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Imagining a Care Curriculum

Feminist Perspectives
Q Manivannan, They/Them

11 May 2022

Can we teach the grief, hope, and care of a protest? The piece considers two of the largest protest movements in modern history, and draws from them a splinter of a care curriculum that witnesses, archives, and remembers resistance, in the wake of violence.

In 2019 and 2020, protests took place in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Population Register, and the National Register of Indian Citizens (henceforth referred to as the CAA-NRC-NPR, to denote their interconnected nature) that disenfranchised Muslims, women, exploited castes including Dalit and Adivasi communities, transgender people, and immigrants. Protest communities challenged the violent conceptions of marginalised religious identities with a new idea of reform, a peace narrated by the ‘defeated’, of unheard stories, fragments, and ruptures.

Women-led protest sites such as in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi emerged as symbols for caregiving as resistance; a radical, queer, and (dis)embodied resistance to the violent masculinities of a capitalist, neoliberal, and Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) state. The sit-in led by Muslim women presented a space to not only practice caregiving – childcare, eldercare, eating together, tending to each other’s illnesses, praying, mourning – but to present it as a resistance to unfair media and social categorizations of protests and Muslims as aggressive, violent, and worthy only of suspicion. Protest locations hold place-based memories, their maps charged with histories of home-making and community building. In subsequent years, activists in the Farmers’ Protest – the largest protest gathering in modern history – demonstrated similar forms of care. From langar (communal kitchens) to songs, stories, community libraries, and slogans, activists from historically exploited and marginalised communities reimagined collective grief, grieving, and care as not only work or labour, but as modes of political action, ingenious citizenships and creative transgressions that resisted the insecurity of an uncaring state.

As a cautious and privileged supporter, I breathed a fragmented air of insecurity in Delhi between 2019 and 2021. We rallied between lawyers, activists, journalists, medical professionals, NGO workers, and protest coordination committees. Nights were spent with constantly ringing phones, calling for support; silence from one forum indicated an internet shutdown, noise from another meant a police clampdown or the presence of disruptive elements, news of detentions or releases from detention. In the wintry haze, the fog did not muffle the stream of ambulance sirens, the khaki of police blocking entrances to Delhi Metro Rail stations, rows of police vehicles in neighbourhoods where even a vehicle parked or slowed down was sufficient to be detained.

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The rich felt it too, as an almost exciting addition to conversation, storytelling. The protests were the object of idle judgement – the property owner, the businessman, the socialite proud of their provocative questions, all made loud declarations of, “First, we should investigate who funds these protests.” The demand is for protest purity, Gandhian, of immaculate conception and composition, a peace that is peaceful in that it is voiceless, not too disruptive; it is the hunger strike that kills the protestor, the protracted sit-in that blocks no roads, takes up no public space, and for which the Government provides no food, healthcare, or livelihood support.

Amidst this apathy, in the orange-ochre hue of streetlights, people held hands, looked at each other, listened, and mourned the loss of friends and families. The voices of poets, writers, and singers such as Ali Sethi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Gulzar, Farida Khanum, and Swanand Kirkire’s voices, among others, wafted in the breeze. We recited the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, sang songs of love. By doing so, these resilient communities denied the belief that identity, culture, and citizenship are inhospitable, bordered, monolithic entities; they are homes. We try not to romanticise resistance, but to not notice and centre love and beauty in these movements is to erase its overwhelming, undeniable existence.

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Those nights, the protest space was not simply a geography of political contestation. It was a forum where participants, even the least invested, engaged in history and fiction. We reimagined identity as both an honest narration and archival of the past and a dream of a feminist future in a free state – of belonging, and hospitality – of storytelling which, by providing space for metaphors, references, and narratives, resisted the violences of distance, theorization, and abstraction.

By engaging with feminist storytelling, now, can we better understand these metaphors and practices of collective caregiving, and learn from grief in the wake of violence? Learning from our protest strategies, conversing with the toolkits of jailed activists, and their letters from prison, we (I, speaking with protest communities and solidarities, near and far), ask if there is perhaps a curriculum of care – strategic and tactical, community driven, compassionate, and kind – that can be taught and learned in these spaces. Such a curriculum would ultimately aim to teach the love, beauty, narration, organising, and caring necessary to sustain a protest, in other contexts – a pedagogy of (and by) the oppressed. It would teach care in conversation with the violences it hopes to resist: in universities, in schools, to children, to businesses, to governments.

The care curriculum would be created with the protest communities, and maintained and updated by them. As such, it would reflect the hierarchies of the community. For instance, with the CAA-NRC-NPR movement, this would have been in collaborative consultation with organisers and participants of protest movements. The curriculum, in this sense, will inevitably fall prey to replications of social power hierarchies, likeability, legitimacy, and masculine figurations of effectiveness and delivery. However, building the care curriculum can begin from a point of noticing this skewed original position, asserting its impartial origin as a feature of its legitimacy. In doing so, we locate the curriculum’s enactment in an oppressive regime, of Hindutva politics, of capitalist oppression, of economies of exclusion. By growing from (and beyond) this impartiality, it would not simply seek to enable awareness and understanding, but responsive (and hopeful) action – solidarity, “toolkits”, networking with academies, corporations, funders, political organisations, media houses, grassroots forums – all whilst cognisant of the truth that protests don’t run on hope alone.

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To address these risks, curriculum creation could incorporate contestation as a key feature in its radical pedagogy. We acknowledge the power hierarchy, and assert that the curriculum is plural - it does not hold one claim to knowledge. It is taught, retaught, and through the act of teaching, grown. The teaching would be oral, not evaluative but through a prioritisation of vigilance and attentiveness, capturing the anxiety of protests, of active listening and memory-keeping taking from the archival needs of a protest’s caring practices. A curriculum of care, necessarily, thus, would exist outside of the institution of the state executive, judiciary, and legislative, in constant negation of the institution of the university, attempting to not replicate institutional structures in doing so.

Such a curriculum would by definition, include teaching the histories of places, movement and settlement, language and loss of ecologies, stories and metaphors in the margins, and ways to craft new stories that persist. It teaches care – not only eldercare, childcare, healthcare – but well-being cognizant of caste, class, and gendered influences towards joy, rest, and a full life. A care curriculum is not only a curriculum of care, therefore, but a curriculum that cares for its learners – that speculates new futures, new modes of resistance. As a scholar, now, afar, studying grief and protests away from the communities I worked with, the curriculum to me would also need to know affect. It would understand, study, repair, and stitch the loneliness of isolation, the anxiety of unbelonging, and the grief of loss into its methods – to read and write with grief, to write anxiously, to sing your loneliness into community. The act of imagining such a curriculum is perhaps in itself reparative, if to no-one else, at least to me, to those of us for whom allyship and solidarity is a responsibility.

As spring blooms, the summer at home is the hottest in over a hundred years. By dreaming of care and love, by noticing the immense and intimate grief of thousands, millions, or by attempting to, we hope to grow new friendships, craft care into the quiet lights that find their way into uncertain homes – there is nothing more gentle, political, or real.

Author Bio

Q is a PhD scholar of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, studying caregiving as peacebuilding. They hold an MPhil in International Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin where they read religion and reform in protest movements. They have worked for over five years in think tanks, international organizations, and institutions on queer rights, international law, gender-based violence, and disability.

Follow Q on Twitter: @q_ueering

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