LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — “I have finished all the household work and come. There is no problem at home,” said Suraiya, a 32-year-old homemaker, who joined the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Lucknow on Sunday.
“I might have to go home and make sure the children eat dinner but then I will return,” she said.
Suraiya is one of the hundreds of women who have gathered to protest against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the National Population Register (NPR) in Lucknow, a month after the Uttar Pradesh Police cracked down on a peaceful demonstration that was disrupted when masked men and policemen unleashed violence in the city.
Thousands of people were arrested by the police in Lucknow and several other districts of UP. Children were tortured in Bijnor. Women were beaten in Lucknow. Social activists were tortured and starved inside police stations. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP, led by Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, a Hindutva hardliner who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath, has orchestrated the most brutal suppression of dissent against the discriminatory law that makes religion the basis of granting citizenship.
Suraiya, a graduate in economics, who had joined the demonstration on 19 December, said that she was “prepared for anything to happen.”
Modelled on the all-day, all-night demonstrations led and largely attended by women at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, the protest in Lucknow was kicked off by 20-25 women who gathered under the landmark clock tower of Husainabad in the “old city” on Friday. Their numbers had swelled to somewhere between 300 and 500 on Saturday.
While small compared to protests in other cities, where people have gathered in the tens of thousands in the past few weeks, the women-led protest in Lucknow is significant coming after the heightened violence suffered by peaceful protestors in the city.
In order to reduce the chances of a repeat of 19 December, the women are keeping men from joining the protest at the clock tower. On Saturday, men, including male relatives of the women at the protest, stood behind a rope which the protestors had set up to cordon off the area where women and children sat on mattresses on the ground.
“If men are present, it is easier for the police to be brutal with them,” said Sumaiya Rana, a social activist and ghazal singer. “We don’t have high hopes from the Yogi government, but there is a chance the police might hesitate to beat children. At least they will talk if they want to remove us.”
If the UP government refrained from disrupting the peaceful protest, Rana said, “This could become like Shaheen Bagh.”
Until Saturday, the UP Police personnel did not attempt to break up the demonstration at the clock tower. But their presence at the protest site was intimidating and menacing.
While repeatedly telling men to clear the area outside the cordon, the police even forbade vendors from selling tea and food to protestors.
“Get out here,” a constable shouted at one tea seller who was standing with a kettle and plastic cups.
Unlike Shaheen Bagh, the UP Police has not allowed the women protestors to set up tents to protect themselves from the cold, even at night. The women protestors have accused them of snatching away supplies of blankets and biscuits. They were also worried about the lights of the clock tower and the street lights getting turned on and off.
At around ten in the night, the sole woman attendant of the only public toilet nearby told HuffPost India that she had to leave and go home.
Suraiya shared a grim view of the situation.
“This is the UP Police. They might hesitate a little, but I don’t think they will think twice before attacking women and children,” she said.
“The protests in Shaheen Bagh have been so successful because women are leading it,” she said. “But UP is not Delhi.”
Suraiya, who lives close to the protest site, said that she and the four women who came with her heard about the first day of the protest on the news and read about it on social media.
“No one got me here. I came on my own. We were thinking of going to Delhi but then this started in Lucknow and we decided to come here,” she said.
Ever since the anti-CAA protests gained momentum in the second week of December, the Narendra Modi government has tried to couch it in Hindu-Muslim terms. Following the attack on Jamia Millia Islamia University, last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the protestors can be recognised by their clothes. No state government has gone as far as the BJP government in UP in trying to polarise the protests.
Responding to why she had opposed the CAA, Suraiya said she did not fall into the “Hindu-Muslim” trap.
“It is against the Constitution. There are people of different religions at this protest,” she said.
A 70-year-old, who asked her name only to appear as “ an Indian citizen,” said, “How do we give them proof that we are Indians? Poor people do not have documents of their baap-dada. I hunted at home but I don’t have those kinds of documents. Now what do you want me to do?”
Another woman, who declined to give her name because she fears state retaliation, said, “If we don’t come out on the streets now, we will lose our homeland. We will come out for the whole year, if needed. We will come year after year.”
Raising her voice over the din of the gathering, she said, “This government has taken away our dignity. Now they want to take away the air we breathe. If we had to go to Pakistan, we would have gone. Why did we choose to stay in India?”
Several women that HuffPost India spoke with said they did not want to give their names because they did not trust the media to report the news accurately.
A woman, who declined to give her name, said, “The media is as communalised as the government.”
A few women also said they did not want to be highlighted in the media because their families were not aware that they had slipped away to join the protest for a few hours.
Roop Rekha Verma, a former Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University and a social activist, said the past month was spent on getting lawyers for the activists who were arrested on 19 December, ensuring they were released on bail, and safeguarding against more arrests.
“This was deliberate and planned,” she said. “We were not afraid. This was part of the strategy.”
Jafar said, “When I came out of jail, I felt that it was important to highlight what I went through in police custody, but when I see the courage of these women… they are battling it out completely on their own.”