Women, Nonviolence, and Civil Resistance in India


Women at a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Bill [later Citizenship Amendment Act] and NRC in Kolkata, 22 December 2019.  Photo Credit:  Reuters.

One of the more remarkable features of the country-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) surely has to be the fact that women have taken the lead in signaling their dissent against the heavy-handedness of the Indian state and the increasing encroachment upon constitutional liberties.  Perhaps, in describing this as “remarkable”, I may be thought by some to be doing, if inadvertently, women a disservice in suggesting that they have not been prominent in previous civil disobedience movements. That is indubitably not the case:  they were highly visible in the demonstrations that took place all over the country in the wake of the brutal sexual assault against “Nirbhaya”, just as they were in 2004 when twelve women, the Mothers of Manipur, stripped themselves naked in public to highlight the sexual violation of a young girl and, more generally, the ongoing and systemic problem of sexual violence against women.


Women at a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati, Assam, on 21 December 2019.  Photo Credit:  Reuters.

The extraordinary courage and presence of mind that female students and indeed women from all walks of life have brought to the present demonstrations signify a more enhanced role for women in Indian public life and point to the strengths they bring in steering India towards a more democratic future.  There is a widespread feeling that the agitation against the CAA (and the Citizenship Amendment Bill that preceded the act) and now the NRC caught the government unawares, but I would also hazard the argument that one of the many things that has rattled the government is the resistance, much of it wholly unexpected, put up by women.  The statist view in India has never bothered to expend much thought on girls and women, except in its paternalistic role as conferring benefits on them as a form of “empowerment”, striving to have them retain the sacred aura of “Indian womanhood” and yet be emblematic of the “modern working woman”, and so on.  There have been countless poster campaigns by successive Indian governments enjoining the citizenry to understand that to “honour women is to honour the nation”, urging people to “protect the girl child” and suggesting that in the “education of girls lies the salvation of the nation”.


A woman carrying a placard, “PM2.0 is worse than PM2.5.”  Source:  https://www.trendsmap.com/twitter/tweet/1207658607648505857

Such slogans doubtless echo what both commonsense and justice dictate as true, but the present protests offer a more striking collage of images of women who have stepped outside the enforced cocoon of care and plunged into the muddy and wobbly waters of democratic dissent. Photographs of young female students offering roses to soldiers may appear a little cliched to those familiar with the global history of protest movements, but Indian women have been bold, inventive, resourceful, and disciplined in taking the lead, setting an example for men to follow, and incapacitating the state from taking decisive action.  They have held the most interesting placards:  “My dad thinks I am studying history.  He doesn’t know that I am busy making one”, says one, while another says simply:  “PM 2.0 is worse than PM 2.5.”  PM 2.0 refers, of course, to Modi’s second term as Prime Minister; PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matters, or fine particles which have a diameter of about 3% the diameter of a human hair and are thus invisible to the naked eye, and, moreover, once lodged in the lungs can induce chronic heart disease, respiratory problems, and death. More elaborate was the placard held by a young woman who marched from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar:  Modi and Amit Shah sit around a bonfire, and Modi says:  “It’s nice to have a little warmth in this cold weather, huh?” and Shah responds:  “I’m so glad we started this fire.”


Shreya Priyam Roy, a MA history student at the University of Delhi, offering a rose to a policeman.


Roses being offered to policemen by protestors at Mandi House, Delhi, around 18 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Hindustan Times.


A woman holding a placard at the demonstration at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, around 18 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Hindustan Times.

But women’s protests have amounted to far more than all this:  Indian women have shown the power of nonviolence. A little more than two weeks ago a video “went viral” and the civil resistance movement against CAA and NRC, which has now become part of the international news cycle, inserted itself into the global history of nonviolence.  Demonstrations had been taken out by students at Jamia Millia Islamia; violence ensued, though the origins of that still remain somewhat uncertain. Three women students at Jamia—Aysha Renna, Labeeda Farzana, and Chanda Yadav—shielded a fellow male student from being beaten up by the police.  They can be seen remonstrating with lathi-wielding policemen, coming between them and the male student, and reprimanding them for their unthinking brutality. In a very different demonstration, both of civil disobedience and an envious disregard for the respectability that comes from adhering to prescribed norms of social behavior, Rabeeha Abdurehim at Pondicherry University and Debasmita Chowdhury at Jadavpur University, both gold medalists at their respective institutions, expressed their firm opposition to CAA at commencement ceremonies. Ms. Chowdhury walked up to the dais, shouted “hum kagaaz nahin dikhayenge”, and then tore up the CAA in the presence of everyone before walking off the stage with a cry of “Inquilab Zindabad”.


Labeeda Farzana (left) and Ayesha Renna (right) shielded a male student at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi from police brutality.  Photo credit:  Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera.

The women of Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, have been waging a silent demonstration against CAA and NRC for over two weeks. They have occupied a portion of the main highway connecting the city to NOIDA. Some women have not gone home for days, others are accompanied at the sit-in by their children.  Those who are illiterate are nonetheless fully aware of what is at stake in the government plan to roll out a nation-wide NRC. They all understand that women are even more vulnerable:  property papers are generally in the name of men, and many don’t have the required documents to prove Indian citizenship.  Above all, their very presence, grit, and disciplined resistance gives the lie to the claim that the demonstrations have been fueled by “the opposition” or “outside instigators”.  These women offer as decisive a repudiation as any that could be mustered of the specious claim that the demonstrations have been violent.


Women protesting at Shaheen Bagh, Jamia Nagar, Delhi, 21 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Syeda Hameed.  Source: https://thewire.in/women/caa-nrc-protests-shaheen-bagh

That women have been at the helm of a nonviolent affirmation of the constitutional promise of equality under the law and nonviolent resistance to state thuggery would have come as no surprise to Mohandas Gandhi. He had been a keen observer of the suffragette moment in Britain and as early as 1907 wrote a piece in Gujarati, “Brave Women”, in their defense.  Women were, in his view, naturally predisposed towards nonviolence—though, as he pointed out repeatedly, it was necessary to make a distinction between “nonviolence of the weak” and “nonviolence of the strong”.  By “weak” he meant to designate not women as such, but rather those, whether men or women, who turned to nonviolence not from choice, deliberation, or moral reasoning but from dint of habit, instinct, or, most importantly, circumstances.  Women, Gandhi was convinced, could be the ideal satyagrahis, if their natural disposition towards nonviolence could be turned to generate a disciplined and systematic movement of nonviolent social transformation.

Women During The Salt March Protests

Women and children during the Salt Satyagraha, 1930.  Photo credit: Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty.

Writing in the pages of his weekly Harijan over the years, Gandhi made known his view that “woman is the incarnation of ahimsaAhimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering.”  Love and suffering are perhaps not the keywords of our times as much as are “equality” and “rights” in the discourse of nonviolence.  But, whatever language strikes one as the most apposite, the emergence of women in the present civil resistance movement is doubtless the most promising sign that the country has not yet surrendered to the tone-deaf authoritarianism of a state that is drunk on its own victories.  Women, now as many times in the past, will surely demonstrate that the democratic spirit is incompatible with naked muscularity.

[First published in a slightly shorter and different version at abplive.in on 2 January 2020 under the same title, here.]

10 thoughts on “Women, Nonviolence, and Civil Resistance in India

  1. Associating women with “infinite capacity for suffering” will, as you intimate, no doubt rub contemporary Leftists and feminists (or feminist Leftists or Leftist feminists for that matter) the wrong way (even if indissolubly tied to love, as it is here; indeed, it is a ‘test of love’), so a different choice of words may indeed be apposite. Nonetheless, perhaps it might help to remind readers that the “suffering” referred to here by Gandhi was a “self-suffering” (tapasya) on behalf of others, which Gandhi linked to self-realization which, in turn, was said to be “impossible without service of, and identification with, the poorest.” This self-suffering was not, for Gandhi, the proprietary prerogative or privileged obligation of the ascetic, but could and should be practiced in the “midst of society.” In the words of the late Raghavan Iyer, “Gandhi’s interpretation of moksha as the full realization of Truth and his justification of ahimsa as an exercise in tapas, the self-suffering and service needed for the attainment of satya, gave traditional values a new meaning and fresh relevance to politics and society.”* Thus one can say that these women in India (be they religious or non-religious) are exemplifying Gandhi’s arduous endeavor to accord “spiritual values a social significance” (similar if not identical to what falls today under the heading of ‘engaged Buddhism’).

    * There is an extended discussion of this in Iyer’s nonpareil examination of The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford University Press, 1973/2nd ed., Concord Grove Press, 1983).


    • Hi Patrick, Very well said. I couldn’t agree with you more. Gandhi, as you point out, meant self-suffering, not expecting others to carry the cross without first carrying it himself. Though not many people invoke Raghavan Iyer these days, I am also in agreement with your assessment of this work that has withstood the test of time. I would add to that his 3-volume anthology of the Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford: Clarendon Press), which among the hundreds of anthologies of Gandhi’s writings remains by far the best. (But it also rather difficult to get these days and is expensive.)


  2. Your essay in the Open weekly magazine. https://openthemagazine.com/essays/was-ambedkar-anti-islam/
    Was Ambedkar Anti-Islam? – Open The Magazine
    THERE IS NO doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels,’ wrote a famous Indian, ‘the Hindus come out second best. My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.’ These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas … Continue reading “Was Ambedkar Anti-Islam?”



  3. It has indeed been inspiring. Perhaps “hum kaagaz nahi dikhayenge” will become the “hum mandir wahin baneyenge” of our times. Women have had to show artful resistance to patriarchy in their own households. The same nonviolent reaistance tactics that women use to resist the power of their father’s, husbands, mothers-in-law and so on within the household are easily translatable to the political context as well: women have learned from an early age that brute force as resistance will not work.


    • Have to admit, the comparison of “kaghaz nahin dikhayenge” with “mandir wahin banayenge” is the most interesting part of this reply.


  4. Why do you who left India just for money have the right to tell us who we should welcome as citizens? I do not understand why we must listen to you who left your motherland for some more money about who should be an Indian when you yourself no longer live there!


    • I guess I have some authority on this as well, being from the diaspora. I wonder what kind of nationalism it is that currently afflicts India, where the push is always towards becoming increasingly insular. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere. There are moments when we look to all sorts of figures from all corners of the world. The greatest irony of it, however, has to be that in this new-age nationalistic fervor, national pride waxes when Indians inspire people in other countries, but wanes in according respect to the commentary of someone from outside India (even if from the diaspora) on matters in India.


  5. Reading this, I’m thinking back to a quote from Mohammad Ali Jinnah, going something like, “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”


  6. The two sided ways of India’s government towards female empowerment and women’s rights is very obvious, as you mention, through their ways of supporting both empowerment and the sacred role of Indian woman. While they claim to support the “modern working woman”, they also push the agenda of traditional, sacred woman. I do not mean to say I believe one cannot be a modern woman in support of female empowerment if she still conforms to the ideas of the sacred Indian woman image. However, I do believe the ways the Indian government has portrayed their support for this movement sends mixed messages about the entirety of female empowerment in India as it seems they also support a more conservative image of the Indian woman. For many, the first thing that may pop up into mind when hearing traditional or sacred may mean a village housewife. For me, when I hear these words in regards to Indian women, I think more about the traditional cultural or societal values women are taught in India rather than the traditional image of women. For example, its tradition that a newly wedded woman lives with her husband and her in laws in their family home after marriage. It is entirely possible for an Indian woman to stick with tradition while keeping her empowerment or pursuing a career as a modern woman. It’s one of the reasons why I believe Indian woman can be portrayed as both a traditional and working Indian female.


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