Pinjra Tod: 4 Important Movement Building Lessons

After a notice declaring cancellations of nightouts was put up in Jamia Milia Islamia in 2015, a hosteller wrote a powerful letter to the Vice Chancellor and Pinjra Tod was born. After three years of resilient campaigning using some of the most rebellious tactics, the autonomous women’s collective has become a movement that has spread across the country, with women students from campuses across the nation are not just breaking the hostel locks and defying curfew rules, but seeking to change the face of university, raise questions on affordable and non-discriminatory accommodation for women students, and break the structural barriers to women’s access to higher education. Here are some key takeaways from Pinjra Tod’s fearless battle for other movements.

Decentralised organising & replicable approach works

Being an autonomous women’s group, Pinjra Tod’s has no single leader, the leadership is interdependent, and all students feel a part of the movement and there is a sense of equal ownership. In their democratic meetings and communication channels like Whatsapp, decisions are taken collectively, so that the narrative, the messaging and the politics of the movement stay on the same page and are not diluted.

With a narrative that is relatable to women students anywhere in the country, broader solidarities have been built through common struggles against surveillance, moral policing and discrimination. This has led to the approach being adopted and the movement gaining ground in various colleges and universities across the nation, including HNLU, BHU, RIEs (Bhopal, Ajmer, Bhubaneshwar), Panjabi University and Panjab University, CURAJ Rajasthan, IIT Roorkee, BITS Pilani, Kottayam Medical College. Women students from these colleges have gotten in touch with students in Delhi, expressing solidarity, discussing strategies and exchanging slogans and songs. Pinjra Tod has been able to facilitate women’s participation in student movements through the years, allowing women to assert themselves politically and devise forms and modalities that have allowed for more participation in the movement.

Use ingenious strategies and guerrilla tactics that leave a powerful impression

Pinjra Tod’s collectivity has been their source of strength. With lack of concrete response to letters and memorandums, the movement has consistently used rebellious tactics to draw attention and put collective pressure on universities and oppressive administrations to meet their demands. Some of their radical and effective strategies like a “chakka jam” (occupying a large traffic signal by making a human chain) are symbolic ways of showing the admin and common public what a hostel curfew that restricts movement truly feels like. They occupy the space for hours and hold it as a spot of victory, and demand that the proctor engage with them and address their demands. Female students have often climbed hostel gates or broken them collectively as a release of historical anger against being immobilised and infantilised. Students have taken to locking up the admin office and gates with locks from outside as a symbolic and a direct action form, calling out how they are locked up every night. These strategies have been replicated in campuses across the country by female students and indicative of the successful working of the movement. To defy curfew timings, women students march out in numbers for night marches as a visible protest form, inverting the logic of vulnerability on streets when alone and asking for accountability from colleges. They have even organized a ‘Library of Our Dreams’ outside Delhi University’s Central Library to call out the double standards of a 24x7 library.

Adapt tactics by assessing your risk and safety

The movement has been forced to carefully tread the thin line between anonymity and visibility. They’ve often had to poster at midnight inside hostels, or take to guerrilla tactics like graffiti on college gates, or gate climbing by students of a different college, refusing media interview, consciously not using certain images on social media to avoid students being recognized as taking part in protests and blackmailed by the administration or family. Knowing the nature of their high-intense protests like the chakka jam where police manhandling is involved, Pinjra Tod assesses risk and participation of students and assigns them roles accordingly. They also conduct protests and jams strategically after 6.30pm as the police cannot arrest them. To tackle constant surveillance, women students have covered CCTV cameras with dupattas.

Allies expand the scope of your movement

Some of Pinjra Tod’s key allies have been students who aren’t direct stakeholders or living in hostels — women across ages who they meet while campaigning and share stories from their own college days about organising in similar ways, as well as other student movements and queer groups. Their event ‘Humara Mohalla’ has helped them organise students living in the informal rental economy, where harassment (sexual and otherwise based on ethnicity and religion) and money extortion are much more rampant. By doing so they have been able to push the University to recognise that the question about non-discriminatory and affordable accommodation is linked centrally to the question of the condition under which women students are able to study, and how it marks the deprioritization of women’s education.

by Abhishek Desai - Communications Manager, Haiyya

The story was published as a part of The Social Action Messenger (SAM), a curated social change bulletin by Haiyya, a grassroots campaigning, non-profit based in New Delhi, India. The new initiative is a one-stop platform with the aim of organizing, analyzing and transforming the social change ecosystem in India and South Asia. It’s a one-stop platform for different social change groups, changemakers and organisations in the social justice space to gather learnings and strategies, and apply them on-ground for bigger wins! Subscribe here to get your free copy!