Biscuits, water and volunteers to control traffic: At Lucknow’s Ghanta Ghar, help flows in for women’s sit-in

“This administration is not respecting women who are protesting peacefully. The policemen beat up the men who were near the protest site, while they misbehaved with us. They said they will beat us up after taking off our burqa. This is not how the police should behave with peaceful protesters," a protester said.

The road leading to Ghanta Ghar in old Lucknow is bustling with traffic at 1:30 pm on Saturday. A set of youth volunteers are controlling the traffic “so that common people don’t suffer” because of the protest. On one side is the Mughal era Satkhanda watchtower, while on the other side is the Rumi gate. Ghanta Ghar has witnessed a sit-in by women who are opposing the CAA-NRC and NPR since January 17.

A rope is in place to divide onlookers from the protest and there are several volunteers who are keeping a check on who enters the protest site. “Our aim is to identify people who may indulge in mischief at the protest, and hence, we are screening the men who are wandering around the protest site,” says a volunteer (26), who did not wish to be identified due to “fear of police action”.

Speaking to The Indian Express a day before she was arrested on Saturday, Pooja Shukla (25), who is a student of Women’s Studies at Lucknow University and is also part of the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, is leaving the protest site around midnight. She says that the protest is being led by common women of Lucknow. “I am here merely in solidarity. All the arrangements are being made by locals who live in the vicinity,” says Shukla, who had gone to jail for showing black flags to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in 2017. Shukla has also been named in the FIR lodged Saturday under relevant IPC sections including 147 (rioting). A total of three FIRs have been lodged by police with regard to the protest at Ghanta Ghar.

A group of lawyers, donning black coats, have gathered outside the protest site on Saturday. “We are here to see what is happening. We provide free legal help to people who are being detained by police for protesting in a democratic manner. All we want is for peace to prevail,” says a 32-year-old Lucknow High Court lawyer, who said the lawyers have collectively decided to not reveal their names to the media.

A group of women raising slogans of “azadi” say that since the protest has started, they are juggling household work and the protest. “There are three women in our house, and we take turns to come to the protest,” says Uzma Parveen (23), holding her six-month-old son on her lap.

Parveen goes on to claim that police on Saturday “misbehaved” with women protesters and entered the protest area where only women sit. “This administration is not respecting women who are protesting peacefully. The policemen beat up the men who were near the protest site, while they misbehaved with us. They said they will beat us up after taking off our burqa. This is not how the police should behave with peaceful protesters,” said Parveen on Saturday, while holding her six-month-old son at the protest site. Parveen is doing a course to become a librarian.

Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police Vikas Chandra Tripathi denied the allegation and said it was “not true”. “No such incident happened where women were abused. Whatever action police has taken has been recorded on video. If anyone has any video of policemen misbehaving, they should present the video to police and we will take action,” said Tripathi.

A group of children have gathered near the protest site holding roses. “We are going to give these roses to the policemen. We are extending our love to the police uncles,” says a 13-year-old girl. The policemen refused to accept the roses and ask the children and women accompanying them to go back to the protest site.

Mujahid Khan (30), who has a construction business in Chowk, is walking in with 500 packets of glucose biscuits and 200 bottles of water. “I am doing my bit for the women fighting for our country,” says Mujahid, who is accompanied by his business associate Zain (25). Mujahid hands over the food and water to his wife who is part of the protest.

Another person, who runs a restaurant in the area and did not want to be identified, has brought 150 bags of biryani from his restaurant. “Jiski jitni aukaat hai, who utni madad kar raha hai (Depending on our financial position, people are extending help to the protesters),” says the 49-year-old man, clad in a leather jacket and blue jeans. “Some are bringing tea, while some are just doing their bit by sweeping the floors,” adds the 49-year-old.

A group of female policemen sitting near the protest site are talking among themselves. One of the women cops says, “Our duty is to ensure the safety of the women here and we are doing that. We have been told to keep an eye for people who might ruin the atmosphere here. Everyone is doing their bit.”

Seen at the protest on Saturday, Sadaf Jafar. “When I was in Delhi recently, someone asked me if something like Shaheen Bagh [protest] can happen in Lucknow. The next day, I came to Lucknow and this protest had started. I came here straightaway and since then, I have been spending my nights here. I go home around 5 every morning,” Sadaf says while standing with a few people from the vicinity.

“I am not doing much. All I am doing is that I am trying to ensure that no violence happens at the site and the protest is completely peaceful,” says Sadaf, who has two children – a son in class 7 and a daughter in class 10. Jafar is a Congress spokesperson and an activist and has also worked as a translator for a news channel. Sadaf has been a teacher of history at several schools in Lucknow. Sadaf was the only woman who was arrested on December 19 while she was doing a Facebook ‘Live’ from Parivartan Chowk. She was released on bail on January 7.

On Saturday afternoon around 2 pm, Sumaiya Rana (40), who is the daughter of poet Munnawar Rana, and has been booked by police for rioting and other charges after the sit-in started, says that she did not start the protest. “The call for the protest has gone viral on social media. People are reading these messages and participating in the sit-in. It is difficult to point out who is behind the protest. I feel it is the common people who are leading it, while me and some others are just guiding them keep the protest civil. Some women are here from NGOs and help groups. We are merely guiding them,” says Sumaiyya, who is a freelance journalist and claims to have worked with many prominent media organisations. Sumaiyya has three children – two daughters aged 20 and 16 and a son aged 18. “We have support from our husbands and families. Sometimes, our children also come for the protest,” says Sumaiyya.

A flag-hoisting ceremony is scheduled for Sunday at 11 am on the occasion of Republic day at Ghanta Ghar where “women will hoist the flag”.

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