Archive for Obituary

Mina Agarwala: Her world of voluntarism

Mina- Agarwala -feminist

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.

Mina- AgarwalaShe 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

A tribute to Satyarani Chadha, the face of India’s anti-dowry movement

Satyarani Chadha by Sheba Chhachi

With the demise of Satyarani Chadha, Indian women’s movement loses a stalwart warrior

By Juhi Jain

Satyarani Chadha, a stalwart of the 1980s anti-dowry movement in Delhi, a founder member ( along with Shahjehan Aapa) of ShaktiShalini, a women’s organization cum shelter for girls and women survivors of dowry and domestic violence, passed away this week. In her late 80s Satyaraniji was battling cancer and dementia for the last few years.

I met Satyaraniji (or Mataji as she was known to many) for the first time in the 80s at a meeting to discuss the dowry death of a young 19 year old girl in a posh locality in South Delhi. The distraught parents of the deceased girl sat numb staring into space, the atmosphere was heavy and no one knew what to do as the police had refused to register a case of murder.

Satyarani Chadha immediately took the parents to the police station and ensured that the FIR was recorded. Her words, ‘rone se kaam nahi chalta (it does not help to cry) hume apni betiyon ke liye sirf insaaf chahiye, tumhe hamari madad karni hogi (we want nothing short of justice for our daughters, you will have to help us)’ to the station officer resonated with a firm commitment to the cause for justice. The parents left the police station feeling confident and hopeful; young activists like me felt empowered and in control. This is how we have known Satyarani Chadha- strong, confident and ready to help. But she was not always like this.

Satyarani Chadha did not have the benefit of either vernacular or English education, nor the privileges of an elite class. She was a shy, middle class family woman until the tragic death of her 20 year old, six month pregnant daughter Kanchanbala, with 100% burns in her marital home. This event in 1979, 35 years ago changed her into an activist and a relentless crusader for women’s rights and justice. Along with the parents of over 20 dowry victims, she spent 27 years of stubborn pursuit and dogged determination, battling legal cases and visiting courts, till she finally got justice when the High Court upheld the conviction of her son-in-law for abetting Kanchanbala’s suicide.

Turning her grief into courage and deriving strength from her personal trauma Satyarani embarked on a life long struggle through her organization ShaktiShalini for women survivors facing domestic violence, dowry abuse and harassment in their marital homes. She spent many years guiding, counseling and supporting parents and girls facing harassment and violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws for dowry.

Satyarani Chadha by Sheba Chhachhi

Sathyarani Chadha, staged portrait at Supreme Court, Delhi, 1991 (from Seven lives & a Dream) photo by Sheba Chhachhi

The image of Satyarani holding her daughters graduation photograph and sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court became synonomous with the anti dowry protests in the country. These were instrumental in bringing about two vital amendments to the anti dowry law of the nation, thus strengthening the rights of women and girls.

The first amendment, made in 1983, changed the definition of dowry in the law to include any demand for gifts at any time during the marriage. The second amendment was brought about in Section 113 A of the Indian Evidence Act (of 1986), according to which an abetment to suicide was presumed if a married woman killed herself within seven years of marriage and if her husband/in-laws had subjected her to any form of violence and cruelty.

I lost my daughter 35 years ago but in that process I saved thousands and thousands of others. But in the end, what did I get? He is alive, married and absconding, he is not in prison, but my daughter is dead. This disillusionment with law will always stay with me

But the victory in her daughter’s case and the reforms in the law were of little comfort for Satyarani Chadha. She said, “I lost my daughter 35 years ago but in that process I saved thousands and thousands of others. But in the end, what did I get? He is alive, married and absconding, he is not in prison,” she said of her son-in-law, “but my daughter is dead. This disillusionment with law will always stay with me.”

The Indian women’s movement will always remember Satyarani Chadha as a woman of grit and courage, with an undying perseverance and a staunch commitment to fight the social menace of dowry and violence in marital homes. She continued till the very end, a persistent struggle for women’s dignity, demanding from the government land on which shelters and homes for girls and women who were being harassed and subjected to violence in their marital homes could be built.

Satyaraniji, we salute and celebrate you, with fondness and admiration; we will undoubtedly miss your comforting presence but you will always dwell in our hearts inspiring, guiding and motivating us. At a time when the laws she helped strengthen are coming under adverse scrutiny by the Supreme Court with the judgment on no automatic arrests following 498A complaints, she will be more sorely missed. We must pledge to continue her struggle as it is not over still.

Featured photo: Satyarani Chadha, Anti- Dowry protest, Delhi 1981 by Sheba Chhachhi

Tribute to Mukul Sinha, Gujarat’s relentless human rights defender


Saluting comrade Mukul Sinha with resolve to continue our fight for justice and truth, to uphold the values of human rights, to stand up and speak-out for the oppressed against injustice of all kinds, unafraid of all consequences

By Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah

Comrade Mukul Sinha left us on 12 May 2014, just as the time when the state and political parties have declared war against people and people’s movements are struggling against the deceptive development model – now also known as Gujarat Model. For the past eight months he was suffering from lung cancer and undergoing treatment for the same.

In September 1973, Mukul joined the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) as research scholar for his PhD. While doing his research he also organized the PRL cafeteria employees. Reacting to injustice at the Institute, he started a union movement that invited termination of his job. Termination of his job from PRL proved a real benefit for the downtrodden masses. Later on he completed his legal training in 1989. He, along with other comrades formed a trade union ‘Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions’ and a human rights organisation ‘Jan Sangharsh Manch’ (JSM). He and his comrades also launched a political party the ‘New Socialist Movement’ (NSM).

In him we lost a comrade who was at the forefront of the legal and political battle against perpetrators of 2002 carnage, state encounters, deceptive development, communalism and fascism. Through his website,, this relentless fighter strived for establishing the truth of the Sabarmati Train incident and the carnage in 2002. As a lawyer and advocate he was involved in the Nanavati Commission, the other 2002 cases, fake encounter cases.

He with his dedicated team, was also at the forefront of the fight against the draconian POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Act) enacted by the NDA government.

Let us quote from one of his articles from Combat Law on the issue of labour where he rightly stated that “Globalisation is gobbling up labour laws and workers’ rights besides resources-land, water, mines and minerals. Courts are setting new precedents diluting the Constitution and thereby putting both democracy and people at a grave risk.” He was such a person, while arguing in the courts he never used to limit himself to the mere technicality but was able to articulate the people’s voice with ideological and philosophical input.

His death is a great loss to the working masses and especially for the many victim-survivors of 2002 carnage. His legal intervention in the Nanavati Commission was consistent and he gave a tough fight to Gujarat Sate and Modi’s Government in the commission with his dedicated team.

Even during his severe illness of last 8 months when he was unable to attend the court his presence could be felt in many cases through his fellow lawyers.

In the 1990s, amidst the pro-Narmada dam euphoria, built up by the then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel of Gujarat, unconditionally supported by many NGOs of Gujarat, Dr. Mukul Sinha and his team boldly stood with oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

He lived and fought against fascist and capitalist forces, our real tribute to comrade Mukul Sinha is not in mourning but in making a firm resolve to continue the struggle against such forces especially at the present time.

We activists while remembering his work took the pledge “We solemnly resolve to continue our fight for justice and truth, to uphold the values of human rights, to stand up and speak-out for the oppressed against injustice of all kinds, unafraid of all consequences.”

Red Salute, comrade Mukul Sinha.

Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah are Vadodara based activists

In Memoriam: Bindia Thapar 1957- 2014


Bindia Thapar created visual campaigns for the women’s movement with her posters, illustrations for books, monographs, websites and, left a legacy of visual imagery in her illustrations for children’s books

By Juhi Jain

Our beloved feminist friend Bindia Thaper passed away on April 18 in New Delhi. An architect by profession, Bindia Thapar, was best known for her passion and creativity – as an “illustrator by choice”, having created some of the most vibrant, lively and colourful illustrations for books for children and young adults. As a feminist, she has also illustrated posters and banners on issues of literacy, violence against women, sustainable livelihoods, child rights, peace and diversity for many NGOs and women’s groups. Her work has been published widely in South Asia, England and US.

Bindia, with a professional degree in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi had spent many years in formal teaching as a visiting lecturer at SPA, New Delhi. However, Bindia, loved to draw and design, a creative pursuit which according to her was “inspired by her daughter Meao”.

She spent a major part of her time designing, decorating and illustrating books and publications for children, for publishing houses of repute like, Zubaan, Penguin Books, Puffin Books, Tulika Publishers, Dorling Kindersley, Katha and Kali for Women.

Bindia -Thaper -booksSome of the books which showcase her innate talent to convert serious issues into fun filled and engaging subjects for kids through creative calligraphy and drawings are: Ka se Kapde Kaise?, Maalu Bhalu, We, the Children of India: a Preamble to the Constitution, Curiosity Killed the Cat and other Animal Idioms, The Runaway Puppy, The Magic Raindrop etc.

Bindia is also remembered for her deep commitment to issues of sustainable diversity and peace, environment and gender justice. Towards this end she has co-authored and also illustrated and designed several posters, books, monographs and websites. Some of her prominent work, in collaboration with feminist activist and writer Kamla Bhasin, has been created for Jagori, feminist resource centre, namely Turning Aids into Opportunities, If Only Someone had Broken the Silence, Men and Masculinity, Laughing Matters among others.

We will always remember Bindia as a feminist friend and colleague known for her generosity, warmth and affection. She valiantly battled her deteriorating health with spirit and resilience, an example we all must learn from. Bindia, we are missing you sorely but we hope and pray that you will be happy and blessed wherever you are.

Obituary: Manorama Savur (1927-2014)


A tribute to Professor Manorama Savur, beloved teacher, down to earth academician, vibrant activist of the women’s movement

By Vibhuti Patel

Dr. Manorama Savur who passed away on 14th March was an exemplary teacher who mentored hundreds of students who opted for Master’s and Doctoral programmes for Sociology from Mumbai University during her three decade tenure in the sociology department. Influenced by Prof. A. R. Desai, a stalwart committed to Marxism, she had the courage of conviction and she fearlessly expressed her views. In 1975 when the emergency rule was imposed, she vehemently and openly opposed it. She always had a gracious smile that added charm to her beautiful persona.

In 1977 when University of Mumbai was throbbing with ideological debates, her room was an adda. She had an open door policy and students, scholars and academicians of different ideological moorings could also have access to her. During 1980s, she introduced a paper on ‘Sociology of Women’ in Mumbai University.

Dr. Savur was not an ivory tower academician; she was down to earth and responded to the unfolding socio-political reality with utmost zeal. She loved plants and when the new campus of Mumbai University was established in Santacruz (E) in 1974, she took an active part in planting saplings which have grown into giant trees over the last 40 years. Till her last days she fought to protect the trees. She was also an animal lover and till she retired, she always brought food for a dog in the university campus.

Prof. Manorama Savur’s areas of specialisation were environmental sociology, sociology of health and rural sociology. She retired as Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai in 1987. After her retirement, she became a volunteer at the Women’s Centre that provides institutional support to women survivors of violence. Her presence had a humanizing impact among fire-brand feminists. Even in her late sixties she would go to Women’s Centre from her home by bus.

Dr. Savur’s research work was always on socially relevant issues. She edited archival material on trade union movement in India. Through her research she also exposed built-in weaknesses of the Employees State Insurance Scheme in India, and compared its operation with that of similar schemes abroad. With Prof. Indra Munshi, she also co-edited “Contractions in Indian Society: Essays in Honour of Professor A.R. Desai” that was published by Rawat Publications.

Prof. Manorama Savur never shied away from arduous field work. Her painstaking effort for over one decade resulted in two extremely valuable volumes published in 2003 on the political economy of bamboo. This book “And the Bamboo Flowers in the Indian Forests: What did the Pulp and the Paper Industry Do? Vol. I & II, Manohar Publications, Delhi” was the outcome of a multi-sourced (archival, library and field based research) and interdisciplinary work to highlight the environmental and socio-economic implications on the forest dwellers and workers as a result of the paper and synthetic fibre industry and the policy concerning bamboo farming, from the colonial times to the present.

She supported environmentally regenerative bamboo-use practices and was for a rational and scientific approach towards felling of bamboo. She opposed arbitrary and intensive use of bamboo by commercial vested interests that destroy forest lives and damage forest dwellers livelihoods. She declared, “To clearfell the bamboo forests in the Northeast would be an ecological disaster. Bamboo does have many uses for the local people – but let us not forget it is also the green gold of the forests.”

For last two decades, she managed to be active despite cancer and deteriorating health. She never discussed her pain but gave helpful advice to cope up with cancer to many cancer victims. She passed away on the same day as her ideologue Karl Marx i.e. 14th March, 2014. During her last days, she was helped by many friends in the Indian Army and she had rented a flat in Athashree, a society for senior citizens founded by Armymen in Pune. As per her last wish, her body was donated to Army Medical Hospital. This act of hers inspired all those who had gathered to pay their last respect to her after her death to take a pledge to donate their bodies.

In Memoriam: Sudha Varde (1930-2014)


After a lifetime of commitment towards women’s liberation and progressive and secular values, Sudha Varde has left behind a legacy of socialist and humanist ethos

By Vibhuti Patel
Sudhatai Varde was extremely lively, cheerful person with the dream of an egalitarian society in her eyes. She was forthright, upfront and dedicated to the cause of women’s liberation. She passed away on 9th April, 2014 at the age of 84.

Right from her childhood she had a great fascination for dancing. She used this talent for her social cause as a volunteer for Rashtra Seva Dal (RSD) which she joined as a teenager. She was involved in freedom movement through the RSD. She met her soul- mate Shri. Sadanand Varde who was also a mainstay of RSD and in due course she married him. Both of them were gracious and full of life and remained active workers in the social movement as patriotic socialists.

In the post-independence period, Sudhatai played pivotal role in the development of Cultural wing of RSD. She also encouraged her daughter Jelum to be a classical dancer. She shared a beautiful relationship with her daughter and always talked highly of her.

Women’s Movement
Sudhatai was closely associated with Mrinaltai Gore, Kamaltai Desai and Pramilatai Dandwate. Sudhatai’s involvement in women’s movement began with anti price-rise struggles in the early 1970s. She participated in the ant-rape campaign in 1980. Her residence in Mumbai was initially an office of Mahila Daxata Samiti (MDS). She was part of several agitations including the Anti-dowry agitations (1981), Brides are not for burning campaign, Parityakta Mukti Morcha (Deserted Women’s Liberation Front) and solidarity for textile strike (1982). In a campaign against dowry harassment, I remember Sudhatai shouting slogans against murderers of Manjushree Sarda and Vibha Shukla when we had protest demonstrations within Bombay High Court in 1988. She was a sympathiser of Swadhar that provided support to women in social distress.

Sudhatai attended all shibirs, meetings, rallies, sit-ins and public meetings of united from of women’s groups and state level coordination committee for women’s liberation- Stree Mukti Andolan Sampark Samiti.

After communal riots in Bhivandi in 1984, women’s organisations such as NFIW, AIDWA, MDS, SMS, Women’s Centre, Forum Against Oppression of Women formed Committee Against Religious Fanaticism. Sudahtai was actively involved in the same. In 1987, she was with feminists to protest against emergence of sati temples in Mumbai and re-naming of road in suburban Mumbai as Maha Sati Road. As a representative of MDS she took an active interest in the Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Selection. She attended study circles on technical issues such as the implication of hormone based injectable contraceptives on women lives before joining the agitation against it. She was a supporter of Narmada Bachao Andolan.

During 1991 as a Director (I/C) of Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT, Mumbai for a brief period, I had to organize a National Round Table on Women in Decision Making, I requested Sudhatai to present a status paper on Women in Decision Making in Western India. She was so overwhelmed with emotion and said, “It is so rewarding to feel that you, younger lot of firebrand feminists see value in our thinking!!” To prepare her paper, she frequently visited RCWS Documentation Centre and went through’ all the reports, resolutions, books concerning the subject and made a brilliant presentation at the Round Table.

She was shaken by Mumbai riots in 1992 and in a meeting organized by Stree Mukti Sangahtan at Bhupesh Gupta Hall, she asked, “Where did my generation go wrong? How do you explain children of secular generation are turning out to be religious fanatics?” She made a resolve to focus more on Seva Dal’s activities with children to change their mindset towards humanism.

In 1993, Both Sudhatai and Sadanandji founded Aple Ghar to care for orphans after the earthquake in Latur.

Sudhatai’s inspiring and charming persona and her contribution to women’s movement will have a lasting imprint on the glorious HERSTORY of women’s liberation movement in Maharashtra. Hers was a life lived for her commitment for progressive and secular values and socialist and humanist ethos.

Featured photo courtesy: Jhelum Paranjape

Related reading: Aai: my dearest mother

Obituary: Vasudha Dhagamwar (1940 -2014)


Remembering the achievements and legacy of Vasudha Dhagamwar who influenced two generations of feminists and activists

By Aruna Burte

Vasudha Dhagamwar, legal activist and academician, passed away on February 10, in Pune of multiple organ failure. She was 74.

In 2005, Vasudha retired, after two decades of working at the Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), Delhi. She had set up MARG in 1985 to aid peoples’ rights through legal advocacy. In 2007 she shifted base from Delhi to Pune. As a law teacher Vasudha was both activist and academician with passion.

Dr.Dhagamwar was one of the signatories, along with three other renowned law teachers, to the famous open letter written to the Supreme Court of India in the year 1979, which had questioned the acquittal of the rapists in the Mathura rape case. This open letter influenced debates and anchored all the arguments that feminists made on the issue of rape in the 1980s. It became the rallying point of a sustained campaign on the issue of gender-based violence.

She was born to renowned parents – her mother, Geeta Sane, was a writer and feminist. Her father, Narasimha Dhagamwar, was a lawyer and active in the Indian freedom movement. When asked why Vasudha wrote her name as Vasudha Vasanti Dhagamwar, her close friend Jaya Sagade said, ‘she had two names and signed VVD.’

Vasudha’s close friend and colleague at MARG Aruna Mhaskar said, ‘Vasudha had a large friend circle. She always meant what she said. She was very forthright and transparent. She remained unmarried by choice. Vasudha worked on her mother’s biography till the end. Some of the work is still incomplete. Mostly Granthali is to publish it in the next month.’ While Aruna recounted, her voice was choking with the memory of her dear friend Vasudha, ‘Renuka took care of Vasudha since 2000 till end. Renuka’s young daughter Sumedha was like granddaughter to Vasudha. It was not a legal adoption though.’

Vasudha became an Ashoka fellow in 1982 for her sustained work for the rights of displaced people. In 1985, she set up the MARG Delhi, which looked at the issues of land acquisition and displacement arising out of the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat. Among other things, she has been a member of the legal experts committee of the National Commission of Women, which drafted various bills relevant to women. She was also a member of the Executive Body of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She has many publications to her name.

The MARG Legal Literacy Programme grew out of its work on the issue of displacement and rehabilitation: a manual titled Land Acquisition Act and You was the outcome. Since then the legal literacy programme has been engaged in the task of spreading information on various laws with a focus on women. Our Laws/Hamare Kanoon is a set of 10 manuals, which deal with 23 laws that particularly affect women. She demystified the legal field by working both in teaching and in grass-roots legal aid and public interest work, thus benefitting activists and ordinary citizens.

Through her activist use of the law, she influenced almost two generations of feminists and activists in other fields. However, even a person of such scholarship was not able to resist the process of communalisation of perceptions, which began distinctly after the fallout of the Shah Bano case. Many in the progressive movement would subscribe to the process of demonising the Muslim community, branding it as ‘backward’, and especially asking why women in the community did not organise to reform their backward personal laws.

Vasudha accompanied the National Commission of Women fact-finding team after the 2002 post-Godhra Gujarat genocide. Regarding the fact-finding team, she wrote in The Hindu dated 22.5.2002, ‘We had also decided that the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was not our direct concern.’ The report failed to record or recognise the pain, anguish, loss, injustice, death, rape and more suffered by Muslims – women, girls, children and men – in Gujarat, and state complicity in it. Saheli, Delhi, raised this point by issuing a statement. Moreover, the NCW spoke of getting women to do some economic activity in the camps to distract their minds by way of a healing touch. Vasudha went to the extent of asking an activist ‘why Muslim women did not get together to reform the Muslim Personal Laws like Christian Women did?’ when the team visited a relief camp, even a person with such great legal scholarship could be blinded by the majoritarian worldview!

While remembering her lifelong contribution, we also have to remind ourselves that such pitfalls do exist. Not to fall prey to a majoritarian worldview by being on constant vigil would be one way of offering our salute to Dr. Vasudha Dhagamwar and her contribution.

These are some of the books she authored:
1. Industrial Development and Displacement – The People of Korba
2. Role and Image of Law in India – The Tribal Experience
3. The Law of Resettlement of Project Displaced Persons in Madhya Pradesh
4. Women and Divorce
5. Reading on Uniform Civil Code and Gender and Child Just Laws
6. Criminal Justice or Chaos?

Ila Pathak, a feminist crusader (1933-2014)

Ilaben Pathak

Saluting the pioneering work of Ilaben Pathak in women and civil rights movements which was an inspiration not only to the people whose lives she touched and changed but also to her fellow travelers

By Vibhuti Patel and Sonal Shukla

Gujarat lost a dedicated social activist who stood by socially excluded sections of society, especially brutalized women when Prof. Ila Pathak passed away due to breast cancer on January 9, 2014 in Ahmedabad. She tirelessly supported women survivors of dowry harassment, rape, crimes of honour. She campaigned against sex selective abortions of female foetuses from way back in the 1980s.

Both of us have been aware of her work with Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) from 1981 when she attended the first national conference of women’s studies in Mumbai that resulted in the formation of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS). Ilaben brought her own energies and perspective to the women’s movement. She was a determined activist right from the beginning of the movement.

A master’s degree in law, a Ph.D. in English literature and a high post in NCC were indicative of her capacity to achieve the goals she had set for herself. Her devotion to working for women’s rights and development was reflected in her writings and action through AWAG and innumerable institutions she was associated with.

Feminist Activism of Ilaben Pathak:
Ilaben began her career as a university teacher of English language and literature at H. K. Arts College, Ahmedabad and as a free- lance journalist who wrote addressing women’s concerns. In the early seventies she started her crusade against misogyny in Gujarati plays rife with double entendre, full of crude and crass jokes/puns that degraded women and objectified women’s bodies.

In 1981, Ilaben with her young colleagues and students such as Dr. Ila Joshi, Aditi Desai (Theatre artiste), Sofia Khan (now a human rights lawyer) established AWAG (acronym means noise). AWAG energetically made noise against sexism in advertisements, media and textbooks. They blackened sexist advertisements at public places and staged dharna against a phallocentric play “Putra Kameshti Yagna” to be aired on All India Radio and got the broadcasting cancelled. Her tireless work resulted in Government of Gujarat appointing a committee under her leadership to examine the portrayal of gender stereotypes and subordinate status of women in school textbooks. She involved us in this effort. The government mandate for evaluation was decided within the framework of equality, development and peace.

In 1982, she spearheaded a participatory action research project of AWAG to highlight the precarious condition of homeless and miserable tribal migrant workers near railway tracks of Ahmedabad city who eked out their subsistence by collecting coal fallen on the railway tracks. She started income generation activities for them based on tribal art and beadwork. In 1982, when a tribal woman in Sagbara village of South Gujarat was gang raped, Ilaben took the case up to Amnesty International. As a result all the rapists were punished.

Ilaben took leadership for movement against Patan P T C College gang rape in which a 19-year-old Dalit student was repeatedly raped over a period of time by her male teachers. She also supported Manipur’s Irom Sharmila’s agitation against Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA).

Ilaben’s courageous and consistent work among victims of communal riots post demolition of Babri Musjid in 1993 and among Muslim refugees after Gujarat riots in 2002 symbolised her secular humanism

Ilaben’s command over language came handy to coin catchy and hard hitting slogans in Gujarati such as “Silence is not a virtue, Break the silence of oppression”, “Putting up with injustice is not a virtue, fight for justice”. She gave great emphasise to documentation, research and training and AWAG always provided information in local Gujarati language and resource persons for capacity building of community workers, elected representatives and youth. From 1986-1992, she regularly wrote for a feminist quarterly in Gujarati, Nari Mukti (Women’s Freedom) that was collectively brought out by feminists of Mumbai, Valsad, Surat, Vadodara and Ahmedabad.

We have fond memories of spending quality time with Ilaben at the IAWS Conferences, The Nairobi World Conference on Women, 1985, Gujarat Human Rights Conference, 1990, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 2011 and capacity building conferences of Gujarat University on sexual harassment at workplace. In order to bring women’s rights agenda in to the mainstream of politics, she also contested election for Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in 1990.

Ilaben and Social Movements
Her persuasive style of speaking was her success mantra. She could reach out to all- Gandhian, liberals, feminists, human rights activists, leftists. She could establish communication with the rich and powerful without getting cowed down by them. She reached out to weak and marginalized people with utmost humility. She made lifelong friends among women’s studies scholars and feminists whenever she attended national and international conferences on women. She used to attend these conferences with over a dozen women from her organization and she looked after them very well.

Crucial Contribution
Ilaben served on many apex bodies to further the cause of women. She was a member of the Women Development Cell of Gujarat University that had to perform twin tasks of prevention of sexual harassment and promotion of gender sensitization in the University and its affiliated colleges. Ilaben was also a governing board member of Centre for Social Studies, Surat. She played an important role in all women centred activities of Gujarat Vidyapeeth. Ilaben was president of the India Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was an active member of the Movement for Secular Democracy. In 2012, Ilaben Pathak was honoured for her work among poor and oppressed women. Four books were published based on a compilation of her articles promoting women’s striving for dignity and their struggle for empowerment.

Her four-decades-long pioneering work will always give us strength and inspiration to keep the torch of women’s rights burning in today’s volatile circumstances. She has left a huge fan following among students and all those women whom she supported pro-actively, intellectually and emotionally. Ilaben will always remain with us in spirit. As fellow travelers in the women’s movement who shared common her-story and collective memory, we salute our sister, Ila Pathak.

Do not go gently into the night

Sunila Abeysekera

Remembering Sunila Abeysekera, singer, fighter, writer, and leader whose commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights

By Vasanth Kannabiran

Sunila is gone. It is hard to imagine or accept the fact that we will not see her smile again, see her honeyed eyes sparkle as her brilliant smile embraced you. Hard to accept that the humour and warmth she radiated in the movement is gone. She was special and beautiful. A beauty that sprang from the life she had led, the struggles she had led, the passion and compassion that engulfed her.

I met Sunila for the first time in Bangalore with Subha, a suckling child in her arms. Her clarity and keen vision were striking then as later when it was honed over the years. Her interventions, her songs, her presence were such a pleasure to the whole South Asian group meeting there. She was then the younger woman to many of us looking fondly on her. Fresh from doing her Masters in The Hague she said how different it was to be with a small child in this group and how alone she felt at times despite supporting friends abroad. And her thank you included a thank you for welcoming Subha. After that we met time and again and she visited us at New Jersey when she was with the Global Center and my grand daughter Ramya was just born. She always asked about her warmly for years after.

Born in 1952 in Sri Lanka, Sunila was active in the Women’s Human Rights movement. She worked unceasingly for peace, reconciliation, and freedom of the press. She fervently believed that “all human beings are inherently entitled to all human rights” and was an active member of the Free Media Movement. She intervened at multiple levels to protect and ascertain the freedom of the press. As an artist and singer she saw that the freedom of art is indivisibly linked to the freedom of the press.

As an anti war activist she was firmly opposed to military solutions to ethnic issues. She held dialogues with men and women in war afflicted areas at a practical level. Her commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights. Part of the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, Sunila worked tirelessly to end violence against women and strengthen women politically. She worked with cultural groups to develop ways of expressing new and radical ideas through art.

Sunila was a well-known and active through the South Asian region and internationally. She was an activist who also was a scholar. She reconceptualised the nation state – looking at principles of good governance from a feminist perspective, addressing problems of representation and employing critical cultural theory.

Her contribution was acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Award she received in 1999.

She was an actor, a singer, a fighter, a writer, and a leader. Her struggles made her indispensable on every front. Living in strife torn Sri Lanka and speaking of human rights made her vulnerable and open to attack. But her involvement with the Mother’s committees, her work with feminist and human rights groups, her fearless honesty in appraising the situation in a land torn apart set her apart.

I remember asking her once how she managed so many children in the house. She laughed and said it was easy, “just stock lots of food and don’t get paranoid about a tidy house. Then it’s easy for everyone.” Sunila’s house was home to all her friend’s children, friends who were traveling, had disappeared or were gone.

I remember the last time I spent a day with her in her home in Colombo. We were lounging drinking beer and chatting, the sun slanting in through the window. Several young people walked in and Sunila greeted them with a warm smile. She then told me that the kids who were now scattered across the world would always drop in on Sunday if in Colombo. They were sure to meet any of the siblings who happened to be in Colombo at that time. I remember the large pots of hot rice and curry sitting warmly welcoming the children to the table. It was one of the most heart warming days in my life.

Sunila’s house was as large, warm, generous and welcoming as her heart. They don’t make that model any more. Sunila might live on in all our hearts but she is gone and the poorer we are for bread and roses.

A life well lived, rich with meaning, suffering, joy and sorrow. And with no regrets.

Vsanth Kannabiran is a feminist writer and activist

Featured photo courtesy: