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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 13

Malati Chaudhuri — First Wave Feminist

Sunday 16 March 2008, by Bidyut Mohanty

The following article, sent quite sometime back, could not be used for unavoidable reasons. it is now being published on the occasion of Malati Chaudhuri’s tenth death anniversary.

Malati Chaudhuri (Numa) was born on July 26, 1904 in Kolkata and died on March 15, 1998 in Orissa. She was born in a Bengali middle class Brahmin family. She lost her father very early. Her mother was a teacher in Bethune college in Kolkata and had a sympathetic bend of mind towards Gandhiji’s ideas. Numa’s independent spirit didn’t have to suffer from the ‘culture of silence’. Her mother supported her whatever she wanted to do. Several factors also helped to develop the independent spirit of Numa. She grew up during that period when the environment had been surcharged with patriotism. Secondly, she was under the direct influence of both Gandhiji and Rabindranath Tagore. Further Kolkata had already been declared as a commercial city and was in an urban setting which sometimes helped to develop the independent spirit in girls. Finally though unfortunately her father died very early, her mother was serving in Bethune College and hence was economically independent. So the traditional bent of mind, which moulded the behaviour of other women in the presence of strong patriarchy, was absent in Numa’s case. Numa decided to study in Santiniketan where she met an Oriya youth, Nabakrishna Chaudhuri, and she decided to marry him. Knowing fully well that she would have to leave a big city for a relatively rural setting, have to adopt a different and somewhat hostile environment, she decided to come to Orissa. Her husband, late Nabakrishna Chaudhuri’s family had zamindari in the villages of Cuttack though they had a huge palace in the city of Cuttack.

So she had to tolerate the indignation of her widowed mother-in-law because theirs was an inter-caste as well as inter-regional marriage. She was very new to the local customs of the family. She, nonetheless, took an active part in different freedom struggle-related movements including the namak satyagraha. She also worked extensively among the tribals and was a founder member of Nav Jeevan Mandals which were set up in the tribal areas of Orissa. She travelled extensively in the villages of Cuttack and started organising the Dalits.

The Constituent Assembly debated as to whether women should be given reservation in Parliament and other political institutions along with other marginalised sections of people or not. The dominant women’s groups rejected the notion of reservation for women because they had been identified as the energy of ‘shakti’ and so were symbols of sacrifice. Again since they identified with Gandhi’s self-denial they did not believe in hankering after power. There was yet another group of women who genuinely felt that they were at per with the male freedom fighters and hence their share of power would come automatically.

The critics pointed out that since those women belonged to high class and caste families they didn’t realise the conventions of low class and caste women and hence they were ivory tower feminists.

I would argue that there was yet another category of feminists, who believed that constitutional provision wouldn’t be sufficient to bring about real empowerment to women.

On the other hand, the economic, social and health conditions of tribal and poor women (and men) should be improved by working with them and to bring real empowerment to them with those actions.

Numa belonged to this category. She was a member of the Constituent Assembly but got disillusioned very soon. She informed her close friends that the people there were busy in reading and discussing the fat Constitutions of so many countries. We might get a Constitution but it wouldn’t solve the problems of the poor unless we understand their problems.

This was the time when the Orissa Nav Jivan Mandals were set up in the tribal districts of Orissa. The objectives of these Mandals were the following.

To bring an overall development of women and men by working with them on health, education and livelihood.

To integrate destitute women in the process of the development. Several counters wee set up in the interior parts of the tribal districts. Widows, deserted young women were recruited to work the tribals.

At that time the health as well as hygienic conditions of the tribals were not satisfactory. For example, leprosy, TB etc. were rampant among them. Cleanliness practices, particularly during the time of delivery, were not satisfactory. So maternal and infant mortality was very high.

The prevalence of liquor drinking was very high and the sisters of the Mandals tried to dissuade them from drinking; they also encouraged them to live in clean environment. In order to augment their livelihood, they tried to sell the forest produce at appropriate prices.

Numa kept on touring the different centres and supervised their activities also.

On the education front, the tribal students were given basic education which would enable them to acquire skill and to earn their livelihood. They were asked to cultivate vegetables, spin thread and weave their own cloth. They were taught the principles of basic science also. The Baji Raut Student Hostel was set up to provide shelter to students of marginalised section.

Numa got full support from the Orissa Government since late Nabakrishna Chaudhuri was the Chief Minister of Orissa at that time.
However, at a later stage those centres got devoid of funds and their activities shrunk. Nabakrishna Chaudhuri resigned from the government and subsequent governments felt that those centres have become hubs of Naxalite activities; and financial flows dried up.

Thus even though she belonged to a high-caste class family, Numa understood the problems of the poor and had adopted a different approach to address poverty.

[Read out on the occasion of Malati Chaudhuri’s birth centenary celebrations on July 18, 2005 in Delhi. The meeting was organised by the Birth Centenary Committee, Delhi Branch]

Dr Bidyut Mohanty is the Head of the Women’s Studies Department, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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