India: from women’s unity to unity against fascism

Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha and Devangana Kalita

Women in India have been playing an increasingly prominent and vocal role in the farmers’ protests that have swept the country over the last year. Female farmers from rural states have been among those who massed outside the capital New Delhi in March to demand the repeal of three laws that would destroy their livelihoods. They are part of a growing mobilisation of women workers and students in India over the last few years, as NOOR ZAHEER ABBAS reports.

In September 2015, more than 12,000 tea plantation workers went on strike in Kerala. The strike was a rare event in the history of labour resistance anywhere in the world. The strikers demanded an increase in daily wages from R232 to R500, a 20% annual bonus, and an improvement in welfare measures. More significant was the fact that the strike was entirely organised and led by women, who constitute around 70% of the tea plantation labour force, and that they completely kept out the trade unions. Confronting the huge multinational plantation company and the controlling trade unions, these women protesters coined a term that was soon became a slogan echoed in other parts of India: Pembillai Orumai – Women’s Unity.

The Kerala tea estates were owned by Tata Tea Limited who formed the Kannan Deval Hills Plantations Company in 2005 and transferred 70% of shares to stakeholders, making it the largest employee-owned company in the world. However, the new company suspended welfare measures they were obliged to provide under the plantation labour act of 1951 and for ten years rejected the demand for a wage increase.

The strike began on 5 September 2015 and initially ended after eight days, with the company agreeing to pay a 20% annual bonus, and promising that the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) would discuss the wage issue. But PLC failed to keep its promise and the strike resumed on 28 September.  At the same time, the publicity around the Pembillai Orumai triggered other strikes and protests across the tea belt of Kerala during the last half of September that year.

Remarkable about this all-women workers’ strike was not only that it happened outside the trade unions but managed to keep the recognised and official unions out. Three different trade unions attempted to interject themselves into the events and then to divide the striking women but they did not succeed.

Barely six months later, in April 2016, more than 100,000 women workers in the garment industry took to the streets in a spontaneous protest against the new ordinance on the Employees’ Provident Fund by central government. They blocked all the roads bringing the city of Bangalore in south India to a standstill and forcing central government to withdraw the ordinance.

This protest was considered across India as a victory for workers’ rights, and women’s ability to flash organise a successful strike. The response of the state law enforcement machinery has been to target women workers, use brutal force and create an atmosphere of fear. But the women were not cowed and remained united and determined. The strike lasted for only two days but it benefited hundreds of thousands of workers across India.

Pinjra Tod or ‘Break the Cage’ began in August 2015 after an anonymous open letter was written by an alumna of Jamia Milia Islamia University (Delhi) strongly protesting the cancellation of the right of female students to go for hostel night outs. This letter sparked thoughts, debates and discussions across universities in India and became a movement to fight misogyny and discriminatory rules within colleges and universities. Hostels for female students were locked up at dusk while male students rarely had curfew timings. In a short time, the movement resulted in many hostels easing restrictions for female students. However, taking advantage of the transient nature of a movement based on students, the institutional authorities were quick to roll back the reforms. This prompted members of the group to form the Pinjra Tod collective which broadened its work to addressing racism, casteism and Islamophobia. The latter issue has again focused attention on the collective after it answered a call for solidarity from Muslim women demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens  (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) introduced by the right-wing BJP government of Narendra Modi.

The CAA was passed on 11 December 2019, and the Muslim women’s protest began four days later with a peaceful sit-in in Delhi that lasted until 24 March 2020, when the Covid-19 lockdown forced it to end. The women blocked a major road at Shaheen Bagh for 24 hours a day. Their protest inspired similar actions in cities and towns across the country.

In February 2020 police began to use force to disrupt the protests. The Pinjra Tod collective responded to an urgent call to organise a solidarity action for women in Jafferabad, a suburb of Delhi. In May, police arrested two Pinjra Tod activists, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, and charged them with causing religious tension and riots.

A right-wing, repressive regime learns fast. While the earlier two strikes had been successful, the protests by Muslim women have been crushed and in addition the Pinjra Tod Collective has been intimidated. Its two activists have now been released on bail, but Natasha Narwal lost her father while in prison. Meanwhile, any protests against CAA, NRC and NPR have been dispersed on the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions.   

The Indian government’s strategy is to alternately ignore and then crack down on the farmers’ mobilisations in 2021. It is not succeeding. The worker, the farmer, the deprived and the have-nots also learn with every agitation and protest. They have patience, resolve and grit on their side. It is the organised Left and the Trade Unions that have to work to devise new tactics and develop new strategies that would be effective in making both the political players and their multi-national industrialist supporters understand that nothing moves without the worker, the farmer and the woman.


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 284, October/November 2021