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Home > 2021 > In Memory of Kamla Bhasin: Sept 24, 2021 | John Dayal

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 42, New Delhi, October 2, 2021

In Memory of Kamla Bhasin: Sept 24, 2021 | John Dayal

Friday 1 October 2021, by John Dayal

Kamla Bhasin passes away, but her song of Azadi will reverberate among women, students, and many men

Till three months ago when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver, Kamala Bhasin was the salt and leaven of civil society in India. And specially in Delhi, where she lived, and cities she frequented around the globe, she was also the life and soul of the party.

Kavita Nandini Ramdas said of her:

“She sang us songs. Songs of yearning for a world free of hate.

She sang us songs. Songs of a country choosing its own fate.

She sang us songs. Songs for women silenced too long.

Songs for the weak, who were always the strong.

Songs for resistance, for courage, for unity.

Songs for justice, peace, and solidarity.

She sang us songs.

Of crossing borders and building ties.

Of strengthening bridges and refusing the lies.

Songs she sang, and many times a day, but the social scientist, poet and writer also leaves behind her voluminous documentation of issues of gender in India and Asia at a time when the National Report on the Status of Women in India, triggered by the then prime m9nsirer, Indira Gandhi, and chaired by freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali, was being tested by the passing away of an entire generation of women activists and social and political leaders.

Kamla Bhasin passed away at 3 am on 25th September, attending a zoom meeting till a few hours earlier.

She was an old friend, doyenne of the women’s movement, passionate about peace with Pakistan and one of the most humane persons it has been my good fortune to meet.

Her chanting of the ‘Hum Sab Mangey Azadi’ reverberates across geographies, communities and religions.

Kamla said of herself “Being deeply engaged with issues related to gender, development, peace, identity politics, militarization, human rights and democracy, I have explored, and continue to articulate, connections between different issues, and to promote synergies between different movements. Over the years, I have been conducting participatory, experiential, capacity-building workshops for women and men, focused on gender, sustainable development and human rights.”

Writing a modest resume of her own life for the One Billon Rising movement of which she was such a part till her death, Kamla said “A social scientist by training, I have been actively engaged with issues related to development, education, gender, media and several others for over 35 years. I began my work for the empowerment of the rural and urban poor in 1972, with a voluntary organization in Rajasthan, India. From 1976 to 2001, I worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. My work with FAO’s Freedom from Hunger Campaign/Action for Development was focused on supporting innovative NGO initiatives for development and empowerment of marginalized people, especially women, in South East Asia and South Asia. This entailed organizing trainings and workshops and facilitating networking between NGOs, women’s organizations and people’s organizations.”

This resulted in a “virtual casino” as she described it, where modern technology offered adrenaline rush that kept women, her core community, coming back for more.

She worked with Sangat - A South Asian Feminist Network, as an Advisor; with JAGORI, Women’s Resource and Training Centre, New Delhi and Jagori Grameen in Himachal Pradesh as an active member. She was co-chair of the worldwide network, Peace Women Across the Globe and South Asia Coordinator of One Billion Rising.

“These workshops have been held at the local, national, and South Asian levels, for activists, senior policy makers, bureaucrats, Parliamentarians, police officers, U.N. staff etc. I have documented my training experiences in comprehensive reports, and shared them widely. I have written extensively on gender, women’s empowerment, participatory and sustainable development, participatory training, media and communication. Most of my books are written for activists and development workers. I have also written a large number of songs and slogans for the women’s movement, books for children, and have created many posters and banners for different movements. Although I do not consider myself a good singer, I insist on singing passionately and spiritedly, wherever and whenever I can.’

I quote her because she describes herself with a clinical precision as no one else can, more so her friends who will for sure deeply feel her absence from their life, and their social and political activities once this cursed covid fear finally evaporates, or settles down like the so many other endemic diseases that plague our villages, small towns and slums in metropolitan cities.

Born in Rajasthan 75 years ago, she led a peripatetic early life with her doctor father and the family, eventually training in the west, and working with a United Nations agency that made her travel even more.

She was married to Baljit Malik, another friend, and had two children, a son and a daughter. She was a doting mother. But life was cruel. Her son fell victim to cerebral palsy and is entirely dependent on caregivers. Her daughter grew up to be a bright and sensitive young women, but took her own life. She and Baljit separated, and eventually divorced. Baljit passed away some time ago. Kamla kept the tragedies in her personal life to herself.

While we had seen her in various conferences at the UN building and the seminar circuit, most of us were smitten by her charisma and depth in that traumatic decade when civil society came together to protest the divisive agenda that was afoot in the aftermath of LK Advani’s Rath yatra, the demolition of the Babri Mosque, the Mumbai riots, culminating eventually in the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 where Mr Narendra Modi was the chief minister.

Those were days in Delhi when it was the women, more than the men, among the activists who were more visible in the forefront of the meetings and rallies, among them such stalwarts as Mohini Giri, Syeda Hameed, and political figures including Brinda Karat, Anne Raja and others. The younger activists included student leaders and human rights activists such as Kavita Krishnan, Kavita Shrivastava, Sonia Jabbar, Shabnam Hashmi.

Kamla’s first love was the situation of the Indian woman, from the time of the little baby girl through the stages of her life to adulthood, working labour, and old age – each with its own vulnerability and challenge. She had a charming solution, or at least, a gentle way of strengthening resolve, and the will to fight.

She wrote a poem upturning rural India’s propensity to keep the daughter at home while the little money they had went to paying the school fees f the son.

"A father asks his daughter: Study? Why should you study?
I have sons aplenty who can study. Girl, why should you study?
For my dreams to take flight, I must study
Knowledge brings new light, so I must study
For the battles I must fight, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study."

And an ode to the father who was an equal parent with his wife. It was called Soap and Bubbles.

"Soap and bubbles, shampoos, showers
He loves the water, Preeto ours.
Mother feeds him
Father bathes him
I amuse and
Entertain him.
Soap and bubbles, rinse and shine
He loves a wash, this brother mine."

o o

I could not be at Kamla Bhasin’s funeral at the electric crematorium at Lodi Road in New Delhi. Pamela Philipose, a senior editor, was. She wrote to those of us who were not there to bid goodbye.

“Friends, I am just back from Kamla Bhasin’s funeral. She was given a farewell worthy of a woman who had made it a habit to plant saplings of love everywhere. Kamla’s ‘sahelis’ from every generation and location poured in from every corner of the city. This ring of indefatigable friends had all these painful days hugged her close to them even as the end was drawing near. Day and night, they were there for her, and they were there during this moment of final separation as well, hugging on to their memory of her.

“There was also a lot of singing for a woman who loved singing and who used songs to transform lives — songs like many-coloured strings of word beads in Nepali, Urdu, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Hindi...(amazing what a polyglot Kamla was and one wonders who will write such songs now). The songs that were sung were ones Kamla was familiar with, so that it seemed almost as if she would awaken and join in the singing.”

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