Obituary: Vasudha Dhagamwar (1940 -2014)

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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?

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