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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 47 November 12, 2022

Ela Bhatt (1933 - 2022) | Sagari Chhabra

Saturday 12 November 2022, by Sagari Chhabra


On my eighteenth birthday, my mother gave a me a ticket to Ahmedabad with the words, ‘Go, meet Ela Bhatt’.

‘Who is Ela Bhatt?’ I asked, bewildered.

‘She’s a Gandhian,’ replied my mother.

‘So?’ I countered, with my just turning eighteen brashness.

‘Go, find out for yourself,’ replied my mother.

Elaben as she was known to all, was short-statured, soft-spoken, dressed in a white khadi sari with a green border. She took all of us — it was a conference - in a bus to Sabarmati ashram. As the bus halted, she was talking of the police that had stopped the women from selling their wares and how they had picketed and the women had won. I noticed her eyes were shining with pride.

‘What about the traffic?’ I had questioned in my eighteen-year-old counter-poise; she went at length to explain that the poor, particularly the women too had rights which were being consistently violated. As I listened to her, I missed walking to Hrday Kunj — Bapu’s room. She told me, ‘Get a glimpse of it at least’. I ran; but seeing the delegates returning, I turned back. Observing my downcast face, she had said, ‘you will get there.’ I did not know her words would be prophetic.

She had formed the women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, but was thrown out after an argument. ‘I was crying’, she recalled, but her husband, Ramesh Bhatt who had a deep influence on her remarked, ‘challo accha hua’. ‘I was so surprised’ she recounted, but she then set up SEWA — Self Employed Women’s Association, the first all-woman’s trade union of vegetable vendors, rag-pickers, head-loaders, cart-pushers — to whom she gave the dignified term — self-employed. It has now crossed the million mark and has worked consistently towards enabling the poor in the informal sector for minimum wages, dignity, health and insurance. Elaben worked tirelessly, informing all that 86 per cent - and now the percentage is higher - were in the informal sector with no social security and appalling conditions. All the benefits were going to the formal or organized sector.

However, at the SEWA conference I was attending, there was an innovative discussion: an American producer, Martha Stuart was bringing in video equipment and there was a discussion about training the head-loaders, cart-pushers and vegetable vendors to make videos. In the late seventies, the idea itself was revolutionary and it formed the genesis of Video SEWA.

I went on to do my Masters in Social Work and on to Washington State University to do another Masters in Communications, but there was a calling - was it Bapu or Elaben - and on returning to India, I went straight to Hrday Kunj and onwards to Elaben’s home. Her home was simple; it was small, with a Gujarati swing in the verandah, a blue khadi-covered sofa and small peedis or stools. Her husband Ramesh Bhatt — who tragically died young - and she had named it, ‘Toy House’,making the small is beautiful into a concrete reality. She seated me on the sofa, but seated herself on a low stool, then she served me with her own hands; perhaps she was obliquely teaching me about sewa - service and humility.

It was to her and to this home, that I returned again and again, in turning points of my life. In 1995, I started recordings of freedom fighters and reached Ahmedabad where I reached out to Video Sewa for assistance and Elaben who supported, indeed applauded the archive with enthusiasm. I met and recorded, Veerbalaben Nagarwadia who was present when Bapu and the others commenced the Dandi March from Sabarmati ashram on 12 March 1930. I also recorded, Nimuben Desai, who was jailed for harbouring a man wanted by the British, in her house, and Sarlaben Shah who was present at the procession at Gujarat Collage where Vinod Kinariwala was shot and killed by the police. Sarlaben had lifted the body along with the others.

 Elaben was always encouraging and exhorting me to do more. She was a mentor for the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ freedom fighters’ archive but always so unfailingly modest that it was only later that I learnt that her maternal grandfather, Manidharprasad Vyas was a freedom fighter and had worked with Bapu. She shared his diary, ‘In The Shadow of the Mahatma’ written in Gujarati with me. Manidharprasad Vyas was a doctor and she said, ‘he showed Bapu around Gujarat, and was forced to resign by the British for openly displaying his closeness to him’. She went on to share, that he had organized the satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt works where there had been so much violence against the satyagrahis, as reported in an eye-witness account, by Webb Miller of the United Press International. Since Manidharprasad Vyas was a doctor, he had considered it his duty to treat the injured satyagrahis, as well. All this and much more of her life, I finally managed to record — after a lifetime of knowing Elaben — at her residence only in 2019. At some point during the recording, she said, ‘let it not be forgotten that each of your mothers were head-loaders’ motioning towards the camera-women each holding a camera. The recording was historic in more ways than one!

At a critical point in my life, I reached her door-step again. This time it was personal. Elaben generously shared her personal life with me; that when she wanted to marry Ramesh, her parents had opposed it saying, ‘do you even know what poverty is?’ Ramesh Bhatt while well-educated, was not from a wealthy family. She told me, she worked, ‘as a manual worker breaking stones for a few days’ to understand poverty. I knew she was gently guiding me. On the arrival of my beloved, daughter, whom I adopted and then we to Ahmedabad, where we visited Hrday Kunj and then on to Elaben’s home where she hugged my daughter and me with deep love, over a simple and memorable Gujarati meal, with her son Mihir, and daughter in-law, Reema and grandson, Som who sang a prayer. Both Sarlaben and Nimuben blessed my daughter and we took pictures, unfortunately Veerbalaben had passed on.

In the last few years of her life, Elaben wrote prolifically. Her earlier book, ‘We Are Poor, But So Many’ proved the power of women organizing and demanding their work be counted as productive. The women always said, ‘there is no work but the work is killing me’ because their work was not accounted for nor paid. I was present at the launch of her book, ‘Anubandh’, where she stated that the ‘six basic needs of life: food, clothing, housing, health, education and banking can be met locally, within a hundred-mile radius’. She believed and her work through SEWA exemplified this, that the people would themselves find innovative solutions to poverty, exploitation and environmental degradation, if given a few resources. She asked, ‘if we are inviting the world to do business with us, why is the policeman’s hands still on the shoulder of the vegetable vendor to whom she is compelled to give a hafta to do her daily work?’

She would always address me as Ocean and over the years we exchanged numerous messages with deep love and affection. On 6th March she wrote, ‘No words I have to appreciate this SagarWork. Wish to talk and talk to you oceanful’. On another occasion she wrote, ‘I am well... within unwell, I am well, I would say... there is a lot to talk when we meet. Next month, I will be 90 years old!’ A few days later, in response to my message she wrote, ‘the process has to be on Bapu’s path’. I sadly did not get a response from her when I wrote at Diwali and on 2nd November when I learnt that the soul who had kept the diya of ahimsa and satyagraha burning bright by lighting the lives of millions of women was no more, I wept as I knew I had lost my spiritual mother, role model and heroine.

I cherish my memories of her and yet, Elaben has left behind a powerful legacy of values — Gandhi lives in embracing a life of simplicity and standing by the poor, even more pertinent in an era of global warming and climate change. She always said, ‘poverty is violence; and in her work with poor women - Gandhi lives.

My eighteenth birthday present was the most memorable ever - Elaben zindabad!

(Author: Sagari Chhabra, is an award-winning author & filmmaker. She is the director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ archives)

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