Tag Archive for Indian Women’s movement

Jasodhara Bagchi: Farewell to a phenomenal woman

Jasodhara Bagchi

Veteran feminist, academician and author, Jasodhara Bagchi, will remain an inspiration to many

By Juhi Jain
This is indeed a sad time for us feminists. We have lost many a stoic fighter who made inroads into the bastions of patriarchy – challenging hierarchies, demanding rights and fuelling winds of change. Jasodhara Bagchi, one such relentless feminist academic, critic and teacher, left us on January 9, 2015 morning in Kolkata at the age of 77. Jasodharadi was an inspiration, a stalwart and torch bearer of feminism in innumerable ways.

Jasodhara Bagchi was born in 1937, the only daughter of Presidency College Principal, Dr. J.C.Sengupta. After completing her English Honours from Presidency College, Kolkata she went on to do a second BA at Somerville College, Oxford and later completed her PhD on Walter Pater and late 19th century English literature at New Hall, Cambridge.

Most of her working life was spent as Professor of English Literature at the Jadavpur University which she joined in 1963, after a short stint of teaching at Lady Brabourne College. At Jadavpur, she combined activism, academic research and teaching, with an unfaltering pursuit of women rights, which she continued till her formal professional retirement (in 1997) and after that in her capacity as Emeritus Professor till the very end of her life.

While at Jadavpur, Jasodharadi completed her research on the 19th century English and Bengali literature, especially focusing on writings by women writers. In addition, she also undertook research studies on Reception of Positivism in Bengal, concept of motherhood and Partition of India.

Pursuing her dedication and interest in women’s studies, in 1988, Jasodharadi laid the foundation of the School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University; she became its first Founder-Director a post she held until retirement from university service.

Jasodhara Bagchi was appointed as the Chairperson of the West Bengal State Commission for Women on which she served from 2001 to 2008.

Prominently known for her leftist views, she was also a founder member of the feminist organization Sanchetna, in Kolkata. She was committed to mobilization for the women’s movement lending her voice to countless struggles of women for rights and dignity.

A pioneer in her field, Jasodharadi, was instrumental in initiating the publication of Bengali Women Writers Reprint Series, a monograph line dedicated to publishing new editions of writings of/by women in an effort to document and showcase their unrecorded and hidden works, history and pursuits.

A feminist author and critic, she wrote extensively on various social and women’s issues from a feminist-left perspective. Her book “Indian Women: Myth and Reality (1989) is considered a path breaking critical treatise on many pressing issues related to Indian women and their lives. In addition she has also edited several volumes on women’s personal histories.

Her latest book Parijayee Nari O Manabadhikar (Migrating Women and Human Rights), was termed as “politically controversial” and hence its launch at the Kolkata book fair was stalled. While the details of the “controversial nature” are not explicitly spelled out, knowing Jasodharadi’s critical positions vis-a vis women’s rights, violence and entitlement issues, it is not surprising that she had face the displeasure of those in position of power and authority. The book has however been released in a small private gathering.

More recently, Jasodharadi registered her protest and spoke out vociferously in support of students and, against Jadavpur University Vice-Chancellor and management for their anti-student stand and highhanded attitude in dealing with the student protests at the university campus during September 2014. She was part of the five-member team of Emeritus Professors that met West Bengal Governor and University Chancellor to demand appointment of a more “able” Vice-Chancellor for the Jadavpur University.

Another fascinating facet of Jasodharadi’s much loved personality was her passionate and melodious singing, which was hugely appreciated wherever she went, not only in Bengal but also in various South Asian forums where she conducted workshops, gave lectures and shared her academic thinking. Credit is also due to her for the vast repertoire of songs and verse that she stored in her memory and produced on request at such gatherings.

Jasodhara Bagchi remained active till her last days, having completed a draft of a monograph on motherhood just before her illness. We salute and remember her with fondness and affection, as a pillar of the women’s studies movement in India, and a towering source of strength for her colleagues and students alike.

Statement by Indian Association for Women’s Studies here

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

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.

Salutes to Vina Mazumdar, doyenne of women’s studies

Vina Mazumdar Obituary

Vina Mazumdar, veteran feminist and much loved pioneer of women’s studies movement in India passed away in New Delhi on 30 May 2013. She was 86

By Vibhuti Patel

With the passing away of Dr. Vina Mazumdar, fondly known as Vinadi, the Indian women’s movement has experienced an irreparable loss. Vinadi personified in her, a far sighted and strong willed thinker and a forceful speaker and convincing debater who had faith in ‘human goodness’.

Her intellectual prowess did not make her an ivory tower in her approach towards her colleagues and fellow travelers- academicians, policy makers, researchers and feminist activists. She always remained warm at heart, easy to approach, instantly building rapport, magnanimous in sharing her knowledge and institutional resources as director of Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

Her charm was in her electrifying persona, an always smiling face conveying optimism, down to earth approach, ideological sharpness, story-telling with witty humour and the most important courage of conviction combined with honesty of purpose. This is what explained her commanding agenda setting power, whether she was in the decision making bodies of University Grants Commission (UGC), Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Planning Commission of India and several ministries or outside of them. She could galvanize students, teachers, researchers, women’s organizations, trade unionists, bureaucrats, politicians and law makers into action as she was one of the best ‘argumentative Indians’ produced by ‘women’s studies movement’.

Vinadi was very good at coining catchy terms such as ‘women’s studies movement’, ‘the Indian psyche defined by binary ‘Ma’ versus “Maal’ – the dichotomy that worships motherhood and dehumanizes/commodifies the rest of women

Her contemporaries – powerful men in the Universities, research institutions and ministries called her ‘bulldozer’ while women scholars and practitioners found her the most trustworthy friend and mentor.

I worked closely with Vinadi during 1981 for the Women’s Studies Conference hosted by SNDT Women’s University, in 1985 for preparation of ‘End of the Decade’ alternate country report on Status of Women in India, in 1986 for a panel discussion on ‘Ante Natal Sex Selective and Abortions of Female Foetus in India’ for World Sociological Conference and in 1988 for a multi-centric research project on ‘Child Care as an Essential Input for women’s Development’.

Vina Mazumdar  was a great champion of participatory action research. Photo courtesy : Zubaan Books

Vina Mazumdar was a great champion of participatory action research. Photo courtesy : Zubaan Books

Vina Mazumdar was born in 1927 and completed her schooling in Calcutta. She did her honours course from Benaras Hindu University as well as Ashutosh College, Calcutta University and completed D.Phil. from Oxford University. In 1960, Once again she enrolled as a research scholar at Oxford University and within 2 years was awarded D.Phil.

She taught political science at Patna University and Berhampur University for couple of years. After that she joined UGC. She made a mark in the UGC Secretariat as an energetic Officer. She was also selected as a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla.

In 1972, when the Indian government agreed to honour the UN mandate to prepare a status report on women, Vinadi was appointed as Member Secretary of Committee on the Status of Women in India. Her unique contribution while preparation of landmark report “Towards Equality” as a researcher and her analytical rigour to explain material and ideological conditions that determined women’s predicament in India made her the most sought after scholar-activist during 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the millennium era.

In 1974, When All India Institute of Medical Science began conducting a sample survey of amniocentesis to find out about foetal genetic conditions and easily managed to enroll 11000 pregnant women as volunteers for its research, the main interest of these volunteer pregnant women was to know sex of the foetus. Once the results were out, the women who were told that they were carrying female fetuses demanded abortion. When the young researcher of AIIMS shared this observation with Vinadi, she mobilised a women’s delegation to meet the health minister to stop abuse of amniocentesis for sex selective abortions.

During the International Women’s Year (1975), Vinadi was appointed as Director, Programme of Women’s Studies, ICSSR, for five years (1975-80). She was Founder-Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi from 1980 to 1991, and thereafter was Senior Fellow at CWDS and JP Naik National Fellow, ICSSR, for two years. From 1996-2013, Dr. Veena Mazumdar was the Chairperson, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. She was the heart and soul of Indian Association of Women’s Studies.

Vinadi’s writings provided road map for developmental initiatives. Her memoir, Memories of a Rolling Stone pulished by Zubaan Books in 2010 provides vivid description of her principles, programmes, and policy initiatives in collaboration with her team of ‘movers and shakers’.

Vinadi will remain with us with her insightful publications:
• Education & Social Change: Three Studies on Nineteenth Century India. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1972.
• Role of Rural Women in Development. University of Sussex. Institute of Development Studies. Allied Publishers, 1978.
• Symbols of Power: Studies on the Political Status of Women in India. Allied, 1979.
• Emergence of the Women’s Question in India and the Role of Women’s Studies. Centre for Women’s Development Studies, 1985.
• Peasant Women Organise for Empowerment: The Bankura Experiment. Centre for Women’s Development Studies. 1989.

Featured Photo: Vina Mazumdar while studying at Asutosh College, Calcutta – courtesy: Wikipedia