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Women in India Are Defending Democracy in Face of Rising Hindu Nationalism

With fascism on the rise, Indian women are organizing to foster communal harmony and safeguard constitutional rights.

The Women’s March for Change campaign in India.

After the Indian government’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, people across India answered a nationwide call for protests issued by left-wing parties on Aug. 7. Article 370 had provided the state with considerable autonomy and was one of the conditions for its accession to the Indian union in 1947.

Shabnam Hashmi, social activist and co-founder of the non-governmental organization Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, or ANHAD, livestreamed the protests from New Delhi.

She panned her camera to show protesters restricted by barricades at Jantar Mantar, a site where regular protests occur in the capital. “As you can see, the space — which has already been confined so much for protests — even in that area we are not being allowed to enter,” she commented. “This is the state of Indian democracy now.”

Hashmi wasn’t being melodramatic by calling the current state of Indian democracy into question. A government-imposed curfew and communications lockdown has been in place in Indian-controlled Kashmir since Aug. 5, politicians have been placed under house arrest, and tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed as reports of the region turning into an “open-air prison” emerge.

Hashmi has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, long before he assumed office for the first time in 2014. In 2003, she co-founded ANHAD in the aftermath of the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots that occurred during Modi’s tenure as chief minister. In Kashmir, the organization has worked towards empowering women and youth in remote areas, and has helped over 20,000 women become functionally literate.

Eradicating Fear

In June, I headed to Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighborhood to meet Hashmi in ANHAD’s basement office. Hashmi has been a social activist and human rights campaigner for nearly 40 years. Her brother, playwright and director Safdar Hashmi, was an ardent critic of the Congress party and was killed in 1989 after he was attacked by Mukesh Sharma — a Congress-backed candidate in the local municipal elections — and his aides while performing a street play titled “Raise Your Voice” in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Shabnam Hashmi speaking at an event.
Shabnam Hashmi speaking at an event.

Since its inception, ANHAD has concentrated on fostering communal harmony and raising awareness on constitutional and human rights issues. Headquartered in Delhi, the organization has been actively involved in Gujarat, Kashmir and other regions of the country, facilitating numerous grassroots-level campaigns, conventions, vocational training programs, reports and meetings.

In May, ANHAD hosted a “non-political” press conference at New Delhi’s Press Club of India. A crowd of around 150 people — mostly women of all ages, occupations and parts of society — gathered to address the matter of safeguarding their constitutional rights. The reference to it being “non-political” was a dig at Modi’s “non-political interview” with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar in April, days after the 2019 Indian general elections began. Modi, who is notorious for avoiding press conferences, steered clear of serious topics, speaking instead with Kumar about his love of mangoes and his preferred way of eating them.

Outside of the Press Club, leaflets hung from the trees containing questions for the BJP government, including: Why has the government stopped publishing data on farmer suicides since 2015? Why is the government suppressing official data on unemployment? Why did the BJP introduce electoral bonds which allows for anonymous donations to political parties? Why has there been deafening silence from the government on the rising hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims?

A month earlier, on April 4, as part of the Women March for Change campaign, over 30,000 women marched in 20 states across the country to protest government policies and the prevailing atmosphere of hate and violence.

Hashmi believes that the organization’s greatest impact has been in eradicating fear and informing people of their democratic rights, as well as enabling discourse on essential topics. This was evident at the press conference in May, where a diverse panel of women spoke about difficulties in receiving pensions, lack of access to water, rations and medical treatment, insufficient funds for education, and the curbing of sex workers’ rights, among other concerns.

“Sex workers don’t own [identifaction] cards — they cannot even enroll their children in schools,” said Kusum, a 41-year-old sex worker who goes only by her first name and is the president of the All India Network of Sex Workers. These cards, known as Aadhaar, enable citizens to open bank accounts and receive subsidies and pensions, among other uses. At the same time, however, they come with myriad problems that have led to the further exclusion of marginalized groups.

The Consolidation of the Right

Following the BJP’s resounding victory in the 2019 general elections, Modi was reelected prime minister in May. A number of factors contributed to Modi’s win, including his party’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric, a calculated exploitation of the Balakot airstrikes for political gain, as well as the lack of an effective counter-narrative by opposition parties. The BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, employed a door-to-door campaign strategy that focused on the remotest areas of the country in an effort to achieve maximum voter turnout.

The Hindutva ideology advocated by the BJP, RSS and the Sangh Parivar — a family of Hindu nationalist organizations — has infiltrated nearly all of the country’s democratic institutions. Reports have emerged of university and school textbooks being rewritten, journalists and activists steadily coming under threat, the Supreme Court reeling under pressure from the government, and a rising acts of cow vigilantism — where violent right-wing Hindu mobs attack minorities under the pretense of protecting cows from slaughter.

According to one analysis of home ministry data, in the three years after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014, communal violence in India increased by 28 percent. A Huffington Post report ranked India fourth in the world in 2015 for the highest social hostilities involving religion, after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq.

According to IndiaSpend’s Hate Crime Watch tracker, which analyzed 254 incidents of hate crimes that took place between 2009 and 2018, nearly 90 percent occurred after 2014 and a large percentage of the victims were minorities. As recently as June 24, another Muslim man was lynched by a mob in Jharkhand.

“There is of course a lot of fear. And more and more people are going to become silent,” Hashmi said in June, referring to the milieu in the country.

Gauhar Raza, Hashmi’s spouse, is a scientist, Urdu poet and documentary filmmaker. “Most of us realized in 2014 that something has cracked, something has changed in India. But we didn’t have an idea about what shape it would take or what would be the extent of it,” he said.

Referring to this year’s elections, Raza said, “It’s not only the consolidation [of votes] but the kind of confidence that fascist forces have got — it’s huge.”

Critics view the latest move in Kashmir — perhaps an indicator of this confidence — as a blatant attempt to alter the demographic composition of the Muslim-majority region.

Grassroots Empowerment

Much of ANHAD’S work has been carried out at the grassroots-level, focusing on mass mobilization campaigns. The organization’s reputation, as well as Hashmi’s work in the social sector, have enabled them to have a certain reach across communities. Issues of communalism, violence against women and minorities, and gender-based discrimination are regularly addressed.

During the protests in April, women gathered on the streets to demand protection of their constitutional rights, which they believed were endangered under the ruling “anti-women, anti-Dalit, anti-worker” government. In the capital, the crowd marched to Parliament Street, calling for “azadi,” or freedom, and urging citizens — particularly women — to utilize their right to vote in order to counter the current climate of growing intolerance and sectarian politics.

The idea for the Women March for Change movement originally stemmed from the women-led Baatein Aman Ki campaign of September-October 2018, where caravans of around a hundred women traveled across the country — starting from Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — to hold discussions on peace, harmony and the safeguarding of constitutional values in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The women conducted some 500 programs in 200 cities. The need to maintain the focus on women arose from the fact that Indian women are particularly vulnerable in times of conflict; they are conditioned to remain silent and frequently discouraged from participating in political matters.

The BAK campaign was initiated by Hashmi and a few other prominent female activists and carried forward with the help of local women’s groups and non-governmental organizations in the different states. Hashmi tells me that the response was overwhelming, and that women from across communities — including those who didn’t realize they had a say — came forward to participate. But the organizers had a taxing time leading up to the campaign, scrambling to raise funds before it began.

Funding Challenges

Non-governmental organizations in India have taken a financial hit ever since the Foreign Contribution and Regulation Act, or FCRA, was amended in 2016, making it harder or altogether impossible for them to acquire foreign funding. The new law targets “organizations of a political nature,” but the definition of this term is vague and may include farmers’ organizations and youth forums and organizations based on caste, language, religion or community.

Since 2014, around 20,000 non-governmental organizations — many of which are rights-based advocacy groups — have had their FCRA licenses canceled, including Greenpeace India, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and ANHAD.

Ever since the Home Ministry cut off ANHAD’s foreign funding in December 2016, citing “undesirable activities against public interest,” the organization has been functioning with the help of personal contributions from its members, friends, family and supporters. But resources are slowly drying up, posing a serious challenge to the future of the organization.

“Civil society organizations will be crippled, one after the other,” Raza warned. “In my opinion, [the government] can manage media, they can manage institutions, fudge data and run dubious campaigns. But when all is said and done, they will not be able to manage the economic crisis that will hit the country badly in the upcoming years — which means that the peasantry will rise. The working class will organize themselves, they will protest because of economic conditions rather than social engineering.”

India’s unemployment rate is at a 45-year high, and demonetization and the introduction of an exorbitant Goods and Service Tax has drawn intense criticism. In November, scores of farmers and laborers marched from across the country to New Delhi to demand minimum wage, food security and effective implementation of labor laws.

Moving Forward

“One of our most important roles has been to provide young minds with the right information so that they’re able to form their own opinion,” said Anil Panikkar, psychologist and one of ANHAD’s core members. “And that is very much required now, more so than at any other time. If they are forced to think, there will be change. We need to work on creating the alternative.”

ANHAD knows that it is crucial to protect and amplify the voices of minorities, forge alliances with different groups and facilitate conversations between them, highlight regional concerns, and bring environmental issues to the forefront. Their strategy includes political training at the community level — hundreds of training camps have been conducted over the years.

Caravans of women traveled across India as part of the Baatein Aman Ki campaign of September-October 2018.
Caravans of women traveled across India as part of the Baatein Aman Ki campaign of September-October 2018.

“Over the last four years, due to paucity of funds, they stopped,” Hashmi said. At an organizational meeting at the ANHAD office in mid-June, plans were drawn up to regroup, raise funds and implement newer, more effective state-specific strategies moving forward.

Training camps are residential in nature, lasting five to seven days, where in-depth talks are held on the Constitution of India, the legacy of the freedom struggle, the vision of an equal society, as well as discussions on caste, gender, globalization and pluralism. Prevailing myths and prejudices against minorities and other difficult subjects such as the 2002 Gujarat riots, the conflict in Kashmir, fascism and terrorism are also addressed.

“At the moment, political parties are in a form of slumber — they are stunned,” Raza said. “They are unable to really analyze the situation. And those who have been able to [do so] are unable to suggest corrective measures. Therefore, the duty of civil society organizations is even greater than in 2014.”

Soon after the election results were announced on May 23, ANHAD called for a public meeting. Most women did not show up because they were simply too disheartened. “Earlier, they had hope. Now they have none,” Hashmi said. Hashmi stresses, however, that it is especially in times like this — when civil liberties are increasingly under threat — that it is crucial that the work goes on and safe spaces remain accessible.

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