Amaravati: Women on the Frontlines
Written by Vaishnavi Pallapothu
In 2014, the state of Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into two states: Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. While Hyderabad was declared the joint capital for 10 years, Andhra Pradesh began its search for a new one. Once the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was elected, Chandrababu Naidu served as the first chief minister for the new (residual) Andhra Pradesh. Naming the nascent city as Amaravati after an ancient village in the Satavahana dynasty, the new capital was set to comprise of several villages on the banks of the Krishna river and was chosen as it was located at the geographical center of the state. Envisioned as a planned city with approximately 50% of green space, Amaravati was set to be designed and planned with the help of consultants from the government of Singapore. It was set to be built around sustainability measures, incorporating futuristic and international elements, inspired by and modeled after the highly developed Singapore.
After the YSR Congress Party was elected in the state elections in 2019, a change in administration resulted in changed plans. On December 17, 2019, Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy, announced that Andhra Pradesh would have three capitals. While Amaravati will become the legislative capital, Kurnool will be the judicial capital and Vishakapatnam (Vizag) will be the executive capital. This decision meant that the primary capital functions and powers would be shifted to Vizag, diluting the status of Amaravati and, by extension, halting development. As of today, the many dreams lie shattered and all construction and development projects stand abandoned.
Protests began immediately after the proposal was put forth to the public. The protests saw huge turnouts – especially initiated by people who had contributed their land for the capital in exchange for developed plots in the capital city. The villages of Mandadam, Velagapudi, and Thullur, which are closest to the Secretariat and the High Court, and which had also given large chunks of their villages’ land to the capital, saw some of the largest protest gatherings.
Although protestors continue to demand an explanation from Jagan as to why his plans were not declared during the election campaigning, the CM in question has not addressed any concerns or protests and continues with business as usual, turning a blind eye to the agitation in the region. Protestors have rightly accused him of cheating them and creating regional differences in the name of development.
Reasons for protests
The primary reason for such persistent protests is that the land that was given away by farmers and other landowners and private property owners is now being given away to people from other districts under a new housing scheme. Under the land-pooling scheme of the Naidu-led government, approximately 29000 farmers (mostly marginal farmers) donated 34,322 acres of land which was to be used for infrastructure: roads, drainage systems, and buildings. The original plan was to return the plots to the farmers who could profit from the increased value of this developed land.
After Jagan Reddy’s government took over, most of the infrastructure and construction has been abandoned. While Jagan and his government claimed that its decision to create three capitals instead of one would spark development across more regions of the state, farmers in Amaravati worry that the government will curtail their plans of building all the infrastructure promised. Moreover, since the Assembly convenes only for a very short duration throughout the year, there will be no incentives for businesses or enterprise in the area. The farmers worry that eventually, the government will try to give back the land to them without having developed it. Since construction is halfway complete, the land is no longer fit for cultivation, potentially rendering it useless.
Farmers are also showing up to protests to demand accountability. Aside from justifying the reasons to shift the capital and diversifying it, they want to know what’s going to happen the 5000 crore rupees that was spent on the infrastructure that is already up and running or that was in the process of being built.
The fight for Amaravati has not captured the interest of the national media, despite running uninterrupted for more than 100 days now, despite running for almost as long as the likes of other similar grassroots protests such as the one at Shaheen Bagh – especially not long enough to capture the attention of viewers whose news cycle remains packed with stories about anti-CAA/NRC protests. This is reflective of a lack of intersectional reporting from the national media who seldom feature issues or stories from South India. Additionally, the Amaravati movement is seen as a highly localized issue, pertinent only to a fraction of the population of one small state. It can also be added that the underlying causes and drivers of this movement are not fundamental human rights issues such as (stripping citizenship away from people), instead focusing on the reneging of a contract concerning livelihoods and private property.
The protests started on the roads, with women cooking in the middle of them and blocking the free movement of traffic. Once the police started restricting these protests, private lands were used to set up pandals to continue their fight. As the demonstrations entered their 20th day, a call for a 10 km march from Thullur to Mandadam saw massive participation, with nearly 10,000 people (comprised of women and farmers) reported to have turned up. To mark the completion of 75 days, protesters staged a ‘jala deeksha’ by standing and swimming in the Krishna river that runs through the region. On the 80th day of the protests, several landowners and farmers in Penumaka participated in an 80-hour hunger strike. Simultaneously, approximately 1000 women from Tadikonda mandal conducted a procession towards Mandadam and expressed solidarity with the protesters. Art, crafts, and traditional literature including plays and poetry have also featured heavily in the demonstrations and have been used as powerful tools of dissent.
As the 100th day approached, most of the country had already been under lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic yet the protests have raged on in small pockets in multiple Amaravati villages. Nevertheless, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing measures and spacing themselves out but continuing to perform religious rituals (poojas), protestors continue sitting in at strikes and demonstrations. Once the lockdown was imposed in Andhra Pradesh, the women have vowed to continue protesting from their respective homes. Their message is loud and clear: “we will continue to protest from our homes and we have no intention of slowing down the momentum for our movement.”
Grassroots movement led by women
What is remarkable about the nature of these protests and agitations is not only the fact they have been going on relentlessly for months on end, but also the fact that they are being spearheaded by women. With no leader nor any political affiliation, they’re being led by ordinary women who have not been involved in activism before nor taken to the streets to protest. Purely concerned by their welfare and future, these women have come out in large numbers to fight against the callous decision taken by the government.
From the beginning of history, women have always been sidelined from the world of high politics, always reneged to the private realm of caretaking and housekeeping and therefore have had to fight to participate in public domains such as economics, politics and diplomacy. The presence of the women of Amaravati has been a powerful representation of solidarity against the state on matters concerning their livelihoods and futures and their occupations of public spaces is a testament to their radical desire to agitate against the government until their demands are met, in aim to reclaim the promises given to them. These women show up on the streets and are met with violence and threats of violence every day, but they refuse to backdown – adamant to be heard, seen, and noticed.
In late January, several local media reports emerged detailing that AP police roughed up women protestors and detained others. For example, in the Mandadam village, in a cruel display of power and police brutality, the police allegedly dragged women, who were squatting on the road in protest, and took them away in police vehicles. The women later lodged a complaint regarding the misbehavior and manhandling by the police. They also alleged that the police were trying to suppress their agitations by arresting them and filing false cases against them. Indeed, the imposition of the paternalistic Section 144 in the greater Amaravati region, which is meant to protect women from violence, has been redundant seeing that those very people who need protection are now being targeted by the state.
Media reports about the violence on the women led to the Andhra Pradesh High Court taking up the matter. In its order, the court clarified that the police violence and the manner in which Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code was used was a “violation of right to peacefully agitate on any issue against the government guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India.” The court directed the administration to allow peaceful demonstrations to be conducted and further the government to provide medical attention to those hurt. A team was also sent by the National Women’s Commission to look into complaints of police brutality against these women. Ending up as an unfruitful endeavor, there has been no report nor follow up by the media.
With a tacit support from the government, the police have been acting recklessly and in a completely unchecked manner – resorting to violence at every turn. The occupation of policing itself is regarded as a masculine sphere and within it, we see simultaneous gendered and gendering of institutions and state structures. Smith and Gray (1985) view the defining characteristic of the police occupational culture as a “cult of masculinity” which is evidenced in the fact the personnel rely more on physical force and less on communication skills that could defuse high tension situations. Valuing traditionally masculine traits such as aggression, anger and brute strength, the job of these Amaravati policemen has been to disperse the crowds of women and send them home back to the traditional sphere of the women, simultaneously quashing these women’s right to protest.
Conclusion – No semblance of change
Despite a lack of national media and coverage and feeble support from regional political parties, the women of Amaravati continue to show up every day and fight to keep their city as the sole capital of Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister has not acknowledged their efforts nor made any comments about reconsidering his government’s decisions and continues as if business is as usual. Instead, he remains complicit in curbing dissent and allowing the people’s right to protest. Nevertheless, the protestors persist and vow to continue to do so, relentlessly and passionately until their voices are heard.
Eenadu newspapers – 27th to 29thMarch editions
The State, Gender, and Sexual Politics: Theory and Appraisal by R. W. Connell