NEW DELHI: “Hum dangon se chahen azadi,
Hum dabangon se chahen azadi,
Hum goondon se chahen azaadi,
Hum lekar rahenge azadi.”

(we want independence from riots, from muscle men, from goons, and we will struggle till we get this independence)

“Razia ne li thi azadi
Meera ne li thi azadi,
Radha ne li thi azaadi
Hum bhi lenge azadi”

“Fatwon se maange azadi
Bhagwon se maange azadi”….

(freedom from religious fundamentalists, maulanas and pundits)

These slogans rent the air as a group of over 500 women marched a three kilometre stretch from the Town Hall to the ADM’s office in the centre of Muzaffarnagar on March 8 Women’s Day. Raising fists, shouting slogans, the women drawn from the villages and the bastis came together to shout for their rights, but even more so to raise a voice against the communal violence that has polarised this western Uttar Pradesh town and the adjoining areas since the Lok Sabha elections.

It was a brave decision by the women,given the fact that these slogans have become world famous after the Jawaharlal Nehru University where ignorant journalists sought to pass off the slogans as sedition. And also as all in Muzaffarnagar knew that Women’s Day was the excuse, but that the impunity given to the perpetrators of violence by the state and central governments, as well as the absence of adequate relief and rehabilitation of the victims was the real motivating factor for this demonstration.

Fed up with the atmosphere of violence that has pitted religious communities against each other, the women decided to march for freedom and a better, less discriminatory, more equal life. More so, as there was deep disappointment about the Justice Vishnu Sahai report that had failed to nail those complicit in the violence that had led to deaths and large scale displacement of largely Muslims, and some Dalits in Muzaffarnagar town and villages.

The march was in itself, a learning experience for the women, some of whom had never participated in a procession before. As they shouted the slogans with gusto, they received a strong response from the people on the way. Some abused them, many others garlanded them, some blessed them, as they marched on their way regardless. “We just ignored the abuses, and accepted the garlands,” they said. Word of this bright procession, in the darkness of communalism, spread and resonated in the area, a drop in the ocean of divisiveness and hate, but a drop nevertheless.

The torch bearer of this demonstration was Rehana, who has turned day into night, in working for the affected women, and for justice and equality. It is her motivation and single minded purpose that made the women come out of their homes, and raise the flag for equality and justice in an area where even an accidental push---as local citizens say---is converted into a communal incident.

Rehana has received death threats, been abused but continues her work regardless. Before the last Lok Sabha elections when violence came to stay in Muzaffarnagar, she along with other women was working for the empowerment of Muslim and other women by educating them about their rights within their own personal laws. Rehana herself was politically unaware, and just a housewife till her mid-20’s when she reached out to further educate herself, and came into contact with women’s organisations who trained her, and motivated her to join the struggle of women to empower themselves.

But as Rehana said, this movement has now given place to the present struggle for relief, for justice, in the wake of fear and insecurity created by the communal violence that rocked western UP at the time. She said with the wisdom of the true grassroot worker, “we tried to warn the women of the maulanas who took away their rights, but now after the communal violence, in the absence of the state relief, food, lodging all came from the same maulanas. Now we have to just keep quiet, as the struggle has turned from reforms within to the dangers without.” The empowerment of women has taken a completely back seat now.

As with this relief the maulana’s also come with the restrictions: do not let the women go out, do not send them to schools, they must all cover their heads. Rehana said that they had managed through hard work that Muslims girls did not drop out of schools. Now, she regrets, the conservatives are having their way and are making parents pull out their girls because of the prevailing environment in the area.

Rehana is aware of the increasing dangers for all peace loving people in the area. As she says, “we are here till we are here, we women support each other and that is how we keep going.” The desolate note changes to a bright, optimistic high as she chants the slogans that the women raised in their demonstration: “meeri behene maange azadi, meri maaen maange azadi, meri dadi maange azadi, meri nani maange azadi, hum lekar rehenge azadi……” positive that there will be a change for the better, and sense will prevail.