Have a dialogue with young dissenters, don’t jail them

In a 2017 blog, UP CM Yogi Adityanath wrote: “…our scriptures have always spoken about giving women protection…energy can go to waste and cause damage if left free and uncontrolled. Women power also does not require freedom, but protection.” These remarks show how patriarchy cossets as well as suffocates women. Traditionalists believe that because women are the property and responsibility of men, they cannot possess any agency.
Today young, educated, outspoken women like climate activist Disha Ravi, Pinjra Tod feminists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, and student activist Gulfisha Fatima are being imprisoned under harsh laws like sedition or the draconian anti-terror law, UAPA. These women are taking up from where their predecessors — such as 1940s women freedom fighters or 1970s Left activists — left off. They are pushing the boundaries of freedom even further.

Idealistic, free-thinking youngsters, particularly women, with minds of their own face not only state repression but also moral slurs. While Disha is in jail, social media trolls are raising doubts about the possibility of her being pregnant. The pregnancy of student activist Safoora Zargar was used to cast aspersions on her character. Women students at Benaras Hindu University, who held protests against gender discrimination in 2017, faced police batons and were accused by their own vice chancellor of “marketing their modesty.”

Yet India has a rich tradition of youth protests. In the 1970s, student-led protests like the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat and Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti protests in Bihar formed the vanguard against Indira Gandhi. But the BJP government — ironically, many of its leaders are drawn from these ’70s youth protests — is sternly intolerant of student agitations. The government has cracked down on students in JNU and severely punished Hyderabad Central University students. Several Jamia Millia Islamia students who took part in the anti-CAA protests are still languishing in jail. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2019, most sedition cases were slapped on 18-30 year olds.

It’s as if non-conformist youth are the enemies of majoritarian nationalism, which insists on conformity and regimentation. But youth, unlike politicians or media, cannot be “tamed” by inducements. University campuses are places where debate, dissent, rebellion and free expression are (or should be) the daily diet, places where students experiment with different ideologies, learn from their mistakes and exercise their right to oppose the government of the day if they choose. It is these free explorations that make education meaningful. If youth are not allowed to think, read or write freely, how will they learn? As long as there is no violence, strongly espousing any anti-government ideology is not a crime.

Before Disha Ravi, another Bengaluru girl Amulya Leona was arrested and charged with sedition for raising slogans. Journalist Swathi Vadlamudi was booked for a cartoon protesting against rape. Rehana Fatima and other women who tried to enter the Sabarimala shrine were subject to violent attacks and name calling. Women protestors at Shaheen Bagh were accused of endangering their infants by bringing them to the protest site.

Under the garb and gloss of “religion”, traditionalist-conservative movements seek to establish the social power of men, and encourage women to voluntarily surrender and submit. Untrammelled female energy brings to the fore male fears of loss of social and sexual power. A revolt by women and youth would upset the power balance in every household, which is why articulate young women strike fear in the hearts of cultural conservatives. They are seen as treacherous agents of social disorder.

No wonder Disha, Nikita, Safoora, Leona, the BHU and Pinjra Tod girls receive such harsh treatment at the hands of a state now ruled by a conservative Hindutva mindset. Simply sharing online documents or participating in protests or campaigning for the environment is seen as dangerously subversive actions, not that of equal citizens exercising their democratic rights. The bizarre fake cultural stigmatisation of Disha as hailing from a non-Hindu background is only designed to caricature her as an enemy of the ‘Bharatiya’ tradition. Ironically, this is the very tradition that for centuries discriminated against women, be it ostracising widows or allowing female infanticide.

“Beti bachao, beti padhao” is a touted slogan of the Modi government. Yet there seems to be a furious backlash against the ‘padhi-likhi betis’ who are unafraid to campaign for their beliefs. A self-confident state would engage with these young dissenters, and only a paranoid regime would demonise them as the ‘enemy.’ A dialogue, not a jail term, with Disha should be the toolkit for a ‘new’ India.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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