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Kamla Bhasin fought her last battle with a virulent form of cancer braving extreme pain with irony, and imminent death with the everyday routine of life. Her greatest contribution to Indian feminism was her determination to be uncompromising with her ideals, and fearless about stating them in a world that behaved so differently.
Her genius lay in how she framed her message: speaking truth to patriarchy, and providing support to the most battered, using language that communicated directly, simply, and energetically with all.
Kamla’s discourse was never boring.
She had an extraordinary ability to distil the essence of what was often presented as a complicated political feminist debate, into simple rhyme, rhythm and song. The confidence, élan and immense abandon with which she communicated the concepts of feminism in multiple idioms to a very diverse group of people was exceptional. Charismatic and without self-consciousness, she used her ability to be uninhibited and frank to bring the unusual into conversation, and startle the mind to drop its defences, to open up to newer possibilities.
She talked of her young days when she was called a “tomboy”, very keen to play hockey, graduating to the days she shocked people by simply riding a motorcycle in Udaipur in the 70s. She did it naturally – not trying to make a statement – but in doing so, inevitably questioning patriarchy and authority by just being herself.
Her instinctive opposition to stereotyping, possibly gave her an innate understanding of the basis of prejudice and bigotry, and the harm it can do individually and collectively. It seemed unlikely, that she would last and shine in an international bureaucracy like the UN, but she used it to engage with feminism beyond its physical and geographical boundaries. Without giving up her roots in Rajasthan, India, South Asia, people from the global south, became her concern.
She was part of a group of women who challenged the concept of awards to single individuals, setting up the “Association of 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005 with Women Across the Globe”. The document has a quote from Kamla that says, “I am not a wall that divides – I am a crack in that wall,” which is evocative of her ability to see her significant role in the context of the much larger debates on women.
In going beyond these boundaries, Kamla began to enrich the language and politics of secularism in India by forging solidarities; by organising many exchanges, which gave birth to numerous friendships, relationships and the exchange of ideas in the South Asia region.
She looked for, and befriended activists from different social movements, and insisted they meet each other. These solidarities, helped counter inequalities perpetrated by different feudal societies in our region. It also helped counter the bigotry and stigma of religious politics, through an exposure to the rich resource of human diversity that dissolves and transcends “man” made boundaries.
She contributed to the existing vision of feminism and its world view, which went beyond sexuality and gender specificity to see war and hate as patriarchy. This became part of her developing discourse.
When I met her in the last week of her life, she sang the songs she had composed and set to popular and traditional tunes. She spoke about her admiration for peoples movements that represented the voice of the most exploited and under privileged such as the NBA and the MKSS.
She spoke of her wish to sit, lie and chat under the blue skies and trees with people. She always claimed her earthiness with pride, and her simplicity with a deliberately exaggerated apology for skirting the intellectual discourse. She knew she was more than part of it in the content of all that she said.
She managed in her simplicity of style and in her forthrightness to cut to the heart of the matter. She also effortlessly gained the respect of academics and feminist theoreticians, at a scale not common amongst activists. For them she became an icon, and a touchstone for claiming feminism with innovative novelty.
She evolved a new pedagogy of empowerment, for women facing oppression and discrimination, to fight the battle with feminist tools. These tools were artfully constructed and ingeniously communicated, so that women could use them effortlessly and with ease. She managed to use this gift to take mainstream slogans that perpetuated stereotypes, and turn them around to emphasise a point. She would say, “you are my sheros”, emphasising that women needed to evolve a new vocabulary based on familiar words.
Nothing would get her down.
It was interesting to see the trajectory from straightforward feminism to understanding gender. Later years saw quite a few men join her courses – always in great demand. She broke down masculinity with the same humour and wit, hitting the target of her argument, seldom leaving broken hearts, but definitely dismantling egos. These sessions always brought in a new method, or another perception.
This is not to say that she had a new format every time she organised a workshop, her used and tested methods, transferred themselves to many generations, making her songs and slogans familiar to three generations of women and male activists. The effortlessness was the outcome of serious thought and application. She was the conductor of the trainer’s orchestra and fine-tuned every note.
Her life has taught us not only to process strengths, but to understand vulnerability. She lived her faith in humanity through a difficult divorce; the heart wrenching, and tragic loss of a daughter, and wrapped her autistic son with compassion and extraordinary tenderness. As I met her a few days before she passed away she said, “There are ‘His Holiness’ and ‘His Highness’; and Chotu is my ‘His Happiness’.”
Her life ended with generosity, extended to a shared universe, with the endowment of the bulk of her estate to the continuation of the commitments which drove her in her lifetime. She said it was also an acknowledgement of the great contribution of her fellow beings who sustained her through her life. The Trust in her name and that of her daughter Meeto, will support the continuation of her work in India and South Asia with women, culture and equality.
Feisty Kamla has fought her last battle, singing and celebrating a life well lived. Her absence will be felt acutely. Her gutsy presence, laughter and song, along with her wonderful strength, shared with innumerable women are her legacy. In a world threatened to be overwhelmed by the propagation of hate, prejudice, and privilege; they will help sustain us with compassion, humour and hope, in our struggles for equality, diversity, and peace.
Aruna Roy is a socio-political activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.