A tribute to one of the pioneers of Indian women’s movement who paved the way for future generations in Assam
By Monisha Behal
I can think of few women as committed to the cause of women’s issues as my Borma Mina Agarwala (whom we affectionately called Mambu). She passed away in the early hours of 24th July 2014. She was an integral part of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti for more than 50 years, from the 1940s to the 2000s. She also was the President of the District Social Welfare Board in the 50’s, which took her deep into the villages of Mangaldai and Behali to work with rural women.
I witnessed her dedication at close quarters, from when I was a young girl in the late 1950s right up to my adult life in the 1980s, when I started to work in the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, and beyond. The year 1957 is especially clear to me because of the home movies made by my father, which I, along with my young cousins and the neighborhood children watched excitedly in our house at Tezpur. Of the many interesting shots I remember is one of Mina Agarwala busy organizing young women at a conference, which I was to learn later, was the Rashtriya Sanmelan.
The next event where I witnessed her organizational skills was when the Tezpur Mahila Samiti women went in trucks to Missamari in 1959 to welcome the Tibetan refugees who had escaped from the atrocities of the Chinese in Tibet into Assam. In 1962, she and her team organized a fund-raising campaign towards the National Defence Fund after the Chinese aggression. I remember vividly the Tezpur women going through training meant for Home Guards, ostensibly to protect themselves and their homes from foreign aggression. Fetes, melas, study circles, weaving activities and many other annual events were organized by the Samiti over the years, with Mina Agarwala at the helm, along with her efficient co-worker, Hemalata Baruah.
Said Hemalata Baideo recently, “When I joined the Samiti in 1954 I had an attraction and respect for Mina Baideo, her work and her leadership. Her eyes fascinated me as they were beautiful. But they were affected after her eye operation. Her look was all encompassing and would draw people towards her. When we used to go to her house while canvassing for the Congress in the 50’s, she would lend us blankets and her own shawls, in case we felt cold. She was never absorbed in her own self or the family that she came from. This trait of hers taught us a lot.”
Indeed, Mina Agarwala’s personality was attractive because of her world view of liberal and progressive thinking, and perhaps because of her belief in Gandhi’s ideology, something that the nation followed as a value system in the early 50s. This made her voluntarism all the more principled, embellished by notions of honesty and simplicity.
I always saw her in cotton mekhela sador, something we draped her with, a few days ago, for her final journey. I know that she would give away whatever money she received from any quarter to the Samiti or to the women she wanted to support. The idea of voluntarism and voluntary work remained with her till the end of her long association with the Samiti. I had difficulty convincing her that her work with the Samiti had to be remunerative for the good of all. She finally gave in only when we started getting large projects in the late ‘80s.
On the personal front, she had a house to look after, many children who lived in our ancestral house – Poki, and was busy in the kitchen with her sisters-in-law and teenaged nieces. Despite the pressure of her social work, she threw herself whole-heartedly into family responsibilities: the food cooked by the ‘thakur’ at the weddings of the younger members of the extended family, including my own, through the early 1960s till the 80s, was always done under her guidance.
She once came to Delhi for a retina operation in the 90s and spent almost two months in our house. During that time I observed her love for books and her deep concentration while reading the national papers. Once she finished reading the papers, she would talk about the politics of the Congress and her growing disillusionment with the party’s fading principles and lack of accountability.
She hardly spoke English and yet she laughed at our jokes and racy talk in that language. I know she studied up to Class IX and her husband had hired a tutor to teach her English. But the tutor would come and have tea and then leave for Mambu had no time for lessons because of house and Samiti work!
Whenever the teacher came to Poki to tutor her there was much laughter, and the whole episode became a family joke. I remember how she busied herself feeding her large extended family of nephews and nieces. Very often, in desperation, she and our respective mothers would send us packing to Jonaki cinema, situated just behind Poki! Run by my father, the cinema hall became a family retreat for many of us children in the 50s. My aunt also had to cater to the umpteen numbers – local people from her husband’s constituency, Bhoodan members and sitting MLAs who visited our house regularly as her husband was one too. Through it all she remained her kind, generous self – slim, seemingly frail and yet strong.
The spotlight needs to be turned on the individual women and members of Mahila Samitis who worked for the welfare of women between the mid-1940s to the 50s because such work was truly at a nascent stage at that time: their mobility was limited, and community work done by women was frowned upon in society.
Sadly, the work of such people and the regional women’s struggles, small as they seem, have not received sufficient recognition in the larger canvas of the Indian women’s movement that gained ground in the 1980s. Women like Mina Agarwala steered themselves into social work step by step, in her case using the Tezpur Mahila Samiti for a collective struggle against low literacy, low income and low self-esteem of women in general.
I salute Mina Agarwala, and her predecessors and colleagues like Chandraprabha Saikia, Chandrabala Barua, Swarna Mahanta, Hemalata Baruah and all those great but little-known women in Assam’s towns and villages whose struggles for the cause of women I will always cherish.
With the passing away of Mina Agarwala we have lost a great soul, but I would not like to say that an era has passed with her death, for many women continue to uphold such values today, despite the waning of liberal thinking and the challenging times ahead of us.
Monisha Behal is an activist based in Tezpur, Assam. She is one of the co-founders of North East Network, a feminist organization which has its bases in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland