By Uma Chakravarti
In the last six months or so the small community of feminist scholars cum activists has been hit by major losses: in February Lotika Sarkar who was among the signatories protesting the Mathura judgment that initiated a new and hugely important phase of the women’s movement passed away; at the end of May Vina Mazumdar who spearheaded the parallel women’s studies movement also passed away. But at least we had the consolation that they went in the fullness of time, having done all they could to put feminist issues into the public domain. They had also seen the difference it made to the way we think about patriarchy, an axis of inequality that has survived over the centuries and flourishes even today.
Sharmila Rege, whose unexpectedly cruel death which hit us like a body blow this month, was dynamically taking forward the women’s movement and the women’s studies movement in many new directions by making all feminists learn to engage with caste, the most offensive and monstrous structure of inequality that the world has ever created. Through her work on caste, and the issues she raised, she forced metropolitan feminists to first read and then think about caste before they jumped in to take positions on controversial issues generated all around us. The painful thing is that Sharmila was only 48 and had over the years grown into a committed scholar and entered a most creative phase in her life with years of productive work before her and so her loss is almost unbearable.
Sharmila, whom I met for the first time in 1993 as a bright young scholar at a women’s studies conference, began like many others around her – as a student of sociology at Pune University her M.Phil thesis was on sati. We had all been through the Roop Kanwar case where some eminent male academics, in one of the fierce polarizations of our times, were denying the right of ‘feminists’ to speak on sati because they weren’t ‘authentic’ (Indian/Hindu) women. After that she more or less naturally gravitated to a critical engagement with mainstream/malestream sociology and the directions it had taken. She started to teach soon after completing her M.A. first in a college and then in the Sociology Department of Pune University which at that time housed the newly opened Women’s Studies Centre. It is this department that received most of her energies through the rest of her all too short life.
Unfortunately, Women’s Studies departments are unstable by definition with hardly any permanent faculty thanks to the ‘higher’ wisdom of the UGC that has, over two decades or more, reproduced the biases of university systems and wider society in the way they have dealt with them. To this day most academic posts run only from one plan to another so there is almost no permanency of tenure and it is, therefore, virtually impossible to build them up as institutions that can survive and grow in any meaningful way. In this mad system, Sharmila’s commitment to women’s studies was extraordinary: in a world where academics hop from one university to another in pursuit of professorial positions, she actually moved ‘downwards’ from being a Professor in the Sociology Department where she was teaching between 2005 and 2008 (she was also Head of the Department at the time) to become an Associate Professor in the Women’s Studies Centre. She did that because as a committed academic she felt the need to be located at this centre to help safe- guard it as the uniquely creative place that it had grown into. Everyone except a few feminists thought she was mad. Using this space she spearheaded programmes in a wide arc of locations – colleges in Pune and other small cities across western India – always keeping caste as a critical index of inequality which could not be separated from issues of gender. The mix of students that Pune University drew led to many experiments with translations, and creating teaching materials: through all this time Sharmila and other young colleagues at the centre made it evident that one could rigorously engage with the social sciences in the
regional languages, and also be grounded in the material and social reality of the area where one was located.
No wonder that her students loved her and worked tirelessly with her. Always democratic and encouraging, one of her courses on popular culture led to three student publications which too was very different from a situation where professors could publish the work of their students in their own names and get away with it because of the power dynamics operating in universities.
All too soon there were extraordinary demands upon Sharmila’s time. In order to cope with teaching –the classroom was a space that she loved so she never gave up even on a single class if she could help it – activism, research supervision, mentoring her students and younger colleagues in every possible way, organizing workshops, the framing of syllabi for her own centre and for the UGC (a venture that suddenly folded up!)– there was little time for her own research work. So she got up at 3 a.m. to write for a couple of hours before her day formally began, leaving her little time to even eat properly or look after herself.
But during this time she wrote and published important papers and books. One needs to be specifically mentioned: this is an essay on the dalit feminist standpoint where she tried to find a way for feminist politics to move beyond ‘difference’ even as difference needed to be the basis of formulating a political position. She urged the adoption of a position that moved away from what she called the ‘savarnization’ of the women’s movement and the masculinization of the dalit movement to recover the original egalitarian agendas of these movements. Always attempting to make border crossings possible in a new creative politics, she gave herself to the crisis of our times through her sustained engagement with caste.
Perhaps it was these qualities of head and heart and the extraordinary demands upon her that took their terrible toll; I discovered to my dismay that she hadn’t seen a doctor for years even as many of us kept noticing that she was getting thinner by the day. She said it was nothing and in the end the cancer gave her only three weeks to live after it was discovered. I have been wondering if the cancer in our society transfers itself upon people who care. There is a sadness inside me that has frozen and it doesn’t seem to be going. I hope it does because Sharmila wouldn’t want me to feel the way I am feeling, the generous and affectionate woman that she was till the very end.
Rest in peace dear friend; others will carry on the struggles that you were so passionately engaged in.
Uma Chakravarti is a feminist historian
This tribute was originally published in the Seminar magazine