Over the last few years, India has faced a series of backlash against feminist and progressive politics. There have been concentrated efforts to close spaces for democratic dissent and democratic accountability in the public sphere. This has happened simultaneously with the erosion of civil liberties and state reprisals against journalists, students, academics, activists, and other human rights defenders through the growing crackdown on dissent.
Using ‘Lawless Laws’ to repress voices
‘Lawless laws’ such as sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), and the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) have been major strategies in this continued repression of dissenting voices. Unsurprisingly, India has fallen sharply on several indices that monitor the health of democracies such as the Democracy Index 2020, World Press Freedom Index 2020 and the Impunity Index 2020.
A recent example is the arrest of 22-year-old ‘Fridays for Future’ climate activist, Disha Ravi, who spent several days in the custody of Delhi police, before being granted bail at the end of February. The charges levelled against her include sedition, and criminal conspiracy with the Poetic Justice Foundation, a group alleged to have alleged terrorist links.
Delhi Police claimed Ravi to have edited and been a ‘key conspirator’ behind the preparation and dissemination of an allegedly seditious protest toolkit. The document was shared by climate activist Greta Thunberg on social media, accompanying her tweets expressing solidarity with the farmers’ protests in India against the new farm laws. Delhi police used these tweets and the toolkit as “evidence” of a coordinated conspiracy by Ravi “to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”.
The arrest and subsequent events made international news, alongside the farmers’ protests, with the New York Times describing it as the latest in a series of broader crackdowns on activists as well as a striking example of declining internet freedom in India.
Increased danger for women and minorities
As such, this course of events has not been surprising, being one of many in the recent clampdowns by the Indian government. Less than a month prior to Ravi’s arrest, Haryana Police arrested 23-year-old Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit labour rights activist actively supporting the 2021 farmers’ protests in India. After her bail, Mx Kaur alleged that she was physically and sexually assaulted in custody, in addition to being subjected to casteist slurs, also bringing into question the dangers that women – as well as men and gender minorities – face in state custody.
Recent trends have, in fact, suggested that women, particularly young women from minority communities have borne the brunt of the Indian state’s tryst with criminalising dissent of any kind.
The arrests of Safoora Zargar (who was arrested when she was more than three months pregnant), Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and many others, under laws like the UAPA still remain fresh in public memory. Adivasi rights activist Soni Sori argues that tribal women are facing the brunt of state violence under the garb of Naxalism in areas like Chhattisgarh. The statement came in the wake of the custodial death of Pande Kawasi, a 20-year-old Adivasi girl from the Kankipara village in the state. The intended effect of these events is to normalise a culture of fear that prevents anyone from speaking out against oppressive state policies.
And yet, despite these violent clampdowns – or perhaps because of them – women are coming to the forefront more and more in resisting the Indian government’s anti-minority, anti-worker and anti-farmer laws and policies. The women of Shaheen Bagh, for instance, were the vanguard of the anti CAA-NRC protests, and tens of thousands of women are active participants in the farmers’ protests. In fact, as law student Priyanka Preet put it:
female dissent across states has not merely been instantaneous, impulsive anger, but concerted, conscientious, sequenced actions against the infringement of their rights and liberties.
Beyond ‘women’s issues’
The presence of women in resisting the backlash against feminist and progressive politics is particularly telling because they, especially those belonging to minority communities, have the most to lose from issues like climate change and accompanying loss of livelihoods. Similarly, the CAA-NRC has rendered women in much higher danger of loss of citizenship, seeing as how they have historically not owned land or held identification documents. This also brings to light the arbitrariness of what mainstream discourse usually categorises as ‘women’s issues’, as those that pertain only to the biological female body. On the contrary, all issues that affect citizenship and all issues that affect livelihoods are ‘women’s issues’.
Simultaneously, there is a need for a continuous and sustained interrogation of the Indian government’s use of “lawless laws” such as UAPA and sedition to curb dissent and violently repress any form of activism that it perceives as a threat to its hyper-nationalist, patriarchal and neoliberal policies.
The problem with these laws lies not only in their misuse, but they are anti-people and anti-citizen in their very design. The right to peaceful protest is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. It guarantees the freedom of speech and expression and assures citizens the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. Dissent has always been the hallmark of responsible citizenship, and democracies were built on the backs of resistance.
Fundamentally, the Indian government cannot in the same breath celebrate freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, and still employ draconian, colonial-era laws on sedition to further its oppressive motives.