Recent protests by Punjabi farmers against the Gobindpura land acquisition certainly highlight the gulf between the rich and the poor. However, women’s spirited participation in these protests also illustrates the gulf between the general understanding and reality of what in fact constitutes ‘women’s issues.’ In particular, this incident informs that ‘women’s issues’ are not limited to practices that only impact women, but very much include broader societal inequalities and issues of economic justice.
Amandeep Kaur explains, as a marker of her family’s honor, how she had never even glanced toward a police station, a place for men, all her life. At least not until the summer of 2011. Her perspective changed when her village of Gobindpura, in southern Punjab, was declared the chosen site for a new thermal power project that required the acquisition of the villagers’ ancestral farm lands. Her decision to participate in citizens’ protest resulted in five arrests and detentions at the police station, several beatings, sexualized taunts and severe threats.
Amandeep’s story, captured in a November 2011 Youtube video that is gaining popularity, reminds us of the simple truth: women’s rights are in fact, simply put, human rights. ‘Women’s rights’ are often conveniently seen as ‘special,’ thus softer. A preoccupation with women’s bodies sadly determines for some, which issues are labeled as ‘women’s issues’ and generally often include rape, domestic violence, and reproductive oppression. Removing this ‘special status’ around women’s rights is necessary since it comes with the patronizing presumption that women are weak and need generous protection; the nature and scope of this protection determined by the ‘protectors.’ Removing the special status acknowledges that women, like all humans, have the right to freedom from vulnerabilities—to their bodies, their livelihoods, their day-to-day living. Those who stand up for this right are simply doing the right thing, and not engaging in some form of ‘special,’ generous charity. And women themselves are at the forefront of this rights-based work.
Further, Amandeep’s story illustrates that when women assert their rights, they also simultaneously impact other human right concerns that threaten our communities. It shows how rather than asking for ‘special’ treatment, women are standing up and sacrificing for the inclusive development and rights for all. In Amandeep’s village, these rights—rights to work, to liberty and security of person, and indeed to life itself—were threatened by a power company and its nexus with the state forces.
The power company acquiring lands in Gobindpura, Poena Power, is no foreign agency, but rather a reported subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Indiabulls. And just last month, India was rated as an ‘extreme risk’ country on the Women’s and Girls’ Right Index (WGRI), by the UK-based risk analysis company Maplecroft. Maplecroft warns global companies entering such ‘extreme risk’ emerging economies of the danger of possible complicity in “violations [against women] committed by state security forces or other actors.” This might be especially relevant in light of the late November changes to Foreign Direct Investment and further opening of the Indian retail business sector to multinational companies. However, the struggle in Gobindpura illustrates how women’s security is also at immediate risk because of the growing gulf between the poor and the rich within India, because of the insecurity faced by a majority of rural families.
Braving imminent risks in the face of such insecurity, the villagers of Gobindpura protested through Summer 2011, almost at the same time as the growing Occupy Movement on the other side of the globe, but with even lesser media attention. “We are the 99%” is the predominant slogan of the Occupy Movement in the U.S., as people have taken to occupying public spaces, starting with Wall Street, the symbol of American capitalism. The slogan represents the chasm in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. The Gobindpura protestors were protesting similar inequality in wealth and power. While the Western protesters are occupying public spaces in protest, the Gobindpura farmers are protesting to reject the occupation of their private property. And Gobindpura’s women and girls made the conscious decision of protesting alongside their men. For the lands at-risk were as much markers of their ancestory, identity, and livelihood as of their male counterparts.
Beginning in June 2011, women sat and marched in protest, in the face of the reality that many of the village men had already been arrested, thrown in jail, and tortured. The women were treated no differently. Their clothes were torn, their hair pulled, and they were caught in clouds of red, as cannons sprayed water mixed with red chilli pepper. As they were arrested and detained, police officers reportedly recommended to them that their only way out was to accept the compensation checks from the company.
As the agitations in Gobindpura caught the attention of other farmer and labor unions, the village was cordoned off by police forces, denying any ingress and egress, who then proceeded to fortify their constant presence by several means, including converting the sole village health dispensary into a police camp. Given its pre-election season in Punjab, the Gobindpura issue was also ripe for selective attention from opposition political-parties-in-waiting, but in the face of government and corporate pressure, no real alternative existed for the villagers.
Gobindpura is not a lone example of land acquisition or the agrarian neglect in Punjab; farmer unions and NGOs report over 50,000 debt-induced farmer suicides over the last two decades in what is often dubbed as the ‘bread basket’ of India. However, unlike other places that remain obscure, Gobindpura has now gained profile, and due to a confluence of political factors, some relief, whether in the form of alternate government jobs or negotiated higher settlement, seems more likely here. Nonetheless, for all the action in and around Gobindpura, the power company has begun construction of the plant, mostly unfazed.
It was in an attempt to oppose this foisted and exclusionary development, that thought nothing of the poor and the vulnerable who were going to be uprooted by it, that the women of Gobindpura entered the larger male-dominated spheres with intensity and at much personal cost. Yet this bravery has largely gone unrecognized. Since the protestors lacked profile and were up against powerful forces, their behavior seems to have been criminalized with little debate.
The reaction to the Gobindpura women protestors has included violence and indifference. On top of the grotesque treatment meted to them, there has been commentary chiding these women for not ‘staying in their place’. This incident should give us pause to re-examine our assumptions about women’s rights and empowerment in Punjab and beyond. Amandeep and her friends remind us once again that women ask for no special treatment, but only, as the Sikhs of Punjab say, for “sarbat da bhalla,” the welfare of all. For this, we must focus economic and social programs that take everyone into consideration; inclusive development is an imperative and not an option.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. She has a JD from The UC Berkeley School of Law and MPP from Harvard Kennedy School.