Three Years of Pinjra Tod – A Conversation with Two Activists at Jamia

  • September 7, 2018

Today marks the third anniversary of Pinjra Tod, an autonomous women’s collective started by students new to Delhi, which, amongst other things, fights for secure, affordable, non-restrictive and non gender-discriminatory housing! GroundXero spoke to two Pinjra Tod activists at Jamia Millia Islamia about the current struggles there, its longer history, the broader political climate on campus, their negotiation of gender and space, and their personal trajectories with the organisations.


Pinjra Tod as a movement came into public view with two salient moves. One, the movement challenged the curfew rules for women students in the hostels first in the Delhi-NCR region, and then, nationally. It wasn’t that such rules and their arbitrariness hadn’t bothered women students in India for generations. But, they were rarely attacked and made visible in the organized ways in which Pinjra Tod has attempted to do ever since its coming into being. Two, the movement brought onto the fore a complicated critique of Hindutva’s gender politics through slogans such as “We Won’t Mother India.”


Inside college campuses, as in the rest of the society, the ways in which we experience both space and time are almost always predicated on our genders. Through their demands of re-organizing the spaces inside college campuses (demanding more lights on the streets, or starting women’s football on campus, for instance) and making time more gender neutral (re-formulation of the curfew hours for women students in the hostels), Pinjra Tod has succeeded in addressing issues that had often not been adequately addressed by other left-democratic, progressive student organizations and movements in India. In the landscape of post-Lyngdoh Commission student politics in India, which has constrained the historically important space for union politics on Indian campuses, Pinjra Tod has often played a crucial role.


It has also provided a very empowering space for young women new to the city, often living away from home for the first time, to come together and envision different ways of inhabiting it. Pinjra Tod activists have been a part of the broader women’s movement in the country, and worked in solidarity with different struggles – from protesting the brutal rape of Asifa Bano, to joining rallies of workers in Gurgaon.


GroundXero spoke to Pinjra Tod activists Muntaha Amin and Sabah Maharaj from Jamia Millia University, where Pinjra Tod has recently led successful struggles against restrictive rules for women on campus. At the end of the previous academic year their protests won an extension of the curfew from 8pm to 10:30pm, greater accessibility of hostel premises, reading room and common room in every hostel with 24 hour accessibility, improvement in food quality, removal of rule that requires 24 hour prior ‘permission’ for taking ‘leave’, immediate release of promised refunds of various hostel charges and a guarantee that no disciplinary action will be taken on students involved in the protest. Some of these, including the curfew timings were then again quietly scaled back over the summer break. Since campus re-opened last month, there have been fresh protests.


Often within social movements, where there is a need to speak in a collective voice, the individual experiences of activists are lost. Often lost from popular perceptions of the social movements is the fact that a social movement is not a homogenous space. Our interviews with Muntaha and Sabah, we hope, contribute towards a fuller understanding of a diversity in opinions and experiences within Pinjra Tod.


After finishing her BA in English literature from Ramjas college, Delhi University, Muntaha is pursuing her Masters in Mass Communication at Jamia, and has been a part of Pinjra Tod since February. Sabah has been involved with Pinjra Tod in Jamia from when she started her BA in Sociology there in 2015. She is currently pursuing her MA in the same subject at Jawaharlal Nehru University. GroundXero (gX) interviewed Muntaha (M) over email in July, and Sabah (S) over the phone in August – we publish an edited compilation of the two conversations, arranged thematically.


Protests at Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU) led to the curfew there being temporarily removed last week


The current struggle at Jamia Millia Islamia, and how Pinjra Tod started there


gX: Can you provide us with a brief overview of the struggle at Jamia?

Muntaha: In 2015 Jamia hostel released a notice cancelling late nights and in response to that, Priyanka Ishwari, a student then, wrote an open letter to the VC registering protest against this discriminatory rule. She, along with some other people went around and posted copies of that letter with highlighted texts in the rooms of all the women students and mobilisation like this then continued throughout the year. This was the time when women were not even allowed to talk about issues faced by them and it was a period of utmost repression and censorship of so many kinds in the campus. There was a huge furor created by the letter and the mobilisation campaigns that followed it. There was also the Occupy UGC movement going around. Cultures of protest were in the air. Then Pinjra Tod’s Jan Sunvayi happened. Pinjra tod did some sessions in the reading halls, movie screenings in the hostel , reclaiming spaces, asserting women’s presence and from there the movement gained momentum and also gathered support from more and more women. The warden confiscated the movie projector and things and after that women were not allowed to even hold meetings in the hostel .They got in touch with Delhi Commission for women (DCW) and DCW sent notices to Jamia administration against the discriminatory hostel rules. Pinjra Tod kept meeting in the campus. In 2016, women were ridiculed and intimidated in the proctor’s office when they had asked permission for a women’s march in the campus. So there actually was no space for women then, to come out and assert themselves but gradually things kept changing with their relentless resistance, posters were made, with mobilisation campaigns conducted in a very careful way etc and the rest is history.


gX: Could you say something about what the present organising is about, and share your perspective on it? Since classes are starting now [and have started since we spoke], and you are again agitating around the curfew for women, what are the things you are calling for in the present round of protests?

Sabah: Our primary demand is around curfews, but that is something we have centred our other arguments around. For instance in Jamia, if you extended the curfew till 10:30 and agreed to our demands, then we will fight for it [if it is rolled back by you]. But that’s related to other demands we are making: the internal complaints cell must be activated, it must be open to students, there must be more lighting on the streets, and generally to make the campus more accessible and welcoming to women students. So that is something we have always posited as a demand, not just, you know, … processes accessible to students. So that is definitely one aspect. We are constantly articulating our demands around the curfew, and why it is so necessary to remove it.…


At a Pinjra Tod protest in Jamia this March

gX: So since you gestured towards other demands, could you speak about the challenges you face in organising around gender related issues more broadly? What are the obstacles?

S: In Jamia itself?


gX: Ya, in Jamia.

S: It has varied a lot over the past three years, from when it started initially. Pinjra Tod had started from Jamia when a group of students had written a letter to the VC, questioning the removal of the ‘late-nights’ that were given to us. So since Jamia is a minority institution there is a huge amount of surveillance. It’s a very militarised zone. Like you’ll find ex-army officers patrolling, and more generally the policing that goes around – in terms of what people are saying, what issues are being talked about, … So in 2015 when I started in Jamia, it was very very different. There was no critical activity as such allowed in campus, there were no political groups active, and even when we were doing Pinra Tod initially, we would do our best to hide our identities. To prevent other students from knowing who it was, because we were so unsure about how it would be received.


gX: How has Jamia’s status as a “minority institution” influenced the current movement?

M: See after the minority reservations, Jamia became inclusive in different senses. Muslims ( who are marginalized in this country and the literacy rate was quite low) got to join a central university from different parts of the country. There are separate reservations for Muslim OBCs and Muslim Women. Inclusion of more women changed the demography of the Institution . And since there are a majority of Muslim women in the university, the mobilisation and collectivisation included many internal discussions about issues being faced by the community at large in this country and Muslim women in particular.


At the March protest in Jamia


The overall campus political climate


gX: Could you give one or two examples to further illustrate the kind of militarised campus that you are speaking of, for example the army officers on campus?

S: So they are ex-army officers – they were previously in the army and now they are employed as guards. Alongside that there’s always police around on campus, and when students are protesting they are beaten up. Even if we’re doing an event on campus, there’s always a plainclothes policeman.


gX: Could you comment on what the current state of this overall political scene is? Like what you were saying about the broader political changes opening up other possibilities for you, what are the groups that you see are aligning with or at odds with your project? Like the student union or other formations.

S: So firstly Jamia doesn’t have a union as such. Our union was banned I think 10 years ago, this is why … But somehow in the past two years it’s been a space where pretty much a lot of different groups have been asserting their politics, in terms of their gender, in terms of their Muslim identity and how they feel persecuted, and then there’s left groups as well – and obviously these, like, how it works with Pinjra Tod is that people do express their solidarity …


gX: Comment a little bit on the overall state of political activism on campus?

M: Student’s Union has been banned. There still are parties like AISA, NSUI, DISSC, ABVP, YUVA, SIO, MSF, JSF, DISSO but they are not official because there is no Union. There are demands and protests from time to time no doubt but I don’t see minds(in the campus overall) that are politically aware and active and there is no sensitisation over issues of gender, caste, class, race at all.


At Jamia


gX: Where does Pinjra Tod fall within the map of campus activism at Jamia? Have other non-PT activists been supportive of the movement?

M: Yes, Comrades from AISA and a few other other student parties have been quite supportive. Conservative people are very insecure, some have called Pinjra Tod ‘Iblees ka ghadh’ (Devils hole). It is quite funny [laughs].
Toxic Masculinities have been threatened which is quite interesting and toxic men have become quite insecure and have threatened counter campaigns from time to time. After the March Curfew Victory, there was this video of women’s responses to the victory and some men had morphed the video and dubbed it with the sound of an extremely vulgar sound clip. That was outrageous!. It is a long long fight.


gX: Other than your status as a Pinjra Tod activist, are you politically active on campus?

M: In solidarity with well-meaning initiatives, protests, yes.


gX: What has been the status of the university student union in this particular struggle?

M: As I said, it has been banned and despite a lot of struggle and also a hunger strike recently which went on for days to demand the union, we have seen nothing materializing.


gX: What do you think Pinjra Tod can achieve that a more formal students’ union can’t?

M: Since it is an all-women’s group, there can be sensitisation amongst women, listening to each other’s anxieties stemming out of years of repression, discussions, spreading awareness, collectivising and mobilizing to fight our own battles. Basically an assertion: women can fight their own battles and liberate themselves.


Pinjra Tod activists prepare posters for a protest this March


Gender and Space


gX: What are the challenges of organizing specifically around issues of gender (especially women and space) on campus?

M: Well there was a time in Jamia when Pinjra Tod people had to hide their faces, campaigns happened in a hush hush way, pamphlets were distributed and carried in between books, notebooks. Women’s demand for fundamental rights has always been met with “aur kitni aazadi chaiye?” The imagination of the larger campus including the administration, when it comes to women’s issues, is redundant and very very regressive. Equal rights to women, it seems, is very hard to imagine for them.


At an exhibition organised by Pinjra Tod in Arts Faculty, Delhi University on Savitri Bai Shahadat Diwas this year


gX: As outsiders, we have felt that a big part of Pinjra Tod activism has revolved around the issues of women’s access to spaces – especially educational spaces. How have you felt the centrality of this vexed issue of women and space (both public and private) in your personal, political and student life?

M: After coming to Delhi for my Bachelors, I got to attend all kinds of seminars, events, festivals, public meetings, discussions with friends over chai on footpaths, in canteens, post seminars, over lunches, in college, in college societies, other clubs, the gender forum. Going to other universities for talks, lectures and understanding the importance of freedom, accessibility and mobility has also been key. Freedom of navigating through all the spaces in, around, and outside the University helped me realize how important public spaces, freedom, mobility, and access are for our personal and political growth, especially as women. Otherwise we will remain repressed, will think flying is an illness and never even realize that we are being denied any of our basic fundamental rights to live and exist without fear, intimidation, and coercion.

S: So I’ll narrate an incident from my first year, when I came to Jamia, I had learnt there was an 8pm curfew, and initially I’d felt resentful as it curtailed my freedom. But gradually I felt maybe it was ok, maybe it was justified, given [I was new to Delhi, and] how the city is projected as being really really dangerous, blah blah blah. At that juncture I met people who had similar thoughts as I’d had previously, and discussions with them made me realise that this was a violation. And this was the kind of violation that … in a way it’s violent, you are restricting a huge number of the student population, curbing their freedom, putting them under locks and keeping them away, denying them access to the city. So understanding that itself got me going as a person … both my personal journey and being part of movements … it has received flak from some of my professors, other professors have supported me as well. Some professors would say things like – “Don’t do this. Why are you ruining the name of the university?” So for me politically and as a student it has been a good experience.

Poster for an event protesting discriminatory housing conditions faced by students studying in Delhi University North Campus colleges


Pinjra Tod members postering for the event



The collective and individual experience


gX: Can you talk a little bit about your own journey as a Pinjra Tod activist (e.g. what made you join Pinjra Tod, and whether a specific incident played a role in your decision)?

M: I used to follow Pinjra Tod during my Bachelors at college in North Campus as well, however I was not a part of the movement, neither was I active in any way. I had seen some late night hostel protests around Kamla Nagar and then I had started reading about it and its dreams. Bachelors for me was full of many mental upheavals and the course (English Literature) was quite hectic. I didn’t feel like I had time, mental clarity and stability to join a movement so actively back then but I appreciated the work these women were doing.
After graduating from Ramjas College, D.U and coming to Jamia for my Masters, I was very disillusioned to see how depoliticized the campus was and how the sensitivity towards issues of caste, class, gender was almost non-existent. Also I really didn’t gel well with anyone around me. No one was talking about things that mattered. There was just toxic judgemental gossip and jokes full of sexist, classist, casteist slurs and that was the idea of fun and hanging out for the people around me, and whenever I pointed out how wrong these seemingly harmless jokes were, I was told to be not so serious all the time, why so sensitive, etc etc. Therefore I had no friends and I stopped socializing altogether. Every day it seemed like there was no meaning to anything around me and my first semester was the most isolated time I spent. In the second semester, I met some people from Pinjra Tod. We had almost the same politics and became friends within no time, with really the cause joining us, and there were all the meaningful conversations. Then the rest is history, the public meetings, hostel protests, our unprecedented victory of curfew extension in March. There was no going back. I met the bestest women I know, most supportive, most friendly, loving, pushing you forward in life, in the Pinjra Tod collective of Delhi.


gX: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say, or you think is important to highlight in a piece?
S: I think there is a lot of the fear that this curfew inadvertently instills in us, that is kind of terrifying, and it effects, for one, one’s mental health a lot. In a way, being a part of the movement was a big boon, like as a way to, as an act of expressing one’s frustration with the existing structure and how it binds one down.


Muntaha and Sabah (L to R) setting up an event on International Working Women’s day in Jamia Millia Islamia


All photos are courtesy Pinjra Tod.

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