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Published: July 14, 2010 - 13:35 Updated: July 14, 2010 - 13:39

Fifty-five women from 12 states left home for 20 days to hit the streets through 20,000km in this scorching heat across 60 towns to push the  Women's Reservation Bill  
Shaweta Anand Aligarh

Twelve Innovas were transformed into railway coaches of 'Reservation Express' that whistled through three routes by road, covering a gigantic distance of over 20,000km through the north-west, north-east and southern parts of India. The campaign was flagged off by, among others, 84-year-old Qamar Azad Hashmi, one of the oldest activists supporting the cause, on May 20 from Jhansi - land of the legendary queen of Jhansi, Jhansi ki rani. 

The campaign culminated on June 6 at Delhi's Constitution Club where the karwans (caravans) converged with women activists from across the country celebrating a massive spectacle of dance, music and spirited slogans. They communicated their experiences to a happy Congress president Sonia Gandhi the next day, who backed this protracted struggle. Activists handed over 10,000 signed postcards to her backing the Women's Reservation Bill.

"Each karwan had several Muslim and Dalit women who campaigned tirelessly for promoting 33 per cent reservation for all women, irrespective of their caste, class, religion and ethnicity," Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad told Hardnews. Hashmi is the brain behind this national-level campaign. The campaign generated support from 200 rights-based organisations, feminists, intellectuals, activists and students across the Indian landscape. 

Said Sultana Sheikh, stoic survivor of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, "Drunk Hindu fanatics put a sword through my raped body to see if I was dead or alive before leaving me at the river bank. My infant child kept howling while I was tortured. What could he do? What could I do? There was no one to stop them. This happened when we were trying to escape after hundreds of armed men smashed, maimed and burnt members of our families in front of our eyes."  

"That is why I am a part of this campaign so that I can talk to women about their rights, especially their political rights. By getting the Women's Reservation Bill passed, we will be able to activate women power in this country and protect our rights in a violent, male-dominated world," she said. 

Sheikh was part of the karwan that covered 'route number two'. They traveled to Jabalpur, Raipur, Balangir, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakhapatnam, Vijaywada, Chennai, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Cochin, Calicut, Bangalore, Anantapur and Hyderabad before converging with other karwan members in Delhi two weeks later. It was led by Sania Hashmi, a documentary filmmaker, and activist Manisha Trivedi.

Also on the same route was Mohini Jatav, a Dalit activist from Jaipur, Rajasthan. Her husband's legs were mutilated by Gujjar panchayat members as punishment because he refused to work for them. His legs had to be amputated to save his life. "I am here so that I can travel far and wide while connecting with more women like me; so that we can heal our wounds together and fight for our right for representation in politics," said Jatav.

"I appeal to every women of every village to join us in demanding passage of this law. Why is it that I still haven't got justice even though I have been running around in courts for 15 years? If more women were in power, they would have ensured women like me got timely justice," roared Bhanwari Devi. 

Bhanwari was a sathin (companion) working for the Women's Development Programme of the government of Rajasthan in Bhateri in 1992 when she was gang-raped. She was punished for trying to stop the marriage of a nine-month-old girl who belonged to an influential upper-caste family. Shockingly, the court ruled in 1995 that upper-caste men can't rape a dalit woman. The rapists were publicly felicitated in this feudal, male-dominated state.

A Jaipur-based NGO called Vishakha took up her case that led to the historic Vishakha judgement by the Supreme Court. The court, for the first time, set guidelines of behaviour with women in public spaces, acknowledging that women can be sexually harassed in workplaces and outside.

Haseena Bano, Rubina Bano and Jawahira Rashid, all of 15 years, were the youngest campaigners. They traveled from a remote place called Tangdar in Kashmir to north-east India on 'route three'. "It has given us so much confidence," they echoed in chorus. "Every karwan had women from Kashmir. This was a chance of a lifetime for them as they mingled with people they can relate with all over India. It worked wonders for their self-esteem and it shows - some girls went without the traditional veil," said Seema Duhan, leader of this karwan. 

At Aligarh, eminent historians Irfan Habib, Shireen Moosvi and Dr Namita Singh from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), endorsed the demand. "Although we got good response from most people, but a Muslim man mocked me in Aligarh. He said I can't be a genuine Muslim woman since I had stepped out of the four walls of home and was talking to ordinary women about their political rights," said Rashida Ansari, a survivor of the Gujarat carnage, 2002. "I asked him, which aayat (verse) of Quran says that women can't get out of home, do politics and run the country? He stared back, speechless," she told Hardnews.

"I want to see the killers of my sister punished," said Musarrat Jahan, sister of Ishrat Jahan, killed by Narendra Modi's top cops in Gujarat. "I am traveling with this karwan  to tell more and more women about how they can change the face of this country. Had there been more women in power today, my sister's death would have been avenged and many more such deaths - prevented." 

Ishrat Jahan was kidnapped from Mumbai in 2004 and reportedly killed in a fake encounter, charged with plotting to kill Modi. "When we got the news of Ishrat's death, we didn't even understand what an encounter meant or who Modi was," said Shamima Kauser, Musarrat's mother. "If there were more women in positions of power, there would be less assaults on women in society," she said.
Activists on 'route number three' travelled to Rewa, Daltonganj, Ranchi, Kolkata, Behrampur, Balurghat, Shillong, Guwahati, Siliguri, Katikar, Patna, Varanasi, Allahabad, Lucknow, Aligarh and back to Delhi. 

Social workers Anandi and Eashwari from Tamil Nadu traveled on 'route number one' that covered north-west India. "As for Dalit women, they will get 33 per cent reservation out of the existing 22.5 per cent SC/ST quota. For Muslims, men and women need the quota since both are grossly under-represented in legislatures; but that is a separate fight which cannot be fought within the ambit of the bill," explained Anandi.

'Route number one' destinations included Bhopal, Indore, Aurangabad, Mumbai, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Bhilwara, Ajmer, Jaipur, Hissar, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Dharamshala, Mandi, Bilaspur, Shimla, Solan, Dehradun, Meerut and, finally, Delhi. It was led by dogged activist Mansi Sharma of Anhad. "Out of the 543 seats in Parliament, why do we still have only 59 women representatives?" asked Philomena John of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW). 

At Lucknow, the old, patriarchal city of nawabs, a huge solidarity gathering of social activists, writers, educationists and journalists welcomed the 'Reservation Express' on June 4. Shabnam Hashmi said she was provoked to start the campaign by the acidic comments of Shia cleric Kalbe Jawad of Lucknow that Muslim women should 'produce' good leaders instead of becoming leaders themselves. She said Muslim women don't want a broker like Kalbe Jawad between them and God. 

Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, was sure that hurdles created by religious lobbies will only strengthen the movement. She was sharply critical of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav who said modern women MPs will face the whistles of young politicians. "Such leaders happily admit the corrupt and criminals in their party, but would still oppose women's rights," she said, in a voice loaded with sarcasm. Progressive writer Shakil Siddiqui  said reservation was not a solution, and yet, this campaign would raise awareness about women's rights. So why are they creating obstacles, asked Urdu writer Sabiha Anwar and theatre personality Mridula Bharadwaj.

For many women in the yatra,  India came as revelation. Most tribal women had no information about the bill, or their fundamental rights, pointed out Kummo Devi from Himachal Pradesh. Sukhbir Kaur from Punjab discovered that most women had no job cards.  "I was shocked to see so much poverty in our villages," she said. 

It was a synthesis of human solidarity, aesthetics and politics. Poems of great progressive legends like Jan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi were recited, songs were sung, songs and slogans of beauty, humanity, change and revolution; women and girls hugged and laughed, all prepared to reaffirm life, and fight till the last. This body language spoke of emancipation.

After a strong public response at Guwahati, the 20-member 'Reservation Express' made a brief sojourn at Shillong, capital of 'matrilineal" Meghalaya, to garner support. The programme held at Asom Kristi Kendra in early June was organised by the North East Network (NEN) along with Lympung Ki Seng Kynthei and YWCA. Said Meghalaya's education minister and lone woman legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh, "Women must be empowered, educated and enlightened on the nuances of parliamentary democracy and electoral politics." 

"There is tremendous response. It is a misnomer that people are opposing the bill," said Seema Duhan. So will they meet politicians who are opposing the bill? "There is no point in reacting to chauvinistic statements which do not have content," she shot back. 

A panel discussion on 'Women's Reservation: Are we ready for it?' was held at Shillong College. Activist Angela Rangad asked if there would be "real emancipation" of women if the bill is passed. There is no guarantee that if a woman is elected she won't be as corrupt as her male counterparts. "This is the narrative of repression, from Catherine the Great to Margaret Thatcher who dismantled the 'welfare state'. Indira Gandhi was responsible for the infamous Emergency," she said.  "Women should be more concerned with what programmes the elected women would take up for their benefit. Besides, what are the 53 women MPs doing to push women's issues?"  

Dr Pascal Malngiang of the department of political science, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), narrated the historical struggle for reservation. The Nairobi Conference in 1985 proposed 35 per cent reservation for women in all elections across the world. Scandinavian countries like Norway, Finland and Sweden have the maximum number of women representatives. "Two-thirds of the world's work force is women. They earn only 10 per cent of the world's income," he said. Indeed, the matrilineal system in Meghalaya does not ensure space for women in the political system. 

Prof V Pakyntein of the department of anthropology, NEHU, said she was wary of the money and muscle power used by male candidates to win elections. "Hence, women must come out of the closet and fight elections," she said.

Come out of the closet. That is the key. Open the windows of emancipation. Seek power, forever denied. Seek equality and justice, forever shut out. Change the gender equations. Fly with the wings of aspirations. Make this world humane, better, worthwhile - for all. Eliminate poverty, exploitation and hunger. Said Mansi Sharma, "Women want to reserve their historic place in  our fragmented, unequal democracy. They want to find their collective identity and power. This world must change. The Women's Reservation Bill must be passed. This is just another starting point." 

With Pradeep Kapoor in Lucknow and Andrew Lyngdoh in Shillong

Fifty-five women from 12 states left home for 20 days to hit the streets through 20,000km in this scorching heat across 60 towns to push the Women’s Reservation Bill
Shaweta Anand Aligarh

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This story is from print issue of HardNews