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Remembering Kamla Bhasin: A Champion For Equity, Equality, And Feminism

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Kamla Bhasin
Kamla Bhasin has played a pivotal role in forging feminist solidarity networks in South Asia

Nishi Verma 

Kamala Bhasin was a feminist icon with a multifaceted persona who passed away on 25th September 2021. She was a  poet, a writer, an activist, a  lyricist, a mentor, and a facilitator. Kamala was the founder of Jagori, an organization working with the women’s movement in India. She also worked with organizations such as South Asia Women’s Network and Aurat Foundation. She played pivotal forging solidarity among feminist movements in the South Asian region. Remembering her, a special discussion was held by the Center for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), IMPRI Impact, and Policy Research Institute. The discussion was organized under #WebPolicyTalk series #InMemoriam. A special discussion, Remembering Kamla Bhasin: A Champion for Equity, Equality and Human Rights

The Poetry Of Feminism

The event started with Professor Vibhuti Patel, an Eminent Gender Economist, and Feminist, Former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai also acting as a moderator for the session, sharing her memory from the first time she met Kamala Bhasin during an anti-rape movement in 1980. She described her as a woman who would charge the conferences and workshops with her forceful slogans, electrifying persona, confidence, witty jokes, and dense theoretical and political content.

Professor Vibhuti Patel then expressed her sorrow on the passing away of Kamala Bhasin calling it an irreparable loss to the feminist movement as well as the One Billion Rising Movement in Asia.

Her humor, vitality, enthusiasm, cheerfulness would always be remembered as she continues to live through her songs, verses, poems, stories, publications, and slogans.

Professor Patel talked about Kamala Bhasin’s popular war cry- Azadi, meaning liberation from all the evils is it dowry, corruption, gender-based violence, etc. As per Professor Patel, Kamala Bhasin lived a life of the feminist slogan- “Personal is Political and Political is personal”. She highlighted how Kamala Bhasin’s works made it easy for thousands of first-generation learners, scholars, activists, young adults with non-English backgrounds, often ridiculed by elite university atmosphere to understand and comprehend ideologically and theoretically heavy concepts of feminism, patriarchy, gender-based violence, etc.

Kamla Bhasin poster

Genuine Togetherness

Shireen P Huq, founder member, Naripokkho, Bangladesh described Kamla Bhasin as not an individual but a phenomenon. She talked about how Bhasin wasn’t just an amazing presence but the event all by herself. Kamala Bhasin could mesmerize people with her words, hand gestures, singing, and dancing. Shireen recalled the first time she met Bhasin at a women’s march in Delhi protesting the Mathura rape case in 1979.

For Shireen, Kamala was her inspiration and her influence for moving away from academia to activism. She described Bhasin as an encyclopedia of the ongoing happenings.

“Wherever she went, she enabled a thousand flowers to blossom.

Sheerin then talked about Kamla’s ability to bring together and form strong unions. She would always talk about South Asian solidarity and the need for everyone to rise above their national identities and become a quintessential South Asian.  Her insistence to speak about equity and equality echoed with everyone who believed that the feminist agenda needed to cover both. Equity as a means and equality as a goal.

Meaningless Boundaries

Farida Akhter, Executive Director, UBINIG, and President, Narigrantha Prabartana, Bangladesh started by talking about the name Kamala in itself being so symbolic and  South Asian. It could belong to someone from Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh, to someone rich or poor.

Just like Kamala herself, her name traversed all boundaries be it a name, caste, class, or religion.

Akhter talked about Bhasin’s iconic gamcha being a symbol of who she was. Gamcha is a cloth that is a symbolic cloth for the poor and middle class in South Asia that Bhasin would wear everywhere. Akhter emphasized how Bhasin had acknowledged the presence of various stands, opinions, and ideologies within feminism itself. Bhasin talked about a plethora of societal issues and encouraged others to do the same. As per Akhter,  it is our responsibility to keep her legacy alive. She wanted to live for two more days, we have to keep her alive forever.

A life is woven with love, cheer, and fun

Professor Jyoti Seth, Head, and Professor (Retd.), Department of Sociology, PG Government College for Girls Chandigarh met Kamala Bhasin when she traveled to Bhasin’s house in Kasauli from Chandigarh. On returning, they organized a workshop for the faculty of colleges and later started holding yearly, bi-yearly workshops for students in the 2 biggest colleges in Chandigarh. Professor Seth recalled Bhasin as a  person who enjoyed small things and found pleasure in them. Bhasin had a special connection with everyone working at Tara. People loved meeting her and she loved hugging everyone.

Professor Seth called Kamala a very focused individual who would think, talk, write, record, and share her thoughts with everyone. She wonderfully used technology. No one remained unaffected.

Bhasin was relevant to so many generations and will continue to remain relevant to many more.

Leading Spirit Of The Women’s Movement

Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Author, and Columnist; Community Founder – Status Single,  reached out to Kamala Bhasin while she was in the process to put together a summit for women for urban single women. Bhasin and Sreemoyee spoke for about five hours. Bhasin opened season  3 of Sreemoyee’s online community talk show called “Status Single” and inspired single women through her words and community-building initiatives. Bhasin motivated Sreemoyee to do more for women who were caregivers dealing with mental health issues. Sreemoyee expressed her regret in the fact that she never got the meet Kamala but she still considers her to be family, beyond blood and birth.

She remembered Kamala, not just a trailblazer but also a mother, a grandmother and, a sister.

A Powerful Voice Against Patriarchy

Lata Pratibha Madhukar, Convenor, Bahujan Sanvad Social Network and Bahujan Mahila Samvad, Pune  called Kamala a “song”. She met Kamla at a forum against sex determination and sex pre-selection in 1986. She believes that the women’s movement has given collective leadership legacy to the present-day Kisaan Andolan. She talked about how Bhasin talked about women, children, caste, patriarchy, and racism. Madhukar also recalled Kamala Bhasin’s appearance on Satyamev Jayate through which she was able to reach out to millions. She called Bhasin a believer of nonviolence.

Way Towards A Feminist Future

Yagna Parmar, Project Director, Vacha, Mumbai talked about how she never knew Kamala personally but will always remember her as a  researcher, gender trainer, writer, poet, and author. Parmar expressed how mesmerized she was by Kamala’s confidence, personality and demeanor when she attended a Jagori training session in Delhi.  Yagna talked about how one needs to internalize gender sensitivity and should have a larger perspective towards women’s rights issues to become a feminist.

Bhasin motivated people to build a larger perspective and bring change in themselves, to bring change in society.

Her two-week course on gender, human rights and sustainable development and women’s empowerment organized by Sangat and Jagori Rural were enriching and provided a deeper understanding of complex concepts such as how gender is constructed, women’s rights as human rights, the role of patriarchy, legal framework to protect women’s rights, bodily safety, sexuality, and communal harmony.

At Vacha, Parmar and her colleagues have been using various posters, slogans, and songs by Bhasin and also disseminating them during their residential gender training program among intersectionally deprived girls. Bhasin’s works are a part of  Vacha’s library and cultural center and are accessed by youth, girls, students, researchers, media, and teachers. She sang Kamala’s song “thumak thumak main toh naachungi” as her final tribute.

Great Kindness With Firmness To Resolve

Mumtaz  Shaikh, Manager, Women’s Empowerment Programme, CORO India, Mumbai talked about how Kamala has given importance to humanity, love, and kindness. What she and her team at CORO have learned about feminism, have learned through humanity. From Mumtaaz’s experience, talking about feminism from the perspective of humanity helps in resolving issues and differences among people.

Her Poetry Speaks Volumes

Professor Deepali Ghelani’s colleagues at Sahiyar, Vadodara sang a beautiful song called “kyuki ladki hoon Mujhe padhnna hai”.Professor Deepali first met Kamala during Tripti Shah’s memorial. Tripti Shah was the founding member of Sahiyatri Sangathan. After talking about her Jagori sessions and her works, Professor  Deepali saluted Kamala her pledges, her passion, her judgment, and her life.

Concluding Remarks

Approaching the end of the session, Professor Vibhuti Patel spoke about how all the speakers were able to provide a kaleidoscopic understanding of Kamala’s life and actions.

While Akhtar reminisced the time she spent with Bhasin at a protest in Pune, Professor Seth talked about staying together, staying connected, holding hands, and carrying Kamala’s legacy forward. Sreemoyee thanked the IMPRI team and the moderator, Professor Vibhuti Patel. She concluded by talking about how all women coming from different generations can together become a ball of fire that Kamala herself was. Huq emphasized Bhasin’s motto on remaining united as South Asians. Mumtaz and Parmar gave their conclusion by emphasizing taking Kamala’s legacy forward. Madhukar recited the poem “Sooraj ko taj” as it  poem captured the mood of the discussion and sang the Marathi translation of “dariya ki kasam.” Everyone sang a ghazal by Iqbal Bano.

Professor Vibhuti Patel finally concluded by calling Kamala an altruist to the core who had the power to lift others from sorrow. She talked about an event organized by Jagori to honor Kamala’s life. IMPRI Director Simi thanked all the speakers for being a part of the discussion to celebrate Kamala Bhasin’s life.

Acknowledgment: Sneha Bisht is Research Intern at IMPRI

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