Protests as Ecosystems of Care: Reimagining the Future through Protests in India

Sinduja Raja, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Published on: September 21, 2021

Image: "_MG_0413" by ohol.priya is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When Bilkis, an 82-year old woman with piercing black eyes, was asked by a journalist what she thought about the Indian government’s accusation that she was paid to participate in the anti-CAA/NRC protests, she retorted, “If Modi can come here and face us publicly, we will give him 1 lakh (100,000) rupees instead…he has uprooted us! We will die here if we have to, but we will not leave.” Bilkis Dadi (grandmother) as she is fondly called, became a household name in India after her participation in protests that broke out in the country in 2019 against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC): a set of immigration and citizenship laws that would disproportionately target the minority Muslim community in India.

Bilkis Dadi was one among dozens of women from Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi who mobilized the longest 24-hour sit-in protest against the CAA and the NRC in the country. By January 2020, Bilkis and her fellow women protestors hosted more than a thousand people. These Muslim housewives from lower-income backgrounds started their protest on December 15th, 2019 in response to the New Delhi police brutalizing student protestors inside the Jamia Millia Islamia University. When questioned about their motivation for the protest in the bitter cold of Delhi’s winters, most of the women stated that the violence at Jamia was the last straw and if they didn’t come out to stand up for their rights now, their future generations would be stranded.

The Shaheen Bagh women convened in the middle of an extremely busy 6-lane highway adjacent to the neighbourhood and blockaded it completely. They took shifts to participate, allowing others to go back home and tend to their homes and family who weren’t at the protest site. While some women engaged in sloganeering, reaching out to the media, and holding press conferences, others stepped into to take care of their children. As the protest gained momentum and hundreds of people joined from all over India, the participants often regaled the crowd with protest songs and performances. Community kitchens transformed into mass food distribution drives where strangers prepared and distributed food and chai to the protest site in trucks. When there were attempts by the government and courts to paint the protest as detrimental to children and women, participants started a makeshift school to help children with their homework. At its peak, the protest site was a self-sustained ecosystem defined by care.

A lot has already been written on the radical and political dimensions of care. It is a form of “political warfare” when marginalized people practice self-care and ensure their continued survival in the world that is hostile to them. Decisions over whether and how to care for others and defining these others become political tools in times of crises. In Shaheen Bagh, women who hitherto primarily cared for their children within the confines of their homes now extended this care into the public sphere and enveloped the whole city with it through their protest site. Because of the extremely publicized nature of the protest, their practice of care inspired and extended to millions of other people who would be impacted by these laws.

Shaheen Bagh was not merely a protest movement. A locus of radical care emerged as an otherwise, as a way of living at odds with the dominant way. It provided a way to reimagine life in opposition to Modi’s Hindu-nationalist vision of India. The ecosystem created by the women at the protest site through their ability to organize food, education, and childcare showed how marginalized communities could organize a life outside of, and in opposition to, a life of violence organized by the state. It created a community that believed in the same cause using the same ethic of care, community, service, and generosity that translated across the country. While this shouldn’t glorify the conditions that the protests took place under or their aftermaths when Hindu nationalist mobs attacked primarily Muslim neighborhoods in retaliation, it is emblematic of alternatives that already exist within marginalized and historically oppressed communities.

This ethos is once again visible in the ongoing farmer’s protests and strikes that erupted in November 2020 against the BJP government’s legislation towards liberalized agricultural markets that would disproportionately affect farmers. Thousands of Sikh farmers assembled on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest the laws. Many Sikh women were at the forefront of these protests citing their vital role in farming and in support of their male relatives. Combined with Sikh ideals of Sewa (service), these protest sites once again display how people not only create a sustained movement but also provide an alternative way of community living – community kitchens, medical camps, childcare – all within the constraints posed by the pandemic.

Both Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest are very different in terms of their aims and participants. However, they are unified in two ways. One, they emerged in opposition to laws proposed by a right-wing authoritarian regime to bolster the already privileged to the detriment of marginalized minority communities. Second, both centered peaceful protests built on an ethos of care that showed protestors in a positive light, built momentum, and provided a community-based alternative to the fascist, anti-feminist, and capitalist agenda of the state. The ecosystem created at both protest sites displayed that political and social life need not be constrained by the dominant options available but can exist in radically transforming our relationship to one another through an ethic of care.

And as the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic raged through India in 2020 and 2021 because of a critical lack of care displayed by the state, it was once again ordinary individuals who were coming together to reimagine their relationship with one another and provide this care despite the state. From organizing oxygen to ferrying people to hospitals to providing comfort at cremation grounds, some of the most marginalized people in the country were displaying generosity and kindness in the face of the state’s callousness. Prominent social activist and writer, Arundhati Roy, called the pandemic a portal, one that we can use to walk over to a new world that looks different from the one we inhabit. But I would argue that this new world already exists, in such pockets of care and community and we just need to draw them out to the forefront.

Sinduja Raja is a doctoral student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Her research focuses on understanding the gendered relationship between state, society and violence, particularly in South Asia.