Women Social Reformers You Should Know About

Priya Jayakumar

Remembering India’s inspirational social reformers

Annai Meenambal

Annai Meenambal was born into a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu and migrated to Rangoon (Myanmar) to escape the brutalities of caste system. Her grandfather and father were great Dalit leaders who were part of Adi-dravida movements. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman President of Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) founded by Dr. Ambedkar. She presided over two major SCF conferences in Madras and Bombay in the 1940s. Her major achievements include being the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University senate and Deputy Mayor of Chennai Corporation, honorary magistrate for Madras Province and Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank. She was the one who gave E.V. Ramasamy the title “Periyar”(the great one) and was one of the radical feminist leaders of Self-Respect movement. She worked for the welfare of Dalit-Bahujans till the age of 80. 

Hemalatha Lavanam

Dr. Hemalatha Lavanam was the daughter of a renown Dalit Telugu poet Gurram Joshua. Since childhood she faced the rigours of caste and untouchability. The Jogini system is a social evil in which the so-called untouchable girls of the villages in Telangana are dedicated to the deities Ellamma and Potamma. The children are regarded as village property and any man from that village has the right to sexually exploit these children. Dr. Hemalatha worked for the eradication of this religious custom and rehabilitation of children. Dr. Hemalatha, along with Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan, worked for the rehabilitation of criminal tribes in Chambal Valley. She also was in the forefront of various disaster reliefs and rehabilitations. She led a Unity March on foot for 1400 kilometers in 70 days, raising concern and voice against the caste violence that occurred condemning the murder of a Congress(I) MLA in coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1989.  Dr. Hemalatha’s commitment for the poor and downtrodden made her receive a number of awards. She was a well-known writer and poet and published a number of books. 

Dr. V. Shantha

Dr. Shantha was an oncologist and the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. In her medical career spanning over 60 years, she dedicated herself on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role in the development of the institute from a cottage hospital which initially had 12 beds to a comprehensive one. She started affordable and quality cancer treatment in India treating 60% of the patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates. She was the first to initiate a paediatric oncology clinic, first to establish a cancer research and treatment centre in India, first to offer postgraduate in oncology course, oversaw the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and also conducted one of the first major cancer surveys in India. She  received various prestigious awards including Magsaysay award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

Mandhakini Amte

Dr. Mandhakini Amte dedicated her life to serving the Madia-Gond tribal community in the forest of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. She left her job as a lecturer in a medical college and settled with the tribal people in a hut along with her husband, Prakash Amte. She renounced her sophisticated life and committed herself to social work. There were no roads, electricity and water and she had to harvest paddy and vegetables for food. The Madia-Gonds feared civilized people and faced difficulties connecting with them. Slowly she won the trust of the people by providing treatment and medication to their ailments. There were no facilities and there were limitations in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicine. She along with her husband started a project called the Lok Biradari Prakalp (The People’s Brotherhood) for the integrated development of Madia-Gond which now has a fully-fledged 40 bed hospital that caters to over 40000 patients annually and a residential school from 1st to 12th standard giving free education to nearly 650 tribal children. She is a recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay award.

Fatima Sheikh

Fatima Sheikh was the first woman Muslim teacher in India. When Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were asked to vacate their ancestral home by Jyotirao’s father due to their reform, it was Fatima Sheikh who opened her doors for them and it was at the same building she joined hands with Savitribai to establish the first school for girls in India called “Indigenous Library” in 1848. She not only faced challenges from the Hindus for educating girls and the untouchables, but also from the orthodox Muslims as both the groups were against the idea of access to equal education. They pelted stones and cow dung at Fatima and Savitribai on the streets. But it did not stop the women from their contribution. Fatima Sheikh went from door to door encouraging families to send their daughters to school. She used to give counselling for hours to the parents who did not agree to send their daughters to school. Today’s women owe Fatima Sheikh for their right to education. 

Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi was a Bengali writer and an activist who fought for the rights of the downtrodden and tribal communities across India. Her literary works expressed concern on the landless labourers, tribes like the Santhals, Mundas and Lodhas, beggars and Maoist rebels. She lived in the Adivasi villages, befriended and studied their lives. She edited a Bengali quarterly – Borika, which stood as an embodiment of the voiceless. She wrote only on the marginalized communities and they were the protagonists in her novels. Even her fictional works contain socio-political messages. One of her most famous books is Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the forest) based on the life of the young tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. She also voiced against the Industrial policy of CPI(M) government of West Bengal. Speaking about her inspirations, “the reason and inspiration for my writings are those people who are exploited and used, yet do not accept defeat. Why should I look for my raw materials elsewhere, once I have started knowing them?”. She was honoured with various literary awards along with Magsaysay award, Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

Mangaltai Kamble

Mangaltai Kamble was a landless Dalit woman working as a farm labourer in the farms of upper caste landlords. The Dalit in her village were treated as untouchables and they survived on the leftover food of villagers. She decided to cultivate but she had no lands. So she took control of village grazing land for farming. The villagers laughed at her for deciding to cultivate on a barren land and taunted her that she had gone mad. During that time many farmers killed themselves due to frequent droughts that led to crop failures. But Mangaltai stood strong on her decision and requested her husband to help. Fearing the upper caste villagers, he refused. So she took the help of her neighbour Sunanda Kamble and the women took control of about two acres of grazing land each. There was no money, water or resources for cultivation. They even encouraged other women to take control of the lands and formed Self-Help Groups. During monsoon, they relied on food grin and vegetable seed varieties that grow on less water. As the landless Dalits turned into cultivators, the upper caste villagers and leaders turned furious, destroyed the crops and even used police force to throw the cultivators out of the land. This did not stop her and she continued to struggle cultivating just to make-ends-meet. 

Dakshayani Velayuthan

Dakshayani Velayuthan was the youngest and the only Dalit woman among the 389 members of Indian Constituent Assembly comprising of 15 women. She was from the Pulayar community and she was the first woman to wear an upper cloth and was the first woman in her community to earn a degree. She was also the first Dalit woman graduate in India. She was the only girl student in science subjects in her college. Her upper caste teacher did not show her any experiments in Chemistry. She learnt by looking from a distance and graduated with a high position in class. She taught in an Ezhava-dominated high school and there were various instances where she was discriminated against. She called for proportionate reservation of Dalits in panchayat and municipality. Dakshayani said as long as untouchability remained, the word “Harijan” was meaningless, like calling dogs as “Napoleon”. She spoke against the centralization of power in the Constitution and wanted decentralization. She argued in favour of Article 17 of the Constitution that makes untouchability a crime by law. After serving as a member of the Constituent Assembly, she retired from politics and worked for underprivileged groups. Later, she organized a forum for Ambedkarite women called “Mahila Jagriti Parishad” in Delhi and worked with the slum dwellers.

Priya is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work from University of Delhi. She is an Ambedkarite and an intersectional feminist. 

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Indian Populist Leaders: From Indira Gandhi to Modi

Navika Mehta

Why populism works in Indian politics as a political tool used by leaders to gain popular support.

In 2016, 2000 articles in the Guardian mentioned populism as compared to 300 articles in 1998. In 2017, “populism” was declared the word of the year by the Cambridge Dictionary. In the last 20 years, there is a significant increase in populist support worldwide and populist vote share has more than tripled in Europe. Although populism is not a new occurrence, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee influx in Europe have been commonly cited by academics as propellers of this “anti-establishment” rhetoric

“populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a ‘new’ kind of party that is different from all others.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, has defined populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté (general will) of the people”. He explains that populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a “new” kind of party that is different from all others. He differentiates populists from early socialists because populists claim to speak for the “oppressed people” while unwilling to change “their values or their ‘way of life’”. For example, speaking for farmers’ rights while charging high-interest rates on loans. 

Indian politics is not a stranger to populist politics. Right from the movement for Indian independence from the British Empire, to the current BJP government, populism has been key to gaining votes. Prior to Independence, the nationalist movement which enabled the country-wide resistance against the British Raj brought about a sense of togetherness in the collective struggles against the oppressor. This movement succeeded largely by gathering the outpouring of popular support as the nation as a whole came together to bring an end to British rule. 

“After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase ‘gareebi hatao’, which means, end poverty.”

After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase “gareebi hatao”, which means, end poverty. And so, further enforcing redistribution through economic policies like nationalisation of banks and abolition of the privy purse (a sum paid to the former rulers of princely states of India who agreed to integrate with the union). Thus, creating a them vs. us narrative – the colonial past vs. modern egalitarian India – and – rich elite vs. poor. These redistributive anti-elite policies along with her emphasising a strong feminine character, being referred to as “Ma Durga”, Goddess of Power, challenged the political masculinities of Indian politics and enabled her to get the popular vote. 

“Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support.”

Populism can be inclusive or exclusive. For example, populism in Europe is exclusive and that in Latin America is inclusive. This means that while European populism has a socio-cultural dimension to exclude immigrants or refugees, the Latin American populism has an economic dimension of including and helping the poor and underrepresented. Indian history has witnessed both kinds. The independence movement was inclusive, it was a fight against colonial oppressors and freedom for all Indians. Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support. Identity here can be religious, caste-based, gendered or along any other social category. Due to this, a new political cleavage with a cultural dimension has now emerged.

“Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus remains on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign ‘chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)’ perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity.”

Populism in India today has taken a similar approach using this new dimension. With identity-based politics at the forefront, right-wing populism has slowly grown and has now taken a stronghold with the re-election of the BJP for a second term. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus is on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign “chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)” perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity. The party has successfully created a them vs. us narrative through religion – majority vs. minority and also through nationalists vs. anti-nationals (those who speak against the government). While Gandhi herself belonged to the ruling class she channeled her image as the anti-elite rebel, similarly, Modi has emphasised his humble beginnings as the “chai wala” (tea seller). 

Both types of populism focus on pro-poor agendas, their solutions are oversimplified and inadequate in bringing about real economic equality. For example, demonetisation and privy purse, both claimed to be for the benefit of the poor, anti-elite, but neither had a significant impact in bringing real economic and social change for the masses. 

The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens of India with exceptions for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities was defended by supporters of the government and mainstreamed a huge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Suddenly, elite, upper middle-class and majority religious groups who may have never before concerned themselves with the rights of the Indian working class, expressed deep concern about Muslim immigrant workers from Bangladesh taking jobs of the Hindu working class. The focus of the political sphere thus shifted from the real causes of unemployment to the them vs. us narrative of Muslim immigrants taking the jobs of natives. This has been highlighted as the “scapegoating phenomena” by Colantone and Stanig who explain that anti-immigrant sentiments tend to be higher in areas with greater unemployment and in the presence of a right-wing populist party. They explain that unemployment and lack of opportunities trigger this belief that the labour market is a “zero-sum game”, wherein, in order to get a job the individual needs to take it from another person thus making immigrants a perceived threat for natives. 

“nativism means that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.’ He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been ‘whitewashed’ by using the term populism.”

Mudde argues that this anti-immigrant ideology used by populist parties is actually “nativism” couched in a less explicit racist term as “populism”. He explains that nativism means that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.” He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been “whitewashed” by using the term populism. In India, the CAA along with the NRC (National Register of Citizens) is not only a threat for migrants and refugees but also against people who don’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship, with the CAA  specifically excluding Muslims who entered India on or before December 2014. Thus, further reinforcing the exclusive populist narrative of India in the 21st century. 

“The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs.” 

The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs. Post-Independence, in the backdrop of partition, the Indian government laid emphasis on ideas of pluralism, secularism and diversity, with the phrase “unity in diversity” coined by Nehru. These ideas were deeply ingrained in education, government policies and cultural references. In the present day, until the issues of “nativism”, economic inequalities and political propaganda of right-wing populists who pretend that they care about the working class are effectively tackled, populism will continue to thrive, and fake news and positive media coverage will enable it to do so.

Navika is the Editor of Bol Magazine and created this platform to inspire conversations and action.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Untold Stories of Partition

Vidhi Maheshwari

Through the reviews of Urvashi Bhutalia’s “The Other Side of Silence”, and Deepa Mehta’s “Earth”, the author challenges the writings on partition that have mostly focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men

Content Warning: Violence Against Women, Suicide 

The partition of India and Pakistan is one of the bloodiest upheavals in human history. During this time about 9 million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India and almost 5 million Muslims fragmented into East and West Pakistan. This migration between the newly formed countries was accompanied by mass communal violence that left an estimated one million people dead. Even though it has been 74 years since partition, the impact it had on peoples’ lives persists. 

“These accounts highlight how the Hindu and Muslim rivalry dominated the dialogue of partition, silencing the voices of women and minority groups in historiography.”

Urvashi Bhutalia in her book,“The Other Side of Silence” attempts to analyze the partition of Indian society through oral recollections. The collection of traumatic and painful events ­­from people who lived through partition helps shed light on the fact that decades later history has finally caught up with these silenced voices. Similarly, the movie “Earth” by Deepa Mehta portrays the bitterness of partition and the impact of violence on the lives of the individuals, families and friendships through the innocence and silence of a 7-year-old child, Lenny. These accounts highlight how the Hindu and Muslim rivalry dominated the dialogue of partition, silencing the voices of women and minority groups in historiography.

The division of Hindus and Muslims into India and Pakistan during partition aggravated religious differences. It is no surprise that the impact of religion on the lives of people forms the root cause of the issues raised by Bhutalia and Mehta in their respective accounts of partition. The movie “Earth” shows how religious feelings turned Muslim, Hindu and Sikh friends into enemies, willing to kill each other during the religious catastrophe. Additionally, the interview of Rajinder Singh in Bhutalia’s book shows how the fear of death and violence uprooted villages and communities overnight – “Now there were thousand people or so…Hindu, Sikhs…they picked up whatever they could and then they joined the khalifa”. Such accounts show how partition not only aggravated tensions between Muslims and Hindus but also was the cause of broken friendships and families. This division of hearts with the emerging feelings of hate towards members of the other religion is what led to mass murders and violence during partition.

“The narratives of women are crucial because they not only highlight the patriarchal nature of Indian society but also represent the voices that have been suppressed and are less likely to be found in the historical accounts of partition.”

While friendships and families were affected during partition, women were symbolized as national subjects and faced the worst procurement of this religious catastrophe. In her book, Bhutalia dedicates an entire chapter to address the silenced voices of women from the partition. The narratives of women are crucial because they not only highlight the patriarchal nature of Indian society but also represent the voices that have been suppressed and are less likely to be found in the historical accounts of partition. Bhutalia mentions that: “I found that even in the closest of relationships in families, people could be so ignorant of – and indifferent to- what was going on in the life of someone so close to them”.

Partition was also the time when women were abducted, murdered and raped. In the movie Earth, a young Muslim boy tells Lenny and her friend how Hindus attacked their village and killed everyone including his mother. He goes on to tell how after he escaped and went to look for his mother, he found her hanging by the ceiling fan in the mosque, completely naked. This is one of the many accounts describing the violence that erupted against the women of the other religion. To prevent themselves from being “polluted” by the men of another religion, women jumped in wells with their children, burnt themselves alive or offered themselves to be martyred by the hands of their own family members. 

Sardarni Gulab Kaur, an important figure in the village of Thao Khalsa fearlessly led over eight women to the well to commit mass suicide. Bir Bahadur Singh’s daughter offered herself to be killed by her father to prevent falling prey to the Muslims. Gurmeet Singh, a survivor of the village of Thamali says that “We gave them the order to kill all the girls… we felt totally helpless… we killed the girls with our own hands; kerosene was poured on them inside the Gurudwara and the place was set on fire… women and children where could they go”. These are just a few accounts that represent the sufferings of women during partition. 

“the records of history have negligible accounts that represent the voices of women, their sufferings, the torture and torment they went through”

However, the records of history have negligible accounts that represent the voices of women, their sufferings, the torture and torment they went through. Thus, Bhutalia’s book, by emphasizing the oral accounts of women who survived the disasters of partition, helps give them a voice in narrating the history of partition. While multiple accounts in Bhutalia’s book show how women willingly gave up their lives to avoid falling prey to men of the other religion, the movie Earth shows how a Hindu maid, Shanta, who worked in the house of a Parsi (Zoroastrian) family was mercilessly abducted by the hands of her Muslim friend, Dil Nawaaz. Even though Dil Nawaaz ended up despising Shanta because she fell in love with their other Muslim friend, Hassan and not him, the fact that he led the Muslims to abduct Shanta shows how women were treated as commodities and subjects used by men to release their aggression during partition.

“Bhutalia recognizes that the stories of women and children were not the only ones that lay shrouded in silence. She mentions that most of the writing of partition has focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men, as if no other identity existed.”

Further, Bhutalia recognizes that the stories of women and children were not the only ones that lay shrouded in silence. She mentions that most of the writing of partition has focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men, as if no other identity existed. This makes it important to consider the hidden voices of Dalits and other minority religious groups in the history of partition as their lives were also touched in unexpected ways during partition and little is known about their sufferings. Even though Dalits (lower caste Hindus subjected to the practice of untouchability) have been considered as outcastes and invisible in the society, there was no way to distinguish a Dalit from a upper caste Hindu or a Muslim. However, in the book, Maya describes how she and her friends fearlessly looted houses in their village to stack up ration, “we thought, who’s going to take us away, who’s going to kill us? We call ourselves Harijans; Hindus, Christians, no one can take us away.” 

Even though this representation of Dalits by Maya should have been considered as a protective shield in the fight between Hindus and Muslims, Dalits also faced the consequences of partition. After being forced out of their homes, they were denied entry from the refugee camps leaving them with nowhere to go. This also made it harder for them to gain access to rations, clothing, etc. Additionally, the movie Earth shows how to escape the wrath of partition, a young Dalit girl was married to an old Christian man. Shanta explains to Lenny that: “fear is making people do crazy things these days”. These accounts highlight the sufferings of Dalits during partition and help bring their silenced voices to the forefront.

“The accounts of these marginalized groups help understand how the predominant focus on Hindu and Muslims during partition overshadowed the sufferings of other groups and people thereby eliminating their voices from the historical accounts of partition.”

Apart from Dalits, Bhutalia also describes how Christians occupied a rather ambiguous space during partition. They were a small community in numbers and had no special identity in terms of their work. Due to their closeness with the colonizers, they were not seen as “acceptable” figures in the national discourse. Bhutalia mentions the story of two young Christian Air Force officers who came very close to being killed because no one understood what their religion was when they were forced to crash land in Rajasthan.

In “Earth”, Lenny’s mother tells her that Parsis (Zoroastrians) are like chameleons as they take on the color of the people around them to survive. She says that since there are such few Parsis in the world, it is safer for them to be invisible and not stand out. The accounts of these marginalized groups help understand how the predominant focus on Hindu and Muslims during partition overshadowed the sufferings of other groups and people thereby eliminating their voices from the historical accounts of partition.

Bhutalia’s “The other Side of Silence” and Mehta’s “Earth” both put forward the experiences of women, children and Dalits in historiography. They place at the center the silenced voices of these marginalized groups and women that helps us better understand and expose the themes of violence, abduction and belonging. These two accounts of partition also show how the histories of these suppressed voices lie at the core of partition. One can never truly learn about partition without hearing these voices and acknowledging the fact that history dwells into the lives of individuals, making it important to hear their stories and experiences.

Vidhi obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology and International Studies from Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her MA in Mental Health Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala