation of society, and the various detrimental ways in which such a shift impacts women across communities. The Statement has also expressed concern about ‘atheistic anxieties’ within Pinjratod. The criticism mirrors the remarks made by some groups that we have not upheld Hadiya’s right to conversion, which as a matter of fact, we always have! The actual point of contention, however, was that we had, while speaking of her conversion, not valorised her embracing of Islam, as spiritually emancipatory and as the epitome of liberatory defiance against Hindutva & Brahminism. Pertinent questions remain as to how such a logic invisiblises the heterogeneous and contesting practices and experiences of Islam — a complex history which is being increasingly homogenised across the world in an organised manner. These concerns were also part of many debates in Pinjratod. Such a position also borrows and tries to standardize a politics seeking to challenge Islamophobia in the context of the US and in parts of Europe, applying it directly to the ‘South Asian’ context in this political moment in time. This has made various struggles on the ground even more difficult for many Muslim women engaged in a fight against Hindutva forces while also fighting patriarchal control within communities, and are debates very much alive within Muslim women’s movements.
It is suggested in the Statement that we act in ‘Secular-Savarna’ fashion by making spaces unconducive for Muslim women’s participation, placing the burden to “turn down their Muslim-ness”, and present themselves as “good Muslims”, who must constantly reaffirm their “progressiveness” by “distancing themselves from Islam to appear palatable to the Savarna Hindu gaze.” We are not unaware of how religious expression can be drawn upon for a political assertion in the face of heightened vulnerability of minority communities. We only differ in valourising of such an expression as the only form of resistance for people from these communities. Women in the US and parts of Europe are fighting the regulation of their religiosity in public spaces in the face of bans and persecution of Muslims as part of the bogus ‘War on Terror’ while women are fighting the state in Iran, where an imposition of dress code is enforced in public spaces. Women’s struggles in the domain of religion have and continue to be varied.
It has simultaneously been implied that we have an ‘attachment’ with Hinduism. Therefore the charge is made that the women who are fighting against the figure of Bharat Mata ‘are also those who themselves participate in the celebration of Hindu cultures, which precisely worships those idealised bodies.’ Such a reading of ritual practices and festivities wilfully ignores and precludes the possibility of negotiations and contestations that individuals may be having within their homes. That individuals work from within contradictions that are also larger than them but also from the specificity of their families and homes that cannot be wished away. However, their ability to fight against them can only be bolstered through their participation and learning in collective struggles which must support them while understanding their locations and positions in the society. A shared collectivity is important to fall back upon for strength, through these ‘personal’ battles with family, religion and wider community structures. Actually this individuation of struggles, of proving one’s ‘wokeness’, and taking the ‘right’ positions, instead of a vision of social transformation that imagines a collective puncturing of dominant discourses, is peculiar to a neoliberal order — wherein freedom from patriarchy, from gender looks complete, looks easy, looks buyable and within reach. While individual transgressions are important, they are not necessarily always subversive.
As a collective and through our politics, Pinjra Tod in its anti-Holi protest or during the protest against Virgin tree sloganeered, “Puja Nahi Karenge, Pitrisatta Se Ladenge,” “Holika Dahan Nahi Sahenge,” “Tyohaar Nahi Hinsa Hai, Jaativaad Ka Hissaa Hai.” We marched through the streets of Vijaynagar, where the particular experience of the loss of control over the spaces women inhabit is exacerbated on the day of Holi, where children and men, who are often landlords or their family members make women students’ bodies the target of balloons and harassment, with full impunity as a reminder of their ‘place’ in society, and almost of ‘ownership’. This was not just a fight against ‘hooliganism’ as depicted by the media, but also an attempted intervention in the public life of Hinduism which percolates into the streets – through symbols, signs, shaadi-baraats, Hindutva rallies, jagraatas – that is drawn upon by Hindutva-Nationalist politics. Further, we shout “Hum Bharat Ki Mata Nahi Banenge;” “Bharat Ki Beti Nahi Banenge” not because we identify with the imagery of Bharat Mata, but precisely as a rejection of this gendered embodiment of the nation which is used to legitimise, cover up, and erase the brutal history of violence by the state and society that has been waging war on the bodies of women, particularly those from the non-mainland and from marginalised communities.
- Stories from Jamia
The story of Pinjratod in Jamia actually needs to be told from the beginning, since Pinjratod originated from Jamia Millia Islamia. A powerful open letter written by a hosteller in 2015, who came in conversation with some others resulted in a coming together as Pinjra Tod. It was addressed to the Jamia VC, and the response from DCW signalled to some of us that there was a greater receptiveness to this question than before. We came together to draft a petition. The DCW petition as it was drafted, also sought to challenge the reporting on media portals in which Jamia was exceptionalised, as a minority institution, on account of Islamophobia, for imposing regressive rules and regulations on women students, whereas this was and continues to be the state of affair in every educational institution in the country.
From organising movie screenings, to guerilla postering, to sliding parchas anonymously late night – the group of people in Jamia organising as Pinjratod were taking incredible risks & finding ways to organise & challenge the administration. It was not until late 2017 that a public program could be held in Jamia as Pinjratod, despite the movement being active inside the hostel, for fear of identification of its members by the administration.
The statement paints Pinjratod as antagonistic to the women students of Jamia, as always being ‘outsiders.’ It has been of great importance for women to build cross-college alliances, especially when the administration is in a position to target students. In fact, it is this that has effectively pressurised the admin to not be able to target women students. Pinjratod has operated the same way in Jamia as in any other college/university, which is to say that the decision making and everyday coordination has exclusively taken place in open meetings held on Jamia campus and in the Jamia whatsapp group. Further, the statement claims that the binary constructed between Jamia and non- Jamia students was dismissed as false to “silence any criticisms from the margins.” However, what one of the signatories had questioned was the very need to organise as Pinjratod in Jamia, presuming a binary between Pinjra Tod and Pinjra Tod in Jamia, as non-Muslim ‘outsiders’ vs Muslim women in Jamia. Such a formulation finds it’s basis in establishing that Pinjratod is always already Savarna and external to Jamia, we find such a critique is rather gendered for there are many organisations and movements which function across campuses. It is clear that we are not ‘saving Muslims women from Muslim patriarchy’ but rather, are united in a struggle against patriarchy, capitalism and Hindu fascism.
Pinjra Tod was not external to the ‘spontaneous’ protests against curfew as has been claimed in the statement. Rather, the curfew protests of March 2018 should be understood in the context of three years of organised efforts by the movement to mobilize in Jamia hostel and campus against hostel timings, arbitrary night-out rules, hostel fee hikes, and sexual harassment among other issues. It was in a Pinjratod Jamia meeting on March 16th, 2018 that the decision to conduct a hostel GBM and mobilise for an agitational protest on the 19th was taken by the Jamia Pinjratod members, including one of the signatories. Intensive campaigning, meetings and poster making sessions took place in the hostel through the efforts of Jamia Pinjratod members, following which the protests defying the curfew timing of 8:00 pm took place. Recognising this moment of spontaneity as emerging from a historically organised process, we are disconcerted at the undermining of three and a half years of organised political activity in Jamia in which several women, primarily Jamia students, have played an important role.
In March 2016, after the administration refused permission for a march to be held on campus for International Working Women’s Day, women students were further frustrated upon finding posters plastered all around the campus, prescribing virtues of chastity and promoting homophobia using verses from Quran. Some Pinjratod people, including one of the signatories, put up posters reading ‘Jamia loves gays’, ‘Jamia mein love karo’ etc. It is untrue that the posters of the Prophet were desecrated during this, as has been claimed by another one of the signatories in a separate Facebook post. Slandering on account of these posters continues to this day, to the effect that Pinjratod is a group of women existing to simply promote ‘free sex.’
Despite such a widely held sentiment about Pinjra Tod, members from Jamia continued to put up an inspiring struggle to transform the campus space. Among others, these have included a successful struggle for council elections in the women’s hostel, till then council elections were only held in the men’s hostels. Women students have had to challenge the pressure to participate in weekly ‘salad making’ competition and such like within the hostel, to demonstrate to the warden their good character and disposition. They put up a challenge when the women’s hostel was asked to put up one stall at the Talimi Mela, only for applying Mehendi, while the men’s hostel published a magazine to sell at the Mela along with setting up a number of stalls. Women, in 2015, went and occupied the library each night for a whole week, which becomes inaccessible to women students after certain hours on account of there not being many women. These are demands and struggles that reflect the skewed nature of access to public university resources for women students.
We continue to stand against the ongoing Haya Campaign, which places the blame of sexual harassment on the lack of chastity, modesty and haya of women, as was asserted strongly in their recent public programs and parchas on campus. Similarly, we challenged the hypocritical manner in which the rhetoric of ‘Jamia’s tehzeeb’ was invoked to de-legitimise and ‘shame’ women hostellers who had danced at the victory rally that had taken place the night after the protests against the curfew in March 2018. To name such resistance simply as Islamophobia is to invisibilize political contestations. We oppose the selective invocation of women’s agency on accounts where it further solidifies community’s control over women’s bodies.
The page ‘Jamia Women Fight’ was created by Pinjratod in the context of the administration sending mails to parents of Jamia women hostellers seeking their opinion on extension of hostel timings, in the summer break of 2018. It was created in order to reach out to the larger student body of Jamia in the context of a possible backtracking of changes in hostel rules secured after the protest. The page has been run by Pinjratod members who are students or ex- students of Jamia as well as non- Jamia students who have been involved in the process of organising in Jamia. Far from it being run by non-Jamia people alone, some of the Jamia members (not the signatories) who have left Pinjratod, and are part of another student organisation, continue to run it till date.
Also, Pinjratod has operated inside Jamia under various other names. At many points, members have decided to use a different name on parchas (such as Bazm-e-Khawateen), or printed parchas without a name, in the face of repression by administration and slandering by other organisations on campus. This does not amount to ‘saviour savarna women’ trying to masquerade their real identity and ‘patronising’ Muslim women of Jamia, but these decisions, made by Jamia students, reflect and address the everyday negotiations of the people in the movement. This is a retrospective reading, especially in the case of Jamia. This attempt by the signatories to construct Pinjra Tod as always ‘external’ to Jamia is deeply unfair to the movement because it not only obscures the recent shifts in their ideological outlook, but also does not acknowledge the history of their own political participation, initiatives and role played in the defining of Pinjrotod’s politics and perception in Jamia, having been the primary organisers of the movement.
- Some Final Reflections
As a petition turning into a movement, moving from a spontaneous, amorphous form towards the building of a more stable collective, the primary political insight that has emerged from and informed our journey has been the need for organising better, and the centrality of politics in achieving the aim of an oppression free world. We function in a period when progressive politics itself occupies a marginal position in society, where a history of organising, within the women’s movement as well as on the left and in the anti-caste movements has witnessed significant setbacks, compromises with the system, bureaucratisation and discrediting before their own constituencies — of dalit, OBC, Muslim communities, workers, peasants, women and students. Right wing forces are on the rise in the country and globally, keeping people away from progressive politics by the full force of both muscle and money power. Social insecurities are escalating on one hand in a frenzy of violence, and on the other in greater individual competition. Working in such a scenario, our limited experience of struggle has repeatedly brought us to the hope of a greater and more politically rigorous organising as being an important answer to many of our questions. Organising, which builds unities not by silencing struggles against the operation of social power within the collective, but which pushes people to change their own social location as part of changing society as a whole. However far we have gone on this journey, our experience has strengthened the belief that by learning from history and other movements and our own practices, formulating them more politically, building wider solidarities with other struggles, and building better structures of support, most if not all women, shall find this struggle one worth fighting for.
We do not see ourselves placed in any antagonism to any other progressive movement or organisation working to fight the existing structures of oppression. Many of us in Pinjratod have also been active in various kinds of other organisations and movements throughout its journey. We do not believe that a ‘true’ fight against patriarchy mandates that women only organise ‘as women’, or as women from particular social backgrounds, that we organise only along any one axis of our identity. We feel that as the struggle against patriarchy creates the need for women to organise autonomously, the struggle against Brahmanism creates a need for the dalit community to organise itself, and the specific nature of oppression that dalit-bahujan women face creates the need to build independent dalit bahujan women’s collectives. The particular nature of violence and discrimination faced by the Muslim community in this country today can form the basis of specific initiatives to organise the community against such persecution. Yet, much like how patriarchy cannot be vanquished in isolation while systems of caste and class oppression remain, and women cannot dismantle patriarchy by themselves without parallel struggles for the demolition of other structures of oppression, nor can the annihilation of caste succeed as a project divorced from the struggle against patriarchy and class based oppression. This necessitates not only the building of ‘solidarities’ across separate struggles, but also the overlap of such organisational processes and struggles, across differences of particularised experience and nature of oppression – based on a political ‘unity’, emerging out of a shared objective — that of an equal and oppression free world.
While one may feel that this was too long drawn out, and that it takes too much to organise and keep organising for this long on a question like ‘curfew’, what we have found in doing so is as central to us as the fulfilment of our demands themselves: a collectivity and a political imagination. Finally, is this movement only about “going out?” Will our struggle end if the curfew were to be abolished? What we do and what world we step into having defied the curfew or any of the cages that lock us in, has been a defining question for the movement. That on the first night of curfew extension, women students of Miranda House Hostel in their Victory Rally on 13th Feb’19, marched to the gates of Hindu College to protest against Virgin-Tree puja, where two women, while men aggressively screamed ‘bharat mata ki jai’ on the other side, climbed the gates to unfurl a banner that read “End Neoliberal Patriarchal Brahminical Culture”. The very success of any movement presupposes that it shall one day not be required anymore, that someday women will not have to fight battles as “petty” and unfortunate as the ones we are engaged in today, that someday, firmer, more politically evolved unities and struggles will be built by collectives of greater political strength and understanding than ours. We look forward to those struggles and such collectivities, and hope to do our bit in creating the ground for their emergence. The fact that even as we write this, women in at least three campuses across the country are out in protest against their college administrations is evidence to the fact that much remains to be done even for the most meagre aims that this movement has set for itself. Together, in this long journey as a movement, we dream of a future that breaks free of the pinjras of Brahmanism, Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Neo-liberal-Hindutva State. Calling for the liberation of one, the liberation of all, the liberation of women — Live Long! This is the horizon we work towards – even if that be a ‘revolutionary fantasy.’