A photograph from the women’s protest at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, is reproduced across over 100 textile flaps that make up a radical costume; the women’s faces are anonymised. The performer in the costume takes a step, then gracefully inverts. As she walks on her hands, the costume flips to momentarily reveal the original, un-redacted image.
Visibility and anonymity – for protesters, both are essential. The body must be present to occupy space, while individual anonymity is necessary for protection against arbitrary or extrajudicial coercion. Across all regime types around the world, campaigners for social and environmental justice are threatened through defamation and fake news and arrested on trumped-up charges. The same media platforms that enable new forms of collective action also leave protestors vulnerable to state or corporate surveillance and mob trolling.
How can protestors balance their need for visibility and anonymity? This was one of the central questions of Artefacts of Resistance: Creating Archives of Transnational Protest Movements, an interdisciplinary project that brought together urban geographers and artists around some significant recent protests in India.
The concept costume Not in Pieces by Manu Luksch addresses the protestors’ dilemma. A dress that transforms through movement, Not in Pieces is constructed from an image taken by activist Apeksha Priyadarshini at the Shaheen Bagh protest. In December 2019, Modi’s government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which extended Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who had fled to India before 2015. A National Register was implemented, requiring all Indians to provide documentary evidence of residence and Indian ancestry. The CAA attracted global criticism and was labelled ‘fundamentally discriminatory’ by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Student protests followed; their brutal crackdown by police mobilised women, many of them homemakers, to come out in peaceful support, standing up for their children’s rights and demanding that the Act be revoked. In their thousands, organised but without a leader, they staged a sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, causing traffic blockage for months. The protest inspired women in other large Indian cities, and exposed new possibilities for the political use of public space.
Proponents of CAA spread fake news that portrayed women at Shaheen Bagh as paid protesters. In a sting video shot in a small shop in Delhi, a young man is heard claiming that the women had been paid by the Congress party to demonstrate. Broadcast and print media amplified this claim without fact-checking, with the result that the voice of a single man – who is not even visible in the video – undermined the credibility and impact of a protest by thousands of women.
Not in Pieces was conceived by Manu Luksch for Artefacts of Resistance: Creating Archives of Transnational Protest Movements – a collaboration with Srilata Sircar (India Institute, King’s College London), Ufaque Paikar (Ashoka University), Mukul Patel (emergence.is), and Raktim Ray (University College London).
Video installation: in production
Performance artist: Natalie Reckert
With thanks to Yukika Taylor, Jenny Matthews