Preserving the core values of a democratic republic often demands one to raise their voice against the system – whether it be the government, the rich and the powerful, or the bureaucrats who ignore the masses. And if a woman was to take up this goal, she has to first get over the gender-biases entrenched in our society too.
In the last 70 years since India became a democratic republic, very few women have managed to break the numerous barriers in the society to bring about a change. While not an exhaustive list, these are a few women we look up to for their courage and determination in holding on to India’s values and its people despite all odds.
For more than 30 years, this environmentalist has been building a legacy of devotion to Mother Nature and the under-privileged who are often ignored for corporate ambitions. Best known for leading the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a campaign that started in 1986, Patkar has been on multiple hunger strikes for the cause, for which she was even manhandled by the police.
The movement was in support of the inhabitants of the Narmada valley, who would be affected badly by the Sardar Sarovar Project over River Narmada, impacting Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Over the years, the movement turned massive, and has garnered support from across the world.
It was due to Patkar’s efforts that World Bank withdrew from the project in 1993. Later, the Supreme Court passed a ruling that constructive replacement, employment and compensation should be provided to the displaced. Keeping the benefits of the dam in mind, it asked for the completion of the multipurpose project. Sardar Sarovar Project was inaugurated two years ago; but Patkar, 65, continues to work towards the rehabilitation promised.
In 2014, she joined the Aam Aadmi Party to participate in active politics and initiate changes in the system. She contested the Lok Sabha elections 2014 but resigned from the party after she lost.
With a doctorate in Social Sciences from IIT Delhi and a degree in Law from Delhi University, Bedi became the first woman to join Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1975. Her career spanning three decades ended with her role as Director General, Bureau of Police Research and Development in 2007.
Bedi’s reverence for the values of the republic has been an integral part of her journey. She has been referred to as ‘Crane Bedi’ for her methods of towing vehicles from wrong parking, wherein even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s car was not spared. In 1982, she booked a challan on the then-Prime Minister’s vehicle for wrong parking, which got her great media attention. Gandhi appreciated the move and personally invited Bedi for lunch.
Bedi also founded organizations for social work, to cater to the problems faced by women and rehabilitation of drug addicts from prisons. For her relentless efforts in and out of uniform, she has been conferred with several awards including the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry (1979) and Ramon Magsaysay Award (1994). Bedi was also part of Anna Hazare’s campaign in 2011 supporting the Jan Lokpal Bill which aimed to diminish corruption. Later she joined the BJP, but lost the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Women protesting CAA
In the history of mainstream social-political-related protests in India, women have played a less prominent role, with the discourse mainly dominated by men. However, as the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) triggered a slew of protests across the country, women have taken centre stage as the very symbols of resistance.
From Assam to New Delhi to Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, women have been leading the agitations against the legislation that offers only non-Muslim religious minorities from select countries a path to Indian citizenship.
In the past, India has seen several women-led protests which have gained traction and come to the forefront – starting from the Pinjra tod movement to others related to social issues concerning women. However, this is one of those rare times when protests against mainstream political and national issues have women as its face.
A few weeks ago, videos and images of three women standing up to the police to protect a male protestor who was being lynched by the cops went viral. It became the very symbol of the fearless Indian women of today – ready to stand up in defiance against brutality of any kind and unafraid to raise their voice even in the face of great personal peril.
An internationally renowned author, 58-year-old Arundhati Roy stands as one of India’s most outspoken political activists. She shot to fame when her debut novel God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997. Roy even donated her Booker prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Her non-fiction books The End of Imagination (1998) and The Cost of Living (1999) critiqued the Indian government's nuclear policies and voiced her opposition of the Narmada Valley dam. In 2002, Roy was convicted by the Supreme Court when she accused the court of attempting to hush the protests against the Narmada Dam Project.
Roy’s other works of non-fiction -such as Power Politics (2001), War Talk (2003), Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers(2009) and Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014) – speak for the human cause, as did her speeches.
Very few have been brave about exercising the freedom of speech like Roy has – especially on her support towards Maoist-supported Naxalite insurgency groups during the UPA regime. Roy has even been charged with sedition for her support towards independent Kashmir and pro-Naxalite views. Yet, she continues to speak up against human rights violations, communalism, and government apathy to the underprivileged sections of society in India.
At 27, this Manipur-based graduate from Delhi University has many achievements to her credit. Founder of Femme First Foundation, an NGO working for bringing more women into India’s political leadership, Angellica was also National General Secretary of the National Students Union of India in 2012. At the time, she was just 19 and the youngest person to be inducted into the national committee of the students wing of Indian National Congress.
The Biochemistry Honours graduate was also the first ever VVEngage Fellow for women political leaders at Vital Voices, a US-based NGO founded by former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. She fights against racism, gender biases, and negative cultural stereotypes ingrained in the Indian society, along with raising her voice for net neutrality, menstrual health initiatives, and interests of the North East community.
Angellica was named among Forbes India's 30 Under 30 in 2017, for her work on policy and politics. She has written extensively on the public perception of stringent laws for punishing the perpetrators of violence against women in India.
The list of women persevering to preserve the idea of India as a democratic, secular republic is not over. Journalists like Chitra Subramaniam, Teesta Setalvad, Barkha Dutt, Faye D’souza, Sagarika Ghose, and Dhanya Rajendran, and activists like Laxmi Agarwal, Sunitha Krishnan, and Shabnam Hashmi are all leading the fight every day, so that the Independent India which millions had fought for, decades ago, does not disappear.