Amtus Salam, Bilkis Bano, Harinder Kaur Bindu

Women in Farmers' Movement

Chaman Lal

One defining feature of ongoing farmers' movement may not miss any eye. A sea of yellow chunnies worn by Punjabi women. How come that predominantly male farmers' movement has attracted such wider participation of women? Interestingly two young girl singers have reframed the popular song-Mera rang de basanti chola to—Merian rang de Basanti chunnian maye rang de Basanti chunnian….

Participation of Indian women in socio-cultural movements is not new. In ancient times Gargi and Maitreyi had been challenging Brahmanical philosophic postulates intellectually and getting threatened to get beheaded. Moghul period had powerful women like Noorjahan; Razia Sultana, who had proved to be the wiser queen than many male kings. Freedom struggle had leading women from Rani Chenamma of Kitur to Lakshmi Bai/Jhalkari Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal like fighters fighting against East India Company.

In the twentieth century itself, Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu like women had proved their mettle in leading Congress Party and its mass struggles. Women were equally active in revolutionary movements as well. From Bibi Gulab Kaur in Ghadar party to Durga Bhabhi in Bhagat Singh led movement, Preetilata Wadedar and Kalpna Dutt in Chittagong movement. Lado Rani Zutshi, a close relation of Jawaharlal Nehru and her three out of her four daughters-Janak Kumari, Manmohini and Shyama went to jail to protest against conviction of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, who later became an academician of repute, was first President of Lahore Students Union linked to Bhagat Singh.

At the call of Mahatma Gandhi during many Satyagrahas or non-cooperation mass movements, women like Shivrani Devi, author wife of Prem Chand, poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan went to jails.

Mahatma Gandhi depended upon his women followers/disciples more during his crucial struggles. During worst Hindu-Muslim communal clashes, he depended on Bibi Amtus Salam in Bengal and Sushila Nayyar in Punjab to douse the burning flames of communal hatred. Amtus Salam observed 21 days fast with Mahatma Gandhi in Noakhali in early 1947. Even when Gandhi returned to Delhi, she continued to camp there, even after partition, as was Sushila Nayyar in Wah-both in Pakistan after 15th August 1947 and did not return till Gandhi allowed them to come back!

Amtus Salam, a daughter of Pathan aristocrat Abdul Majd Khan of Patiala in Punjab, she was not sent to school because of Purdah, which she discarded in 1925. She had become close to Mahatma Gandhi so much that Gandhi used to address her as daughter. In 1947, her brothers went over to Pakistan, while Amtus Salam was camping in Noakhali, she protested that why Gandhi allowed them to leave for Pakistan. Alone from her family, she decided to stay back and set up Kasturba Seva Mandir in Rajpura, a town specially built to accommodate refugees from Pakistan. She remained involved in bringing back number of women left behind in Pakistan along with Rameshwari Nehru and Lajjawati Hooja. She helped refugees from Bahawalpur in settling down at Rajpura and approached Jawaharlal Nehru directly to help the refugees, when faced with troubles. She lived a spartan life of self-sacrifice, despite having aristocratic family background and having high position in Congress party as she was made permanent invitee to All India Congress Committee (AICC) Jail Reforms Report of 1980-83. Anand Narayan Mulla was its chairman. She passed away unsung and unnoticed on 29th September 1985.

Participation of women during freedom struggle not only liberated women from bonds of traditional household chores, it strengthened the freedom struggle as well, as it widened the mass base of Congress party.

Bilkis Bano made a history at Shaheeen Bagh at the age of 82 years, when she led a totally peaceful Gandhian movement against Citizenship Amendment Act against minorities. A simple nonpolitical woman with a sense of justice, she continued to lead a peaceful mass dharna of largely women, mostly from Muslim background at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi for hundred days, which spread to many other areas of Delhi and more cities of the country like Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Malerkotla etc. In Kolkata Park Circus dharna also, a single woman Asmat Jamil led the movement longer than Delhi. The defining feature of this anti-CAA movement was that first time in Indian history, a movement was led by Muslim women. Muslim society which is considered conservative in matters of women's social or political participation, brought a refreshing change in attitude of men folk, who were extending not only moral, but physical support like taking care of household, while women held the fort at dharna site!

The Dharnas were demolished by Delhi police under the excuse of Covid-19. The Time magazine named Bilkis Bano among 100 most influential personalities of year 2020. Ironically another Blikis Bano from Gujarat, a year earlier had also made news by getting justice from Supreme Court, as she had suffered brutalities like rape and smashing of her children before her by criminal goons during 2002 Gujarat killings.

Punjab farmers' unions landed on borders of Delhi on 26th November 2020 to protest against three agricultural laws, which as per farmers are black anti farmer laws. Farmers had been protesting in Punjab from June 2020 itself, when the laws were first brought as ordinance and the agitation grew after these laws passed in controversial manner in Parliament without following proper procedure. In Punjab farmers movement has become strong in last many years and there have been more than 30 farmer organizations. Participation of women in Punjab farmers movement is substantial since many years, not only to join protests, but at the level of leadership as well.

There are 400+ farmers' organisations under the umbrella of Sanyukat Kisan Morcha (SKM) from all over the country. 32 organisations from Punjab are actively participating under the banner of SKM, while two more organisations- Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan and Kisan-Mazdur Sanghrash Committee led by Satnam Pannu, both work in close coordination with SKM, are part of this massive movement. Many of Punjab organisations have women cadre and leadership, which are reflected in large participation of women from child level to old women of 90 years age in nearly four months plus long dharna. Women not only cook or take care of children there; they address the rallies, maintain accounts, and conduct stage. All the duties are shared equally by men and women participating in long drawn-out struggle. Men folk cook, clean and sweep as well. All participants from different religions, castes, regions and social status, stay together, cook together and eat together. This is remarkable in caste/religion/status/gender divided Indian society. There are number of women leaders among farmer leadership, like Jasvir Kaur Natt and her daughter Navkiran Natt, Parmjit Kaur Pitho, Balbir Kaur Advocate, Amarjit Hardaspur, Harinder Kaur Bindu and many more.

Harinder Kaur Bindu, who is President of women wing of BKU (Ugrahan), considered largest mass organisation amongst all organisations has earlier worked among Pendu Khet Mazdur Union-Rural Farm Labour organisations, mainly of Dalits. Both BKU-Ugrahan and PKMU are sisterly organisations. Bindu is daughter of once Naujwan Bharat Sabha activist-Megh Raj Bhagtuana, who was killed in brutal attack of Khalistanis at Sewewala village near Bathinda on 9th April 1991. Naujwan Bharat Sabha was holding mass meeting and cultural programme at the village, staging Gursharn Singh plays and revolutionary songs. A Khalistani group attacked the gathering killing 18 people on the spot, including Megh Raj Bhagtuana, who bravely followed the gang, but was shot dead. Bindu was just 13 years at that time and was trained by her father not to cry even if he is killed. So, after three decades Bindu has taken over the cause, for which his father gave his life. She is a mass organiser and brings thousands of women with her mass appeal at the protest. On the 8th March women day celebration at Tikri borders, where BKU-Ugrahan group has massive presence since first day, its women wing led by Harinder Bindu brought more than fifty thousand women and with more women from other organisations of Punjab itself, the gathering from Punjab alone, was more than seventy thousand at Tikri border. If one adds the figure of women at Singhu and Ghaziur borders, the total presence of women to mark women day on 8th March, by farmers movement must had been more than one lakh twenty thousand plus! Harinder Bindu is proud of her legacy, but angry at farmers being called Khalstanis or urban Naxals or tukde tukde gang. And women in farmers' movement are determined to stay on till the final victory!

Like pre freedom struggle movements or Shaheen Bagh like movements, farmers' mass movement has also liberated women and brought more equality among genders, which no law brings in practice. And of course, farmers' movement is much strengthened by the leading role and massive participation of women in struggle.

[Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor at Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre New Delhi. ]

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Vol. 53, No. 40, Apr 4 - 10, 2021