India is in the throes of a period of seismic backlash against feminist and progressive politics, and the pace of change, particularly since the outbreak of the pandemic, has been breakneck with serious consequences for women’s equality and human rights. The pandemic, as elsewhere, has brutally exposed, exacerbated and deepened already existing fault-lines and structural inequalities that inhere in Indian society.
A health crisis rages on with serious knock-on effects on the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the country, with particularly egregious effects on those in already precarious contexts such as informal workers, and especially women in informal work. The pandemic has also brought to the fore, in all its technicolour terror, the drivers of the backlash against progressive and feminist politics. The rise of a right-wing dominant-caste Hindu nationalism, and an increasingly authoritarian, hypermasculine state in thrall to a neoliberal capitalist agenda have determined the social, political, and economic contexts of the country over the last 8-10 years, and in turn the contours of the current backlash faced by contemporary progressive and feminist politics.
This was perhaps emblematically captured in the early days of the pandemic by the heart-wrenching scenes of thousands of migrants walking home in the face of a callous response by the government to its most vulnerable citizenry, and its vilification of Muslims which began with the discredited characterisation of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi as a major source of the pandemic, and which spiralled into hate speech and crimes against Muslims, including social and economic boycotts and religious segregation at hospitals.
Instead of attending to the structural inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, the government’s response has been to accelerate the pace of its political agenda, which together with an increasingly legitimised ‘lynch mob culture’, a complicit media, and a judiciary that has had its independence called into question, bring fresh stories of the pushback against the assertion of constitutional rights and democratic accountability every passing day.
Far-reaching legislative changes
In the past several weeks alone, having scrapped Question Hour, a key mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability for the monsoon session of parliament, the government violated parliamentary procedure and rushed through several legislative changes amidst a boycott of parliament by the opposition. It passed three ordinances making sweeping reforms of the agricultural sector which will adversely and disproportionately impact a majority of women farmers and agricultural workers, who form the bulk of the small and marginal sections in Indian agriculture. It also passed three further labour laws in continuation of a process of labour law reform which further retrenches labour rights and continues to invisibilise women workers, the vast majority of whom work in the informal sector.
In a pushback against democratic accountability by civil society, the government has also recently made further changes to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act through an Amendment which has increased the cost of compliance for non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funds which will seriously impinge on the work of smaller organisations that work in remote locations on the rights of the most marginalised sections of society, including women.
Another significant recent legislative change has come in the form of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019. In December 2019, in its ‘chronological pursuit’ of redefining the fundamental social and political compact of citizenship, the Government passed the CAA in the midst of a furore of protests across the country, which continued until a national lockdown was imposed owing to the pandemic.
The CAA provides a fast-track route to citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) from three neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh), who were residing in India before 31st December 2014. What makes this discriminatory provision particularly insidious, however, is that if the experience of the National Population Register (NPR) exercise in Assam, where an unprecedented 1.9 million people were rendered stateless, is anything to go by, the CAA will indeed disenfranchise and render stateless those on the margins, including poor and Muslim communities, of which a disproportionate number will be women.
Use of ‘lawless laws’ to crush dissent
Another of the seismic shifts we have seen over recent years has been the concerted efforts to shrink spaces for deliberative democracy in the public sphere and close spaces for dissent, which has happened in tandem with the alarming erosion of civil liberties and state reprisals against political dissenters and human rights defenders through false charges, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment through the use of draconian laws such as sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).
The amendments to the FCRA restricting the functioning of civil society and the recent Supreme Court judgement that curtails the right of peaceful protest, and the announcement by the Uttar Pradesh government of a special force to provide security for a range of public institutions and places which will have extensive powers of search and arrest without a warrant add to this picture of a police state that is shrinking the spaces for dissent. Not surprisingly, India has fallen sharply on several indices that monitor the health of democracies.
Recent state arrests and reprisals – to whose number there have been regular additions, most recently with the arrest of an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and Adivasi rights activist, Stan Swamy – have focused on two sets of ‘events’ – the anti-CAA protests and the Elgar Parishad gathering, which was a precursor to the violence that erupted at the site of the Bhima Koregaon war memorial. Some of the women human rights defenders who have faced reprisals and arrests include Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Safoora Zargar.
An overwhelming number of feminist groups in India have decried the arrests of women’s rights activists. The recent alarming curbs to civil society and the rise in arrests have also received the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet who has made appeals to the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs.
Given these egregious and alarming changes currently underway in Indian society, it is imperative that we document and analyse both the contours of the backlash and the ways in which progressive and feminist groups are mobilising to counter the backlash against women’s rights and gender justice.