It was close to midnight and more food — bun makhan and biryani — was arriving at the protest site, as the two political activists exchanged notes and advice on the FIRs lodged against them in connection with the anti-CAA movement in Lucknow since December.
While Jafar was the only woman at the receiving end of an FIR on 19 December, Shukla, a member of the Samajwadi Party, is one of the 100 women who were booked by the Uttar Pradesh Police on 19 January, two days after women in Lucknow launched a sit-in protest against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR).
For Shukla, the most recent FIRs against women opposing the CAA prove that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP, led by Chief Minister Ajay Bisht—who calls himself Yogi Adityanath—is not only irked by the thousands of women who are protesting at Husainabad’s Ghanta Ghar in UP’s capital, but also frightened of them.
Shukla, who shot to prominence after she waved a black flag at the UP Chief Minister in 2017, said, “First, the administration had the attitude that we don’t care what happens here. The FIRs prove the BJP government is afraid of women who speak their mind. But women have declared a revolution and we are not going to step back.”
“The women who were told to stay at home, who were told they had nothing to do with politics, they are changing India’s politics and rewriting its history,” she said.
“The FIRs prove the BJP government is afraid of women who speak their mind.”
The UP Police has lodged three FIRs against 159 people at the Thakurganj police station in Lucknow for violating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits more than four people from gathering at the same place. Sixteen women have been identified and booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code including rioting, unlawful assembly, disobeying a public order, assaulting a public servant, and spreading fear and panic.
Jafar, a member of the Congress party, who had stepped out for a peaceful protest on 19 January, ended up getting arrested and faces charges such as attempt to murder, being in possession of explosives and arson.
Jafar, who has accused the UP Police of torturing her in custody, said the BJP government in UP is booking women without cause or on the flimsiest grounds as a matter of routine.
“How the UP Police is lodging FIRs is insane,” she said.
“How the UP Police is lodging FIRs is insane.”
It is worth noting that Judge S.S. Pandey’s bail order for Jafar and at least four other activists, who face the same charges, said the police gave no evidence of their involvement in these crimes.
In western UP, the epicentre of the violence in December, the UP Police has dropped 16 of 17 grave charges against 10 students and other residents of the Hauza-e-Ilmia Imam Hussain madrasa in Muzaffarnagar.
Women who have been booked told HuffPost India that the FIRs against them are the result of an argument they had with policemen regarding blankets and tents on 18 January.
Shukla said, “This government and the police have a patriarchal mindset. It really pricks the BJP government to see so many women challenging them. I heard one policeman say, ‘Why are you making women sit here when they should be working at home?’”
“It really pricks the BJP government to see so many women challenging them.”
The UP Police have not attempted to break up the demonstration at the iconic clock tower in the old part of the city, but their presence at the protest site is intimidating and menacing.
In addition to the FIRs they have filed against the women protestors, they have not allowed them to put up any kind of temporary structure — a tent, for instance — that could offer some protection against the cold, especially at night. They have stopped people from donating blankets in bulk, only allowing individuals to carry their own. They have not allowed thick mattresses for women to sit on. Women complain of the cold seeping into through the styrofoam sheets. They are also worried about the lights of the clock tower and the street lights getting turned on and off at night.
Modelled on the all-day, all-night demonstrations led and largely attended by women at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, the protest in Lucknow was kicked off by 20-25 women on Friday. Their numbers have swelled to a few thousand in a span of five days.
While small compared with protests in other cities, where people have gathered in the tens of thousands in the past few weeks, the women-led protest in Lucknow is significant coming after the heightened violence suffered by peaceful protestors in the city on 19 December.
Over 200 people were arrested in Lucknow after a peaceful demonstration was infiltrated by masked men and the city descended into chaos. The UP Police have been accused of torturing and starving people in custody.
Speaking at a competing pro-CAA rally held in Lucknow on Tuesday, Home Minister Amit Shah said the Narendra Modi government will not revoke the law, which makes religion the basis of granting citizenship in India. “Today I have come to Lucknow to say aloud that whoever wants to protest, can protest, but the CAA won’t be taken back,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court, hearing a batch of 143 petitions, said there would be no stay on the CAA until the government responded to all the petitions against it and gave the centre four weeks to file its responses.
Sumaiya Rana, a ghazal singer and a social activist, who is named in the FIR, asked why Shah was not booked for violating Section 144.
“If Section 144 is for all Lucknow, and the Home Minister of the country is violating it, how is the UP government allowing it?” she said. “Why is the UP Police not filing an FIR against Amit Shah ji? Why is the police not filing an FIR against the people present at his rally?”
“Why is the UP Police not filing an FIR against Amit Shah ji?”
Ghanta Ghar versus UP Police
It is too early to say whether the all-women protest in Lucknow will sustain, peter out, or start mirror another Shaheen Bagh.
The stifling presence of the UP Police, coupled with its bullying tactics, make it harder for the women to be at ease and for the protest to find its momentum.
There are a few men who are working behind the scenes in getting food supplies and water to the women protestors. Their absence from the protest site is seen as both a bane and boon. The police, the women believe, will think twice before attacking a gathering of women. While many view the exclusion of men as vital for their safety, especially at night, others say it is also keeping out a significant chunk of people who want to protest.
It is also an excuse for the UP Police to carry out periodic sweeps, yelling and shouting at the men who observe the protest from behind the cordons.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the centre, and Chief Minister Bisht in UP have made every effort to characterise the movement against the CAA and the NRC as a Hindu-Muslim issue.
The scale of the public backlash coupled with unease among its allies as well as a few quarters in its own party has led to the Narendra Modi government backpedaling on Home Minister Shah’s declarations of a nationwide NRC to be completed by 2024, the year of the next general election.
But in UP, one of most religiously polarised states in the country, political analysts say the anti-CAA movement is not hurting the BJP at all. The Hindu middle class in India’s most populous state is far removed from the agitation, said Ashutosh Mishra, a political science professor at Lucknow University.
“The polarisation has happened. This just reaffirms the polarisation. Sharpens the division,” said Mishra. “The moment is neither going to lose a single vote or gain a single vote for the BJP.”
“The polarisation has happened. This just reaffirms the polarisation.”
If the UP Police think that beating a woman in custody or lodging FIRs against women will scare them away, they might want to think again.
The crowd at Ghanta Ghar swelled on Tuesday, even after the word of the FIR spread and Home Minister Shah said the government would not budge on the CAA.
Shortly before midnight on 21 January women at the protest site estimated there were 5,000 women on the ground, the highest yet.
Shukla, who was placed under house arrest on Tuesday during Shah’s visit, says she is “beyond fear”.
“You are afraid until the time that you have not been in jail. If you go to jail for your country and for the people, for a cause you believe in, then the fear of going to jail vanishes,” said Shukla. “The harsher the pain and problems you face inside jail, the people’s movement that you build outside the jail is that much stronger.”
“If you go to jail for your country and for the people, for a cause you believe in, then the fear of going to jail vanishes.”
Shukla and Jafar even shared a laugh when Shukla said the UP Police by lodging an FIR against her in this latest round of FIRs had inadvertently admitted the protests against the discriminatory law were “secular,” with both Hindus and Muslims in the fray.
“I’m not afraid of FIRs. Do your FIRs,” she said.
“I’m not afraid of FIRs. Do your FIRs.”
Jafar, who spent three weeks in jail following her arrest on 19 December, said, “The women you are seeing today is a result of what happened on 19 December. The more you persecute people, the more you repress people, the more powerful will be revolution that comes after it.”
The women’s movement will sustain, and if circumstances demand, evolve, said Jafar. “We are stubborn. The numbers are bulging,” she said. “What will happen in the future, where will it go, we will all have to think about this. What about mohalla sabhas?”
For Rana, the ghazal singer, who has been booked along with her sister for the first time in their lives, the FIR against them is one pothole on a long road.
“This movement is very big. The FIRs are very small in comparison,” she said. “We, the people who are protesting, have done our work. The police have done their work. And now, the courts will do their work.”