During the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 in what came to be known as the Dirty War, a group of mothers came together to protest against the killing and disappearance of their children by the junta. Known as the "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo", these women will defy the brutal state terror - and their age - to congregate every week at the presidential palace and demand justice.
The brave defiance of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo not only forced the military regime to reveal the whereabouts of thousands of young Argentine dissenters taken into and tortured in custody, it also forced the world to take note of the overthrow of the elected governments and human rights violations across Latin America in the 1970s and 80s.
Rarely has been the benign role of a mother, in social discourse, extended beyond the mere raising of her child, an act mandatory to sustain the dominant order. Reduced to the roles of a reproducer and nurturer in a heteronormative milieu that privileges the male, a mother's body is stripped of any agency beyond child-rearing, and denied a larger social role.
But there have been women who have broken the silence, often misconstrued as their consent.
Back home, the image of a group of Manipuri mothers disrobing themselves stark naked and shouting "Indian Army, rape us" in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal five days after the brutal rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in 2004 opened a new chapter in motherhood taking charge not only against the atrocities against their children, but in a more radical questioning of state tools like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides absolute immunity to the army in "conflict zones".
In Kashmir, thousands of mothers have been braving the occupation to ask the state what it did with their sons, many of whom have remained traceless for decades.
In the 1970s, writer Mahasweta Devi's Bengali novel Hajar Churashir Maa, written in the backdrop of the Naxalite movement, told the story of a mother whose son was brutally killed by the state and his corpse reduced to a number - 1084 - as Sujata, the protagonist, valiantly fought the state, which had asked her to forget her "traitor" son.
Last weekend, in what was a more radical interpretation of the gimmick called Mother's Day, another group of brave mothers, some on wheelchairs, entered the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in solidarity with their children and grandchildren who have been on an indefinite hunger strike for nearly two weeks now to protest against the high-handedness of the university administration and the government.
|Mothers of JNU students on hunger strike fast alongside their children. [Source: Facebook]|
"We stand against the systematic witch-hunt of students across the country and the callous disregard by the authorities for their health and wellbeing," the mothers announce on their Facebook page as they declare their solidarity not only with their children in JNU, but with all such protests against a systemic and violent assault on India's democratic and liberal institutions.
In Hyderabad, in an act of rare courage and defiance, Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's mother Radhika has been carrying on the torch of resistance following the institutional murder of her son. In an example of radical motherhood creating new alliances, Radhika visited Kerala last weekend to meet Rajeshwari, the bereaved mother of another Dalit student Jisha, who was raped and murdered in what has become a spiral of caste violence in India.
Recently, Union minister Smriti Irani, in a passionate denial of hounding Vemula to death, called him "her child" in a speech in Parliament. Although her patronising assertion of woman-minister-as-mother was immediately rejected by students protesting against Vemula's death, it did hint at the Indian state presenting itself as a mother, as was evident in the Bharat Mata Ki Jai controversy.
So, how do we reconcile the competing motherhoods of the state and its many mothers rejecting it and its brutalities? As we witness the rise of a more radical motherhood creating new solidarities in India, the question is: will these mothers revere one of their more privileged counterparts and really say Bharat Mata Ki Jai?