Indian women activists have forged pioneering paths through dominant narratives this year, daring to speak out frankly despite the consequences they knew they would follow. Their moments of dissent were seen as acts of courage by some and acts of radicalism by others, but at the same time it has become quite impossible to deny that these activists – whatever their opinions – have the courage to ask questions and be heard in a society that has traditionally sidelined women’s voices.
All of these women were confronted with police action in a year marked by women leading various frontline protests, including the one that lasted all year around the nation’s capital. The women present at the farmers’ protest were by no means silent actors and played a vital role in escalating agitation against farm laws, which were ultimately repealed.
The activists who made headlines in 2021 ranged across ages, from a very young Disha Ravi to senior leader Sudha Bharadwaj. Here are some women you should know.
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Indian activists who made headlines in 2021:
1. Sudha Bharadwaj
Senior activist Sudha Bharadwaj put on a dazzling smile when she was released from prison after three years in December this year, after being released on bail by the Bombay High Court. Her viral photo drew cheers on social media, with netizens hailing her as an example of standing up for the truth despite harsh consequences.
She was among many high-level speakers and thinkers who faced police actions in 2018 following the violence in Bhima-Koregaon, which authorities say were prompted by speeches made by those leaders. Stan Swamy, who was also charged with the Serious Illegal Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) alongside Bharadwaj in the same case, died in prison this year.
2. Natasha Narwal
One of two Pinjra Tod activists (the other being Devangana Kalita) to be arrested in the context of the Delhi riots of February 2020, Natasha Narwal, has been touted as a symbol of resistance for the trip that ‘she plotted this year. The student activist was arrested in May last year on multiple charges from the UAPA.
For a year, she remained in prison, obtaining a brief provisional release in May 2021 following the death of her father, the top Communist leader Mahavir Narwal. In a viral last rites photo, Narwal was seen bidding her father a final farewell, dressed in a PPE kit. She, along with Kalita and a third activist Asif Iqbal Tanha, was released on bail by the Delhi High Court in June.
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3. Masrat Zahra
Photojournalist Masrat Zahra is one of Kashmir’s best-known personalities in her field of work, notable for highlighting the everyday realities of the people of the valley, for which she has also regularly won awards. Last year she won the prestigious Anja Niedringhaus Courage and Peter Mackler Awards for ethical journalism.
In 2021, she shocked complaints assault on both parents by police in Jammu and Kashmir. She added photos which supposedly showed her father with bruises from the alleged beating. Zahra, a staunch critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its military policy in Kashmir, called the alleged assault “a tactic to pressure her and silence her”. Read here.
4. Disha Ravi
The country’s most famous young activist this year, Disha Ravi is a climate change activist from Bangalore and was part of the group that founded the Indian chapter of the advocacy group Fridays For Future. At 22, she became the face of youth resilience when she was arrested during the farmers’ protest in February.
Ravi has been accused of being involved in the distribution of an alleged “toolbox” linked to agrarian unrest around the nation’s capital. The said document was also shared by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and sparked an outcry for its allegedly inflammatory content accused of misleading farmers. Ravi’s arrest was internationally condemned and she was released after a few days of detention.
5. Sabbah Haji
A renowned educator in Jammu and Kashmir, Sabbah Haji is the principal of a public school in Haji that her family has founded and run for over a decade. His efforts to enhance the well-being of students in the Kashmir conflict zone have been recognized both locally and nationally.
Recently, reports have surfaced claiming that Haji is facing prosecution for allegedly labeling Indian Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat who perished in a fatal helicopter crash earlier this year. this month, of “war criminal” by sharing a post on social networks. She was released on bail and her family school, in a statement, distanced herself from her comments. Read here.