Remembering Kamla Bhasin, the tireless activist, poet and feminist

Kamla Bhasin, a campaign and street action person, was also active with anti CAA protest and went to several protest sites to sing her Azaadi slogan

Photo Courtesy: Facebook/LahoreGardens
Photo Courtesy: Facebook/LahoreGardens

Kavita Srivastava

Kamla Bhasin was one of India’s most well-known feminists. She never introduced herself as anybody else but a feminist. Even in the 1980s, when the word feminism alienated some people, Kamla did not change her introduction.

In her death, a large section of women, men, trans people and Dalit Bahujan movement representative, are taking to social media to express their feelings towards her. There is a sense of personal loss among a large section of the people. What was it about Kamla which attracted people towards her? What did she do that left a lasting impression on people?

I can tell this through my own personal story of knowing her.

I met Kamla Bhasin in 1984. It was the month of September, the place was the first training of Sathins in a dharamshala of small temple town called Padampura outside Jaipur. The Women's Development Programme had just been launched in Rajasthan and the first Sathin training (the key grassroots workers) was underway. Two fire brand feminists, dressed in very smart clothes, were at the doorstep of the training hall; the textile was handloom, the colours were earthy and the jackets too were cut beautifully.

We understood that the two women were from Delhi. They were Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya, who were associated with 'Saheli Delhi'. We looked at them with deep scepticism and wondered what these Delhiites wanted to do in this training of rural women. Being the last week of the training, the sessions were being run by the Sathins themselves. So they slotted the two Delhi feminists grudgingly in their schedule.

I don’t quite recall what the two spoke then but I remember that the songs that they sang mostly in Hindi were centred around women’s lives. Their repertoire was unending. But our Sathins were no less. The Delhi feminists had found their match in them. They had made the most beautiful songs in their local dialect, describing their suffering, their hopes and their dreams in poignant poetry.

That impression even today has never left me. The zest and energy that Kamla spread just infused in each one the appetite to sing more. The air in the room changed. It was filled with laughter, song, dance and ended with us bonding even more. That was the beginning of my knowing Kamla Bhasin and knowing Kamla the singer, the poet, the dancer, the sloganeering one and the witty one.

Kamla was a unique person in the movement. She was born in Shahidanwali village in Gujranwala district of Punjab. Part of a family with six siblings, Kamla’s father, a medical doctor, got a job in the Bharatpur State, post-partition. They grew up and went to school in small villages and towns all over Kota and Bharatpur districts of Rajasthan, but when she was 15-years-old, she came to study in Jaipur. It is there that she met her friend for sixty years, Abha, who was in school with her.

Rajasthan University had a high reputation. Kamla went to the Maharani college and joined the Department of Economics in the University. Her five years in college and the University are remembered vividly even today. She was the sports captain of her college. She was always on her toes, rushing through corridors, making everyone laugh.

One of her hostel mates in the university revealed that every night, despite strict girls' hostel rules, Kamla would play pranks, scale the walls but would always be there by the time of the roll call. The day never ended for her and her friends.

On finishing their MA, Kamla and Abha were both selected to go to Germany to carry out research on whether development got delivered to the poor. Abha says she joined a year later.

On finishing her Germany stint, Kamla came and joined the foremost development agency of Rajasthan, called the Sewa Mandir. She got involved in the water programme, drove a motorcycle all over the city and to the villages. Girls driving motorcycles was unheard of in those days.

She started anganwadis in the city poor areas. She was a frequent visitor to the colleges and university in Udaipur, where she started mobilising women to fight injustice.

Her generosity was also acknowledged as she supported students who could not afford higher education. She met Baljit Malik in Sewa Mandir whom she married later and also had two children with him.

The 1980s was the decade when the Delhi autonomous feminist movement was at their creative best. Kamla was one of the keys persons in the collective, mobilising people through songs, poetry, slogans, posters and plays. The repertoire of her songs had already been put together and the first few volumes were out.

By the late seventies, Kamla had moved to Delhi where she joined the FAO. But the women’s movement in Delhi was just beginning to mobilise. The anti-rape and anti-dowry struggles took off with the Delhi feminists finding themselves on the streets building awareness and raising their voice by performing plays on the streets, putting pressure on the government to implement the law.

The network called Saheli was leading the street plays and public action. The custodial rape case of a young Tribal girl called Mathura, which reached the Supreme Court, and of Rameeza bi in Hyderabad, led to a huge build up of the anti-rape movement, leading to amendments in the rape laws in 1981.

Similarly, the anti-dowry movement also led to changes in the criminal law, with the inclusion of Section 498 (A) and later 304(B) in the IPC. This was followed by the movement in the aftermath of the Shahbano judgement, and then the Roop Kanwar Sati, which brought thousands on the streets of India, with the main action happening in Jaipur.

In the period of the mandir andolan, Kamla was writing songs about unity and harmony and challenging religion as a divisive tool in our society. When the provision of one third reservations for women was initiated in the Panchayati Raj and local bodies, Kamla wrote songs on women’s power and leadership. She wrote on women exercising their votes. By mid-nineties, she also wrote songs just for fun and relaxation.

In the late seventies and the eighties, Kamla interacted with other feminists of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India through the South Asian Network for Action and Training, This was a platform to understand patriarchy, gender, feminism, masculinity, development and laws.

Her songs travelled even wider. Several booklets have been written by her in English and Hindi, which were read widely. The Azadi slogan came from Pakistan which she recreated and popularised. Today it has been picked up by all movements and 'Azadi' has become relevant more than ever with increasing repression in the country.

She played an active role in building women’s studies in India and also worked as General Secretary of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies and organised a massive biennial conference in Jaipur in 1995.

By the late eighties and nineties, Kamla was also travelling to almost every state to conduct workshops and trainings on these issues. She assisted governments in building campaigns for adolescent girls and ending violence against women.

In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case, she was invited by the Sheila Dixit Government to train one lakh conductors and drivers and planned several activities with them.

In 2013, she initiated with Eve Ensler the 'One billion rising' campaign to end violence against women, culminating in the V Day, Ending Violence Day, on Valentine’s day. Its punchline, 'Strike Rise Dance', the street actions and flash mobs mobilised young girls all over the country.

In 2018, she started a campaign on property rights for women, which consisted of ensuring the implementation of the Hindu Succession Act, 2005 and preventing the women from relinquishing their rights.

In the last two decades, Kamla became one of the top trainers on gender, masculinity, sexuality, patriarchy, feminism and development. With a large number of books written by her, she was one of the most sought after trainer in the country.

Kamla, a campaign and street action person, was also active in the anti-CAA movement and went to several protest sites to sing her Azaadi slogan. She regretted not having written a book on Bilkis Dadi.

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Published: 29 Sep 2021, 1:56 PM