If you are even half-way unconvinced about the obsession with women’s issues in India these days, I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes at the title of this post. What’s all the fuss about, right? Take the on-going anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) / National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests for example. Yes alright, women are participating in large numbers in the protests all across the country, but aren’t men coming out in equally large numbers? Why is nobody focussing on that? Why does every public discourse have to turn into a version of the #metoo movement these days?
I’ll tell you what I know of the last seventeen days as a lawyer, and you can answer these questions for yourself.
Friends, parents, the fear of leaving them behind
It all started on the Friday before last, 20 December 2019. I had a Friday night plan as usual: to cozy up in a blanket with my girlfriend, drink chai and gossip. I mean I would have loved a glass of wine if it were handy, but it wasn’t. And there was no way in hell we were braving Delhi’s frostbiting cold to get one at a bar. We were a cup of chai down, socks kissing the oil heater at the foot of the bed, nearing snugness coma, when I got a call. A girl I knew from law school, asking if I could help with some anti-CAA / NRC protestors who had been detained at the Daryaganj Police Station. I looked at my watch. It was 9.30 p.m. – well beyond curfew time for a girl in Delhi – and Daryaganj was 40 minutes away. It had been a hotbed for protestor-police clashes for a week now. The idea of going there at this time was crazy. But I had volunteered to help and this was my first call. I couldn’t back down now. With mortal effort I shoved off the blanket, wore boots, bundled into my car and hit the road.
As I left behind the still-alive traffic of South Delhi and drove past the bright lights of Central Delhi into the lifeless, lightless, streets of Daryaganj, I began to miss my parents. Had I told them enough that I loved them?
The messengers of courage
There was no car in sight now. Only police jeeps. I glanced at my phone hoping to find comfort in virtual reality. And there was. I had received a few messages asking if I needed help in getting to Daryaganj. One was from a girl who practiced at the Delhi High Court with me. The others were from numbers I didn’t know. I tried to relax. People knew where I was. If something happened to me here, someone would find me.
When G-maps showed me that I was 2 minutes away from the Daryaganj Police Station, I found a parking and got out. Putting on my lawyer robe and neck-tie, I walked towards the station with my hands in the air, my bar council id flashing in one of them. ‘Lawyer! Lawyer!’, I shouted as I crossed the police barricades. Just outside the station gates, there was a small crowd of about fifty people. At the tail end were a few cowering civilians, probably families of the detainees. Past them were media people with cameras and mikes in hand. Right in front, with their faces pressed against the iron bars of the closed station gates were ten lawyers, mostly women and a couple of men, demanding that the cops open the gates and give lawyers access to the detained. My messenger from the Delhi High Court was among them, I didn’t know the rest. So, this is where the messages came from. I smiled to myself. I have never been happier or more relieved to see my black-robed kin.
Naari, Naari- women taking charge
As the night progressed, the women took charge. It was a woman who browbeat the cops into granting access to the detainees, a woman who inspected the detainees when the cops relented just enough to let any one lawyer in, a woman who pacified the relatives of those detained, a woman who facilitated the release of detained minors to their families, a woman who took some families home in the wee hours of the morning. They stood together, stood tall, stood unafraid, from 7:00 p.m. on a cold Friday night until 6:00 a.m. on a misty Saturday morning, in the trouble-ridden heart of Delhi’s agitated veins, to ensure the safety of a few helpless strangers whose lives were of no personal consequence to them.
I would have written this off as a chance occurrence. But then Mishika Singh went and organised a lawyers collective to provide free legal services to the protesting millions, which has been in operation 24-hours-a-day for seventeen days now. Rebecca John went and represented the detainees en-masse before magisterial courts to seek their release. And Indira Jaising went and led the charge against police atrocities on protestors before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India. For every woman named here, there are a dozen others I am thinking of whose efforts cannot be adequately described in the short space of this blog.
I have no choice but to conclude that the world rests on the delicate shoulders of the girl-tribe.
The big deal about it…. Jai ‘Bharat Mata’!
Now here’s the big deal about it. The legal profession is heavily skewed in favour of male advocates: there is a jaw-dropping margin between the number of men and women who are senior counsel, judges and enrolled advocates. Let’s just say women constitute less than one-third of the country’s bar. And yet, today we are three times more present and active in protecting the man on the street and his fundamental liberties.
Why? The question has been nagging me for a while now. Maybe there is something in the victimisation of college students, minors, poor people, minorities, that brings out a strong protective instinct in women. Throughout the animal kingdom, the female is fiercer when it comes to protecting its brood. Maybe we can sense instinctively that whatever is going on here will change our homeland forever? It could also be that somewhere deep in our conscience we identify with the plight of the vulnerable, harassed, and voiceless in Indian society. After all, we are one of them.
What difference does it make? Well, women don’t approach anything from a position of privilege. They don’t give orders, they help out. They don’t expect to gain anything, they just get the job done. They don’t lead, they build consensus. And that makes all the difference. The on-going contribution of India’s legal fraternity towards protecting the life and liberty of its citizens will forever be remembered for its sheer selflessness and humanity. A humanity that is reflected throughout the anti-CAA protests as female involvement takes centre-stage, whether it is the protests at Shaheen Bagh, Jamia, Mangalore, Jaipur or elsewhere.
With each passing day, I am becoming convinced that the identification of India with the Mother Goddess in the words “Bharat Mata” is not a testament to our historical or mythological past but a prophecy for our future.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)