Women against fascism: Activist Shabnam Hashmi speaks on the Rani Chennamma campaign

Social activist Shabnam Hashmi is travelling the country with a campaign to invoke fearlessness among women to “fight the fascist regime,” in memory of Rani Chennamma who fought the British 200 years ago.
Shabnam Hashmi
Shabnam Hashmi
Written by:
Edited by:

Seated on a stage at the Kesari Hall in Thiruvananthapuram, Shabnam Hashmi engages with the guests on stage, welcomes a speaker who arrives late, picks up a dropped paper, and hands out the scores of pamphlets she brought with her from Delhi. A social activist and human rights campaigner for so long – more than four decades if you count the years – Shabnam continues to work like the volunteer she started out as, even as she heads an organisation like ANHAD and leads many movements of resistance across the country. On Saturday, March 9, she was in Kerala as part of a new campaign, ‘I too am Rani Chennamma’, to call upon women from across the country to fight the fascist forces ruling it. ANHAD along with 71 other organisations put the campaign together.

On the stage is a banner carrying a painting of Rani Chennamma, the queen of Kittur who led an armed struggle against the British 200 years ago, in her iconic pose of weaving a sword, ready to fight. It is that fearlessness that Shabnam and her team at ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy), an organisation that began as a response to the 2002 Gujarat riots, wish to invoke through the campaign, she tells TNM. On February 21, the campaign was launched in Kittur in Karnataka where 3,500 women turned up, and pledged that they too were Rani Chennammas.

“If she could fight the British, who were a lot more powerful, then why can’t we, as women, fight the fascist forces within the country. This is a call to women across India, to rise and fight against this regime and defeat them in the coming elections,” Shabnam says.

Seventy-two organisations in Kittur came together to make this happen, Shabnam says. "Especially Karnataka Rajya Mahila Dourjanya Virodhi Okkuta who immediately responded to the idea. Without them and a large number of activists, writers, and academics from Karnataka this wouldn’t have been possible."

Bringing women together

In Thiruvananthapuram on March 9, a Malayalam version of the Kittur declaration was released, which began with “We the women of India pledge to reclaim India.” A few women activists and orators joined the cause — Radhamani of Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, a 23-year-old block panchayat member from Palakkad named Sneha, Dalit activist Vineetha Vijayan, filmmaker activist Vidhu Vincent, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Geetha Nazeer, and Jyothi Vijayakumar of the Congress. They all spoke of the need to come together to fight the fascist forces, shared their angst of where the country was headed, and called on women to join the cause. 

Kittur declaration in Thiruvananthapuram
Kittur declaration in Thiruvananthapuram

“The idea [for the campaign] came after the Bharatiya Janata Party won three states (in the recent Assembly elections) and there was a feeling of despair all around. I have never given into being low. And I think it’s very important that activists don't let that happen, because a lot of people look up to them for what they’re doing. So we were thinking of what to do, and I thought we must do something centred around women,” Shabnam says. 

She joined hands with Annie Raja, a CPI leader she has often collaborated with in the past, and together they came up with the plan to invoke the memory of Rani Chennamma, who fought the British years before the more popular Rani of Jhansi. Annie, however, had to take leave when she was nominated as the Left’s candidate from Wayanad for the Lok Sabha elections. 

The task at hand was not easy. But Shabnam and her team came up with simple and straightforward methods to change people's prejudices about other communities, such as by getting them to visit each other and letting them see the reality for themselves.

How perspectives are changed

On August 15, ANHAD had launched a campaign (Mere Ghar Aa Ke To Dekho) along with other organisations across India for people to visit a family which is not of their respective religion, caste, region, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. “We were able to get 50,000 people to visit each other on August 15, and then another 50,000 more later on. As part of this program, we took 25 people to Kashmir. It was an experience that changed their perspectives. Just being together did that,” Shabnam says.

Another time, they got about 20 Patel women to go to Juhapura (a Muslim ghetto) in Ahmedabad and visit Muslim families. They spent a few hours there and came back and discussed how they did not find families with more than two children or with one husband and four wives, as is the narrative spread by communal forces. “The moment they go to the ground and see things for themselves, they realise that this is sheer propaganda,” Shabnam says.

For the Chennamma campaign, they decided to emulate an event that ANHAD had led in honour of Mahatma Gandhi in Porbandar, where they produced posters that people carried back with them and pasted across the districts of Gujarat. “We thought something like that could be done, calling upon women from across India to give out this message to defeat the communal forces. Getting permission for a program like this itself is an issue in India now. So we thought of focusing on opposition (non BJP-ruled) states,” Shabnam says. 

That is how they came to Kittur in Karnataka and decided to commemorate Chennamma. Posters, exhibitions, audio visuals, and songs were all put together. Women from all walks of life, from 15 states, showed up. Like in the Porbandar program, the women were encouraged to take the posters and messages back to their districts. 

Taking it forward

The event was replicated in Delhi in March. Thiruvananthapuram is the third venue. Shabnam also plans to take it to Allahabad, Rohtak, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kolkata, and Mumbai in the coming days. “This is my list but it might not happen, because ANHAD, for years now, has been surviving on personal donations. We don't have money to travel. If we are able to raise resources, it can happen or else have groups within the respective states take it forward,” she says.

Shabnam wants to make it clear that even though it is led by women, this is not a woman-oriented campaign. “This is about democracy, about secularism, about the rights of the farmers, of the workers, of women as well. It is also about scientific temper, about the universities, how the education system is being undermined and everything they've been trying to suppress. It is against authoritarianism and dictatorship and fascism.”

The campaign invokes fearlessness, since it is fear that the regime has been using to silence dissent — labels of anti-nationalism, arrests, court cases, jail sentences, and deaths. Shabnam says that the fascist forces they fight also feel intimidated in turn, when they realise that “we are not going to be intimidated no matter what they do.” 

Safdar Hashmi
Safdar HashmiCredit - youthikiawaaz / Wikipedia / fair use

As she talks to me, women stop by with words of solidarity and sharing memories of her brother Safdar Hashmi, the Communist playwright who was murdered during a street performance in Uttar Pradesh in 1989. Many still know her as the sister of Safdar, especially in Kerala, but she is used to that, she says. “He has become a symbol, and although it was a very cruel death, his martyrdom didn't go to waste. People do a lot of things in his memory,” she says.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute