For those of us brought up here or have spent substantial amount of time in Kolkata, the idea of certain pockets of the city as demarcated to be dominated by the presence of the Muslim community is not unknown or new. If you have heard whispers of how they are “unsafe” and best avoided, you are not the only one.
Park Circus features on that notorious list of “unsafe” places in Kolkata rather prominently. But why listen to whispers unless they build up to reckless pillowtalk, isn’t it? Turning up with my girlfriends and daughter at Park Circus Maidan that winter night to join in the anti-National Register of Citizens(NRC) and anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, led and held by women, was a game-changer of sorts. It shattered a whole bunch of ill-conceived and uselessly-nurtured stereotypes for us.
As a woman, you grow up accustomed to expect bad-touches and unwelcomed gazes. It can happen anywhere, at anytime. Resourceful as we are as Indians, a banner had been hoisted between two lopsided lamp-posts announcing the women’s entry gate to the protest arena. The men standing around ushered you in – with grace and smiles. I have never felt safer taking my daughter anywhere. That evening at Park Circus, we were greeted with utmost respect and felt comfortable right away.
Once inside, we were asked to take our shoes off. The maidan floor was covered in long mats for the ladies to sit on. We decided to make our way to the back for a vantage view. The atmosphere was something else. The children were holding up posters. My daughter displayed the one she had carried from home stating her preference for biryani over bullying! The women were singing and sloganeering. From Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” which has become the anthem of our troubled times to the more well-known song of protest – “Hum Honge Kamyab” inspired by the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” associated with the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1950-60s, the air was ringing in song.
From young mothers with infants perched on their laps to old ladies being escorted by their grand-daughters, if you have ever been told that women are not suited to leadership roles – the Park Circus Maidan protest arena would be the place to visit to dispel that myth. Here were women juggling duties but still turning up for the 24-hour protest sit-in from last Tuesday.
They sang and roared in unison demonstrating energy levels that would put Katy Perry to shame, had quipped my teenage daughter on observing the crowd. Right before us was happening the coming-together of a people’s movement which was absorbing participants from all religions. Numerous and urgent, the women were showing the way to reclaiming their nation. This is not a movement limited to and led by only the Muslim community. When women turn up in such large numbers and from every background, it has obviously developed a far-more inclusive and democratic traction.
Jabeen Mumtaz Khan, a school friend and a regular face at this apolitical demonstration shared that this is “an issue which will affect every Indian, together we must join hands and spread the word, together we can come up with solutions”.
Groups of students had also gathered with their musical instruments to belt out protest music. Huddled in hoodies to keep the cold off, the cheer of camaraderie in them was difficult to miss. They were feeding each other biscuits while tuning their guitars. While on refreshments, we also noticed volunteers were handing out bananas to the women and children seated around.
Whether the movement will get usurped by some viciously motivated and inevitably unreliable political party remains to be seen. I sincerely hope that that does not happen. What we witnessed that evening was marked by the absence of any political presence. The mood was festive actually. With infectious energy under the brilliant gaze of our beautiful tri-colour, the women rose to reclaim their own. We left the grounds with broad grins on our faces – the idea of India is still alive. In fact, it is thriving. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.