Guest post by JANAKI SRINIVASAN
If you are a resident of Chandigarh and came across pictures of the Bekhauf Azaadi Reclaim the Night and the Streets march of August 11 in the newspapers, it is most likely that you assumed it to be just another routine protest. Protests in ‘the city beautiful’ do tend to follow a standard template. A small number gather in the Sector 17 plaza, banners are held, a few speeches made, photographs taken and a brief news report gets generated for the inner pages of the city supplement. In a small city, finding a mention in the newspapers is no indicator of the importance of one cause or one protest over others. Over the past decade, the administration has ensured this indifference, by physically redirecting political rallies- any event with the potential for large numbers- away from both government offices and public spaces to the outer perimeter of a severely gridlined map. The ‘Rally Ground’ neighbours the crematorium and the garbage landfill. Yet just as Le Corbusier’s monotonous plan and strict guidelines have been subverted by its residents to infuse vitality and uniqueness to the city, the protest template too sees a rare upheaval.
Last week, when the ugly face of the city, so familiar to the everyday experiences of its women, surprisingly made it to national headlines, predictable reactions followed. Following the chilling stalking and attempt at abduction/sexual assault on a woman who wouldn’t be quiet about it; the morality brigade reopened its arsenal cum advice manual to women – asking us to be back home by 8 pm, take up appropriate jobs, wear appropriate clothes, undertake only approved forms of entertainment if at all we needed it, and never provoke men with any and every aspect of our existence. If this manual sexualises every aspect of a woman’s life, it simutaneaously desexualises men; the men in this case (who were politically connected as well) indeed were constantly referred to as ‘boys’, delinked from their gendered power and hence blameless. The morality brigade was however completely unprepared for what followed. Women channeled their anger at these strictures by laughing at them, and then seriously spread the joke. Patriarchy squirmed. What it dreads most is becoming a laughing stock. This spontaneous but considered rebuttal soon found itself to be a collective voice. The Reclaim the Night and Streets march was the result. I am convinced this is not going to be the only result. It is a beginning of a new wave of feminist protest, and like all waves drew from past struggles but broke fresh ground.
The march took headon the ‘geri culture’ of the city, a form of masculinised exclusionary loitering, which refers to the phenomenon of men (especially young men) driving their often huge expensive cars slowly along specific roads while blaring loud music and chugging alcohol out of perforated cups. The routes are those which women, particularly young women, cannot avoid since it houses their colleges and hostels, and yet can never own, edged as they are to the margins both literally and metaphorically of the streets of their daily lives. So while Panjab University has its own geri route, a city route which traces a number of undergraduate colleges along the main arterial road (the Madhya Marg) has found its way into Google Maps. ‘Geri maarna’ is part of common city slang. On the night of 11th August a crowd of over 500 people marched and danced down this route, shouting slogans and singing songs of freedom and revolution. Everything about that night was unexpected, off the template. Protestors didn’t recognise each other; there weren’t only the usual familiar faces. The overwhelmingly young crowd screamed ‘Nari Mukti Sabki Mukti’. Old experienced activists savoured the new slogans. They desisted from taking centre stage, kept their speeches short. For over an hour at a halt in a dark and deserted parking lot opposite the Museum and Arts College, now lit by flaming torches and flashlights, it was all about poetry, music and stories. Storyteller Deepta Vivekanand narrated an alternative Cinderalla story- emphasising the right of women to have fun without the aid of a prince and underlined the need for public transport and equal parenting. Famous poems – Kishwar Naheed’s Hum Gunahagar Auratein, Dushyant Kumar’s Ho Gayi Hai Peer Parbat, Habib Jalib’s Main Baaghi Hoon, Nirupama Dutt’s Buri Aurat – were recited or sung but alongside a whole range of new poetry and music sparkling with defiance of conventional social norms and boldly sketching out the new markers of an egalitarian society. The highlight of the night for me was गल चुकी हैं मोमबत्तियां by young Saumya Joshi.
गल चुकी हैं मोमबत्तियां
थक चुकी हैं मोमबत्तियां
बहुत देर तक जल कर..
इस बार आग जंगल में लगी है
इस बार आग बहुत दूर तक फैलेगी।
हज़ारों साल पहले जिसे
महज़ ‘दरवाज़ा’ समझ कर
ताला लगाया था तुमने उस पर
भूल गए? उसकी चाबी छुपा कर
और भूल गए कि इस दरवाज़े को
जितना बंद रखोगे…
यह उतना ही खुलता जाएगा।
Every word was listened to with rapt attention and responded to by an engaged audience. Most significantly, the march didn’t centre the stalking incident or the brave Varnika Kundu. For all those present, support for Varnika was implicit in questioning, analysing and rejecting diverse experiences of patriarchy, and exploring the intersections between gendered experiences and those of caste and class. Women spoke of their experiences of insecurity and inequality- within and outside the home. They spoke of the hypocrisy and double standards of society; they drew attention to the routinized brutalisation of everyday life. Many recognised their own privilege and underlined solidarity with the working class rather than claiming to speak for everyone. I imagine that at the back of everyone’s minds was the awful knowledge that as we protested a 10 year old pregnant girl had been admitted to a hospital in the city, as directed by the Supreme Court which had recently refused her permission for abortion. She had been repeatedly raped by her maternal uncle. Her ongoing battle for life renders hollow the binary drawn between the safe home vs the unsafe street.
If I could sum up the experience of the night, it was one of unapologetic feminist assertion. Everyone out there- women and men- were indicating their readiness to explain, dialogue and learn but refused to tone down or sugarcoat arguments and demands to make them more palatable. The demands ranged from concrete action from the administration regarding street lights, police reforms, and legal action against those seeking to obstruct justice to a call out to society to face up to its responsibilities in perpetuating rape culture. Still echoing through those streets are two slogans- Hum Kya Chahte- Azaadi and Inquilab Zindabad. Both slogans have been targeted by the vicious hypernationalism and authoritarianism of our times. Yet these concepts of freedom and revolution inform the political understanding that is pushing back against these forces. Recordings from the march are now being played by a local FM station; the event has become a reference point to continue the conversation especially on the norms of masculinity and widely entrenched constructions of womanhood. Popular attention is finally being directed towards Punjabi songs with its dominant trope of the fickle, superficial, heartless, wealth-seeking, westernised woman; a trope which justifies harassment and seeks ‘reform’ a.k.a subjugation. To get a sense of this vibrant debate, have a look at this page, which is trying to document the discussion in regular print, television and radio as well as social media and internet platforms. From a time when a popular radio show was titled “The Geri Route” to radio channels calling out the misogyny embedded in the concept, the city has come a long way. A demand that was repeatedly made during the night of August 11 was to reject the term ‘Geri Route’ and rename it ‘Azaadi Route’ or ‘Meri Route’. A social media campaign to that effect is now underway and is garnering active support from citizens. The Bekhauf Azaadi march ended in the wee hours of 12 August morning, the movement continues.
Janaki Srinivasan teaches in Panjab University, Chandigarh