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Recalling contribution of anti-CAA women activists Sadaf Jafar, Naheed Aqueel

Sadaf Jafar
By Subham Majumder*
After it was passed on December 11, 2019, the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), claiming to providing pathway to Indian citizenship for refugees from the neighbouring countries on the basis of the religion they belong to, caused large-scale protests all over India. The news in the initial few month’s period of 2020 was rife with citizens on the street voicing their reluctance against the Act. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the protests were blunted.
Gloria Steinem, a spokesperson and social activist for the American feminist liberation movement in the late 1960s, once said, “No one can give us power. If we aren’t part of the process of taking it, we won’t be strong enough to use it”. The anti-CAA movement of India appears to have drawn from similar motivations. Indeed, it gave an opportunity to the young Muslim women to spearhead protests. It has been a novel movement for a patriarchal society, where women are bound by gender-based stereotypes.
Instead of being docile and submissive, the movement has helped women to shift their perception towards a more assertive image. Not without reason, women from all parts of life joined across the country in the anti-CAA protests – whether she was Safoora Zargar, a student of the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, or Nausheen Baba Khan in Park Circus, Kolkata.
An interaction with two of these women – Sadaf Jafar and Naheed Aqueel – was helpful in getting a glimpse of the anti-CAA movement of Lucknow, including the infamous December 19 events, when the protests turned violent.
Sadaf is a social activist, a history and political science teacher for around 15 years, is associated with the Congress party, and holds the belief that one can’t be a teacher until one is an activist. She has worked on social activism on sensitive issues such as domestic violence and women’s empowerment.
Her peaceful protest against CAA were obstructed on December 19 leading to her arrest, even as other protestors and children were beaten up. She was allegedly kept hungry and thirsty for 34 hours, while her hair was pulled and her back was bruised in the jail. Even though she was in the lockup for 20 days, her only takeaway from the experience is, the support in the form of female camaraderie that she received for her troubles.
Naheed, whose grandfather was a freedom fighter, has been a social worker for the last 15 years. She has worked on grassroots problems such as rural issues, poverty and backward Dalit issues. Her contribution for the Muslim backward Dalit families, the pashmandas, and single women has received notable awards from the Governor and chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh.
She was one of the six women to receive the Niti Aayog’s Women Transforming India Awards 2016. Usually in a patriarchal society like ours, where a women’s identity is defined by her husband, Naheed’s Akel Mahila Manch is a sign of respite, as it provides a voice to the three crore-odd single women community of our country.
On December 19, she protested with her small procession of 7-8 women against the Act. Some pictures of the protest were posted on Facebook, creating a snowball effect, which later garnered a lot of support from the masses. According to Naheed, the whole message of the movement was twisted to a Hindu vs Muslim movement, even though her religion discouraged the participation of other communities.
Instead of being docile and submissive, the anti-CAA movement has helped women to shift their perception towards a more assertive image
The experience of the two women leading the protests is similar in some respect. First of all, the movement was initially planned as a peaceful protest to show the disagreement towards the act, but it eventually became a violent and chaotic procession. Sadaf wanted to lead the protest in a “no slogan, no anti-authority” way. But a bunch of hooligans, who didn’t belong to the protests, started making it violent, which provided the police an opportunity to retaliate hard. These hooligans rendered namaz in the middle of such chaos, creating a misnomer of the actual message of the protest.
Naheed Aqueel
As for Naheed, similar factions which were not part of the initial peaceful processions, created violence and chaos. She recounts the day vividly: She saw a Muslim autorickshaw driver, who went to collect groceries due to the haste of the protests, gunned from the front direction as a collateral. Such politicisation of events was used as a pivot for polarising the two religions, which diluted the main purpose.
Secondly, police brutality was a substantial challenge for organising such movements. While a lot of Indian celebrities have focused and showed their disagreement with the police brutality on the George Floyd case in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, our own citizens suffer from a similar treatment by the police, and no voices are raised for that. Police was called for curbing the violence and chaos spread in such protests, where they instigated the opposite through lathicharges.
One good takeaway from the protests was the use of social media sites like WhatsApp and Facebook, which enabled huge participation of citizens in these movements. These sites informed the citizens about the atrocities happening around the country in these movements, and connected all of them.
However, democratisation of media has its own consequences; it leads to misinformation. Such misinformation asymmetry is created because news has been commoditised, where spiced-up versions are sought after. Our houses are served with the news attuned to our likings, helping in creating an extremely biased position on any issue. Conveying a lucid message to the supporters is the biggest hurdle faced by the current protests, where dilution of message is happening heavily.
Yet, the protests by the two women tried to give a proper platform to the empowerment struggle of women in our country. According to Naheed, the protests have enhanced the personal development of women, as they are learning to raise their voices and mobilise supporters. These young women will be the future leaders for the new India. Such optimism is a step forward for our society, but how much of these enhancements will be carried forward into the women’s own homes still needs to be seen.
Sadaf considers Bhagat Singh as the motivation for her protest. She and activists of her ilk compare our current India of 2020 to Nazi Germany, where ethnic cleansing took place in order to provide citizenship to one “race”. She insists, we are a secular country, where children take pledges every morning by saying “All Indians are my brothers and sisters”. However, she regrets, the Act and its supporters ensure the subtle exploitative system running, even as feeding on the marginalised.
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*PGP-2 student at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad

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