All the original everyday people who sparked the first wave of anti-rape protests are gone. Only a handful of feminist activists are continuing the fight
It was one day before the end of the year. The only thing that stood between me and home as I entered the Capital from New Delhi railway station was the blinding fog that engulfed everything around it. From the auto, I could see India Gate shrouded in misty embers that glowed in the moonlight, looking almost desolate. People went about their business calmly. There was a lone hawker selling candyfloss, waiting for his next customer, a group of young boys sitting in their cars listening to music, the gentle drone of traffic occasionally broken by a loud horn.
Where was all the frenzy? Just a week ago I had stood waiting for the traffic to clear around India Gate and encountered anarchy in its purest form. I had watched transfixed as 12,000 people, completely oblivious to the hundreds of policemen deployed around them, had continued to march down Rajpath towards Raisina Hill. “I am here because my daughters wanted to come. I had no choice,” 42-year-old Renuka Sharma had said then. She was not alone. There were families out on the street, unsure of letting their children be a part of this movement without offering their own protection.
Mothers, fathers, daughters, friends, boyfriends and brothers drowned out the familiar faces of regular protestors.
Thousands of anonymous Delhiites were on the streets because they wanted justice and safety for their girls. It had taken the brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student to awaken Delhi to the horrific realisation that this could happen to any one of them, or worse still, to someone they loved. Delhi was scared, hurting and angry, outraged at the prospect that justice could be delayed or, worse, denied. The imposition of Section 144 on the city had only led them to be blatantly rebellious. “We have the right to protest where we want, this is our country, the government cannot stop us for crying for justice,” remarked a 20-year-old Delhi University undergraduate Pratayaksha Singh. Fifty-two-year-old Rama Garg, a housewife from north-west Delhi, had told me that she wanted the rapists to be “made an example of”. A vast majority of the families demanded ‘Arab style’ justice for the rapists. “Even I have daughters; I know how it feels…” was the common sentiment, “protect and respect” the underlying theme of the frenzied mob. These were the gut emotions of a society that feared for the safety of its girls. The day the victim died, a friend called me, crying as she shared the news. The social media was ablaze with messages of ‘RIP Damini’. A young copywriter wrote: ‘India dies in a way today.’
Masses of people had embraced the struggle of the victim as their own and her death was a collective loss. At such a time, when the cries for justice should have been growing stronger, a new voice began to echo in the cold, half-empty streets of Delhi. Suddenly the main demand was not justice, but freedom for women. It was a distinctive, shrill and aggressive cry.
“Hum Kya Chahate Hain? Azaadi… Raat mein bhi Azaadi… Behan mangey Azaadi. Bitiya mangey Azaadi. Ma bhi mangey Azaadi… Mang rahi hai aadhi aabadi. Azaadi, Azaadi.” The voice of an angst-ridden girl as she called out for freedom—from the very people who had stood up for her. It was not the voice of despair or anger. It was not spontaneous. It was self-aware and calculating. It was a voice that demanded isolation. “Anyone who has tried to sell women’s rights or eggs through her death should also die,” said Hasan Jafri, a 28-year-old advertising professional. “This is not about women’s rights, this is a right to freedom of all kinds,” said 52-year-old businessman Rajeev Kumar.
I noticed another phenomenon. The more the streets filled with slogans and red banners proclaiming, ‘Take Back the Night’ or ‘March for Freedom,’ the more regular people who had first led the anti-rape protests moved away. This was not their fight anymore. This was clearly not what they had asked for.
Men, women and children who had shown spontaneous solidarity with the cause started stepping away from a slogan that had no resonance with them. “Why do they have this constant need to reassert themselves at a time when the ongoing dialogue is already about them?” asked 35-year-old accountant Pankaj Pandey.
The change in the movement has become very evident in the face that it bears. At the last protest I attended, what struck me was the missing average Indian male. The brothers and fathers who had accompanied the women earlier were no longer there. There were men there alright but these were people driven by political ideology. The women talked aggressively and fast about equality, apathy and sensitisation while the men sat passively and listened.
It is now a feminist movement. Made so, partly by the ribald talk of people like 25-year-old Rohit Chahal, state secretary, ABVP, who believed that women symbolised the “culture and tradition” of the country. The discourse of such conservatives gave women’s rights activists their opportunity to claim the movement. Says Dr Ruchika Sharma, 32-year-old feminist and professor of History at Delhi University, “We need a political language to fight this fight, it cannot be apolitical. We have our ideas and ideology in place. We want equality and freedom, not respect. And I emphasise that we are not situated in isolation as we derive our strength from the women’s movement and its history.”
Ridiculous bytes by politicians also led women activists to aggressively come out on the streets. When Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit said “The rape did not happen on a DTC bus,” Kavitha Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), sat on a demonstration outside the CM’s residence demanding her resignation. Her interview at the time to a television news channel about the “rape culture of Delhi” became one of the turning points of the movement. Krishnan said Dixit’s callous statement would encourage a dangerous culture in the city. She was supported unanimously, not only by the multitudes of people who came to the protests but also by web activists everywhere.
Ludicrous conservative talk such as “dented and painted women” (Abhijit Mukherjee), “Westernisation is responsible for rape” (Mohan Bhagwat), “the victim should have pleaded for mercy” (Asaram Bapu) have provided feminists like Krishnan with more fodder to make this movement their own. There were a handful of reactive protests across Delhi triggered by these statements. Outraged by the “dented and painted” comment, I myself led one such on 1 January. On the internet, the response was encouraging, with over 700 people committing themselves. The ground reality was abysmal: just over 60 turned up at the venue.
Kavitha Krishnan says she is going to continue an agenda-led movement. “People are okay as long as you talk about justice and safety, but the moment the issue becomes about the freedom of women, it starts irking people because quite simply, patriarchy pays,” she says.
This fight, unlike the spontaneous mass movement following the rape, is not a new one. It has been a part of the system for years. Krishnan is backed only by a handful of Delhi University undergraduates and AISA regulars. Sensing a lull in the movement, she organised a consultative meeting, ‘Keeping the Flame Alive—Campaign for Women’s Safety, Freedom, Rights,’ in the first week of January. Over 200 turned up to participate in the discussion on a new set of legal reforms aimed at safeguarding women. After this, Krishnan launched the official campaign, ‘Freedom without Fear’ also known as ‘Bekhauf Azaadi’, complete with an organised Google page that emails the venues and timings of the protests to all the people involved.
In their recent protest against patriarchy at Jantar Mantar, there were youth present alright, but once again these were not regular people, they were committed activists. For the everyday people who ignited the initial protests, life has moved on. “We are apolitical. All these gender wars, they are all in your head. If people are hostile to me, I will confront them, but I will never carry it as baggage,” says 21-year-old Rashmi Khurrana of Delhi University, summing up the naiveté of an entire generation of women thirsting to make a difference.