I cried when I read about little 8-year-old Asifa. I cried when I read about the Unnao rape. I cried as me…I cried as a parent shattered at the horrors meted out to my child…I cried as a woman grieving the violation of my very being…I cried as a nation mourning the loss of its innocence…

On Friday 13 April 2018 I stood in solidarity with friends and strangers at the iconic Azad Maidan. History tells us that Mohandas Gandhi addressed one of his biggest ever freedom rallies here in 1931 – a rally to demand azaadi, independence from subjugation and dehumanisation.

We had assembled at Azad Maidan from Mumbai and Kalyan with two purposes – to voice our grief at the brutal rape and murder of Asifa Bano in Kathua, and to demand justice for girls and women who were being increasingly sexually brutalised in India. A vocal and agitated crowd raised slogans, spoke to reporters, and made our presence felt as people passed by on their way home from work. We demanded azaadi from rape, molestation, communalism, violence, gender subjugation, and other forms of oppression.

On Monday 16 April 2018, three of us friends and colleagues walked from Ghas Bazaar to the ACP’s office in Kalyan with a crowd that stretched for almost half a kilometre. A silent protest organised by different Muslim organisations, the discipline and participation was wonderful. For one and a half hour we walked in near silence, in solidarity. While chatting with two seniors, they asked where I came from. When I mentioned the local Church, they were touched deeply. Clasping my hands they thanked me; returning the double handshake, I spoke what we felt: no need for thanks, Asifa is my daughter as much as yours, she is insaaniya ki beti, not just of one religion or community.

On Friday 20 April 2018, in conversation with three youth, I discovered that despite my extensive use of emails and social media, they were ignorant of both protests, and almost ignorant of the reasons for the protests.

One of them explained why he didn’t believe in protests: “I feel that those who protest will go and do the same thing.” I was stunned for a moment! What? Could you repeat that? So you’re saying that I will kidnap a little eight-year-old girl, brutally rape and murder her, and throw her body away? “No, no…not you. I know you!” was the reply. Huh? So if you did NOT know me, THAT is what you would have believed about me, that is what you believe of all those with whom I stood and protested!

What disturbs me when such protests occur is not so much this opinion (horrendous as it might be) but the fact that so few turn out for these protests! Do we really have to wait for our own to be brutalised before realising the need to stand in solidarity? Why does the institutional Church content itself with issuing a statement, and not motivate its people to get onto the streets to join organised protests for justice? In the weeks following those two protests, the Church in Mumbai organised rallies – WITHIN the sanctity of the church compound, safe rallies, without the anguish and emotion of the street protests. I did not see a single statement being made to encourage participation in public protests!

I remember when churches in the Dangs were being burned way back in 1998. Protests were organised, and at one, attended by people of all faiths, supported by trade unions, the CPI (M), and women’s groups, we were arrested and jailed for obstructing the peace! When we get supported by people of different faiths at such protests, do we not have the heart and conscience to reciprocate when a little eight-year-old girl is raped and killed? Do we not find it in ourselves to move beyond our security and comfort to the strength of solidarity? Does our faith, a social movement from its inception by its revolutionary leader, not teach us that standing for the truth, speaking for justice, supporting the oppressed, even at the cost of our social security and perhaps life, is essential?

A public protest, by its very nature, is energising and unifying. At the many I have attended from the age of 17, I have met strangers and become friends, we have discovered horizons of thought that broadened our own thinking, we have realised that the power of the few gathered or marching on streets has immense capability to motivate change.

It is a strange feeling – bodily almost. People who are quiet suddenly discover a strength of voice when they get caught up in catchy slogans and the cause. People who are crowd-shy suddenly discover the joy of being in a crowd that doesn’t put the spotlight on you but that includes you in its cohesive angst.

A public protest catapults you from the narrowness of religion and community into the open streets of a country in turmoil, where you realise how deeply you are affected by the cause for which you have gathered. A chance reporter gives you an opportunity to speak your mind. We learn so much of what is happening around us, in our country. And we thirst for change, for a country that will respect and tolerate and live in peace.

I cannot understand a Church that limits itself to the safety of its parochial walls for staid rallies and sedate talks when our children are being raped and murdered, when our Dalits are being oppressed and marginalised, when our forests and trees are being destroyed, when our brothers and sisters are murdered over food habits…there is no honour in those rallies and talks, erudite as they might be.

There is power on the streets, power in the protests, power in the public marches…and as long as I have the energy, I will be there when needed!

-Suren Abreu


[This will shortly be published in the Prophetic Voice, monthly magazine of the CPCI based in Bengaluru.]