LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — A few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a forum of investors in the city last month, police constables surrounded Pooja Shukla as she stepped out of her friend’s house in Ismailganj.
Shukla, a 23-year-old student activist with the Samajwadi Party (SP), said the policemen and women dragged her to a waiting jeep, snatched her phone, drove her around the city for five hours and only let her go when she pretended to be ill. Another group from the police, she said, raided her house in Sarojini Nagar, where she lives with her parents.
“They abused me for hours inside the car,” Shukla said. “They narrated how encounters are done by the police. Then they said that I have been creating problems for them and I might get into big trouble.”
This wasn’t Shukla’s first brush with the law: images of her sparring with the police have been widely shared among university students in the city. Last year, she spent 26 days in prison after she was arrested for waving a black flag at Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath when he visited Lucknow University.
Shukla, a slight young woman with an outsized presence, is one of a cohort of student activists who have been drawn into politics by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) crackdown on universities. The student upsurge began in January 2016, when the suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula triggered protests on campuses across the country.
A few months later, the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya—and the widespread media coverage that followed—marked the first real signs of dissent against the Modi government.
Now, as the country is preparing to go to the polls again next year, students such as Shukla are a visible part of the opposition to the BJP.
“She is aggressive and not easily intimidated,” said Rahul Singh, national president of the student wing of the Samajwadi Party, explaining why the party signed her up. “She won’t shut up easily and is young and idealistic.”
In June 2017, when Adityanath was scheduled to visit Lucknow University to unveil a statue of Shivaji erected inside the campus, Shukla (who was not affiliated with any political party at the time) and a group of fellow students stood by the gates—reading, chatting in pairs and pretending like they were simply waiting for class.
They had stuffed black cloth flags inside their books and lunch boxes, which they whipped out the moment Adityanath’s convoy rolled up.
The police quickly rounded up and thrashed the protestors. Eleven of them—nine men and two women, including Shukla—were thrown into jail the next day after a court order.
Shukla was charged with rioting, obstructing a public servant from performing his duty and intimidation of a public servant—offences punishable with imprisonment of up to five years.
She spent 26 days in jail, the longest among all the detainees, and upon her release, joined the SP which had helped bail her out.
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REALITY CHECK IN JAIL
Five days after Shukla was imprisoned, her father, Rakesh, visited her in jail.
“Is this what you wanted?” he asked. “To bring shame to the family?”
Shukla, who was flush with the excitement of standing up to the government, was suddenly faced with the enormity of her political choices: her parents and her two sisters lived in a room in a small one-storey house that they shared with eight other family members, in a neighbourhood loyal to the BJP.
Rakesh, a small-time real estate agent, couldn’t step out of their house without a neighbour or a local vendor stopping him to ask if it was indeed true that “Shukla ji’s elder daughter was in jail.”
Young men in the neighbourhood harassed her family. Her parents couldn’t protest as they feared she would be incarcerated indefinitely. Her mother was in shock, and couldn’t bring herself to visit her daughter in jail.
Eventually, Shukla’s family was forced to move to another house after the other family members complained of the frequent visits by the police.
“My sisters were scared to step out of home alone for fear of being taunted and bullied,” she recalled. “Boys made nasty passes at them. Both are younger than me—one is in school, one in college.”
Shukla’s foray into politics, Rakesh told HuffPost India, wasn’t something her family was equipped to deal with.
“She has been to jail, police keeps coming to the house, people keep saying we can’t marry her or her sisters off,” he said. But, Rakesh conceded, “some Samajwadi Party leaders also told me she will do well and apparently young people look up to her.”
Rakesh said he was mostly apolitical, and had occasionally voted for the Congress. But Shukla’s extended family of Brahmins have traditionally endorsed BJP’s politics.
“Now they are very pro-Modi,” Shukla said. “So they were even more riled that I went to jail opposing the BJP.”
Shukla said that her family was unhappy with her political ambitions. Her father, she said, couldn’t stomach her independence like “most patriarchal men.”
WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD
Purushvaadi soch, or the patriarchal mindset, surfaces frequently in conversations with Shukla. For her, it explains her father’s reluctance to pay for her education because she refused to attend a college of his choice, her family’s response to her arrest and the local media’s coverage of political events she is involved in.
“I used to have fights with my father over things he stopped us from doing just because we were girls,” she said. “It irritated me, but it was college which taught me how skewed everything was.”
Men of all political stripes made women miserable at university, she said, but it was the relentless aggression of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) that riled Shukla the most.
In her first year as a student, studying commerce at the university, Shukla forced a male student to apologise for harassing her friend. Soon after, the male student and his friends harassed Shukla to the point that she stopped attending college for two months.
In November 2015, Shukla joined the All India Students’ Association, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, after the ABVP attacked Kavita Krishnan, at Lucknow University where she had come to address a seminar against ‘love jihad’.
“Just the other day, these men were telling me that women are like deities to them and then they try to physically assault a woman,” she said. Shukla left the party a year later for personal reasons.
WHY SAMAJWADI PARTY?
“Shukla represents two important demographics—students and women—whose disenchantment with the BJP will be crucial for Samajwadi Party,” said Sudhir Panwar, a Lucknow University professor and a member of the SP.
Shukla is aware of the difficulty of being both a feminist and an SP worker. The party’s tenure in power was marked by apathy to violence against women; Mulayam Singh Yadav, the party’s founder, sparked outrage in 2014 when he questioned capital punishment for rape with the assertion that “boys will be boys”.
For Shukla, Akhilesh Yadav’s ascent to the party leadership marks a hope that the party will change.
“When I am surrounded by all these men at work, of course I am anxious at times,” she said. “A majority of them, like a majority of men in India itself, come from very gendered social structures.”
Yet, the discipline of a political outfit, she hopes, will make them think differently.
For the SP, Shukla’s reputation as a young, compelling, anti-BJP political figure means she can integrate diverse voices critical of the BJP and convince them to vote for the SP.
Last month, for instance, she presided over the formation of the Students’ Alliance for Democratic Rights (SADR), which encompasses a group of student leaders from major UP universities such as University of Allahabad, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University—to campaign against the BJP. Many of the attendees have been critical of the SP in the past, but may now consider supporting the party in 2019.
Jyoti Rai, a recent graduate from the university, said she was supporting SADR because of Shukla.
“I am not sure of SP’s politics, but what Pooja has been demanding makes a lot of sense. She also went to jail for making valid demands,” Rai said.
Shukla has also displayed keen political instincts.
Shortly after joining the SP, she applied to the women’s studies department of Lucknow University. Shukla claims the course will help her flesh out her politics, but students said it was well known that the university had said that the students who had demonstrated against Adityanath would never be granted admission again.
Shukla applied anyway, and the university published a merit list with details of the scores of all the students who had taken the entrance exam—except Shukla’s.
This gave Shukla the clear evidence she needed to prove that the university administration was discriminating against those opposed to the BJP government. She went on hunger strike, and her protest garnered support from across the political spectrum.
“How could they deny admission to a student who has had first class marks throughout?” said Ramesh Dixit, a former Lucknow University professor and the state chief of the Nationalist Congress Party.
“If the university has to refuse her admission, they have to furnish proper proof—how much did she score?” said Roop Rekha Verma, another former professor. “Why are they withholding her result without an explanation?”
Academic and social scientist Nadeem Hasnain said the university’s treatment of Shukla was evidence of a BJP move to shut down spaces of critical political thinking.
Shukla has turned her protest into an opportunity to demand a reform of the university admission process.
“We started a signature campaign demanding fair and transparent admission processes and I have been making the rounds of colleges in Lucknow,” she said, adding she will soon be travelling to other cities and towns in UP. “Protests often scare people off, so now I am trying to organise talks with academics like Ramesh sir and Roop Rekha ma’am, so that students understand what we are saying.”
Shukla says she doesn’t want an election ticket from the party anytime soon, but Panwar said that SP has always given preference to student leaders.
“There are several party people, especially in the upper house, who have made a name for themselves as student leaders,” he said.
Delhi versus UP
“There’s a world of difference in being a woman or an activist in Delhi and being a politically active woman in Uttar Pradesh,” Shukla told HuffPost India.
Students from other states, even politically significant ones like Uttar Pradesh, don’t get the kind of public support that students from JNU do. Shukla, who has less than 2000 followers on Twitter, says she isn’t “good at protesting on Twitter.” Rapes threats on Twitter are one thing, she said, but in UP men often end arguments by saying utha lenge—we’ll abduct you.
“Someone goes to jail for protesting at JNU, it’s all over people’s social media and front pages of newspapers,” Shukla said. “I spent almost a month in jail, did you come across anything on me on Facebook?”