Banaskatha, Gujarat: “Laaj kari nakho“ (get rid of the purdah), urges Laxmiben, when she talks to the women who come to Azadi Kooch’s public meetings.
The only female core team member of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), under whose banner the rally was organised, Laxmiben has marched shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in Azadi Kooch, encouraging women to come out of their homes and join the rally.
“Men would not understand what we (Dalit women) go through in villages and that is why I am here,” says the 36-year-old in conversation with The Wire on the Azadi Kooch’s route towards Bhabhar village in Banaskatha.
Azadi Kooch is the seven-day rally being undertaken to mark one year since the public flogging of Dalits in Una.
Married at the age of 16 to an extremely poor household, Laxmiben Maheria took to work in anganwadi as her husband’s income was not enough to provide education for her two sons. When on leave from anganwadi, she would work as a labourer for some extra money while her husband would slog about 14 hours a day trying to help the family lead a respectable life.
Laxmiben, unlike most Dalit woman of her village Saroda in Dholka taluka, spends her time working while juggling the responsibilities of being a mother, wife and daughter-in-law.
“One day when I came back from school, my father declared that he has decided to get me married to a man from Saroda village. That is all I knew, that is all I was allowed to know. In a few days I was married to man who is more than fifteen years older. I was in class nine and it was the summer vacation. I never could study again,” she tells.
“Thankfully, my husband has always been very supportive. He even urged to resume my studies but later I was not interested in formal education,” adds Laxmiben.
Mevani and RDAM
Laxmiben came in touch with Dalit leader and RDAM convenor, Jignesh Mevani, a year ago as part of a group meeting. Little did she know that the meeting would change the course of her life.
Inspired by Mevani and encouraged by her husband, Ranchodbhai Maheria, she started her fight for land, ‘asmita‘ of Dalit women and a better future for her children.
“We (a total of 115 landless families) were running from pillar to post to get possession of 222 bighas of land allotted to us in the year 2006 under provisions of Agriculture Land Ceiling Act, but in vain. Somebody suggested we (villagers from Saroda) that we should meet Jignesh Mevani. This was before the Una flogging incident had happened,” she told The Wire.
Later (post Dalit Asmita Yatra), following a rasta rook andolan in September, 2016 and threatening to march naked from Saroda to the collector’s office in Ahmedabad, Dholka authorities initiated measurement of land in the village.
From then on, there was no turning back. In January 2017, when Mevani and his team from RDAM stopped the Rajdhani Express as part of a protest against the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, Laxmiben was at the forefront.
Along with thirty five others, an FIR was filed against her under Sections 8/2017, 143,147, 332 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code and under section 153 of the Indian Railway Act. The minimum punishment for the charges could be five years and penalty.
The multiple FIRs have not deterred her or her family. In fact Laxmiben remembers Madhuben, her comrade-in-arm who was with her at the rail roko andolan, and has helped her at every step of her life as activist.
“We are proud of her [Laxmiben]. She is the first from our village to come out and fight for our rights,” says a beaming Madhuben who also participated in rail roko.
“We have come here to hear her [Laxmiben] speak from the stage,” adds Madhuben, who participated in Azadi Kooch on its last day at Dhanera.
“She has supported me at every step in any way I need. Even the saris I am wearing along Azadi Kooch aren’t mine. I don’t have such good saris. But Madhuben and some female friends of Saroda arranged for saris. They said I should have them as I am addressing public gathering as this for the first time,” Laxmiben said.
Ever since Laxmiben has taken to activism, her daily schedule has become jam-packed. Her day starts at around 5 am when she makes sure her elder son gets to eat before he travels about 40 kilometres to come to Ahmedabad to study in college. Her anganwadi work gets done by afternoon, after which she travels to neighbouring villages spreading awareness and telling people about RDAM. Sometimes, usually on Sundays, if she can spare the travel fare, she travels to Ahmedabad to attend RDAM meetings.
“Domestic work takes a backseat many a times due the other work. My husband runs the household in my absence. My sons understand too, they never complain,” she says.
Ranchodbhai Maheria, Laxmiben’s husband, says that she is the centre of the family. “She has always been the rock of the family. I have health issues and can’t hear from my left ear. There are times I have no earning in a day but she has always managed and never let education of our kids suffer. We have taken loans for their education that we repay every month,” Maheria, who owns a goods rickshaw that is usually used to transport industrial goods around rural Gujarat, said.
“This is first time I have been away from my family for so long. My younger son says he misses me,” Laxmiben says, breaking down for a moment.
The very next moment, however, she gathers herself and says: “More women have to come out and fight and that is what I keep telling everywhere I go. The participation of women is negligible as you can see in this public meeting (at Bhabhar).”
Laxmiben has won the support of women of her village. Her dreams are simple: proper health care for rural women especially during pregnancy and child delivery, and toilets in every household.
“Most women in villages are not aware of modern healthcare. Many have unhygienic practices while menstruating or lack of awareness about sanitary napkins or not having money to be able to afford which leads to infection and diseases. Most of the Dalit households in Saroda don’t have toilets. We have to defecate in open. That is a huge discomfort for women. I want to work on such issues,” she says.
Laxmiben has faced her share of obstacles in a year and ironically, most criticism that comes her way comes from women. In her initial days as an activist, she would be taunted for not practicing the purdah or travelling alone to the city and working as an activist. But Laxmiben has come a long way. She is today not only heard by the same women but they have also accepted her as their leader.
At Dasava village in Banaskatha, at the public meeting of Azadi Kooch, 14-year-old Priyanka approaches Laxmiben.
“I want to study after class ten but my family will not allow me. They say I will be unsafe if I travel and study further,” the young girl tells the woman activist.
Laxmiben reacts quickly: She convinces the young girl to take the stage and publicly urge her parents to reconsider their decision. After Priyanka conveys her plea over the micrphone, Laxmiben calls the girl’s parents on stage and urges them to send Priyanka for further studies.
“See? Each of these women need their own azadi,” she tells the men at the Azadi Kooch rally.
As her friends and family point out, Laximben is a fiery leader and one who is perhaps set to to fill the void of female Dalit leaders in Gujarat.
Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.