With her bangles, anklets and traditional necklace, she could easily pass for a tribal woman. Daya Bai lives with tribes, shares their views, talks about their issues and takes up cudgels against the authorities seeking justice for those who were denied it for long.
She was in the city in connection with a programme organised by the Yuvajana Kshema Board.
From Mercy to Daya
Born into an upper middle class Christian family in Pala as Mercy Mathew, the journey to Daya Bai was a long one. Daya Bai, now over 70 years, donned the nun’s habit when she was barely out of her teens. But, as she says, she felt the need to be out of the habit or an institution to be of better service to the poor.
She found her home in a village named Barul in Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, after spending years of service at refugee camps in Kolkata and Bangladesh. In between finding her mission in life and her home, she also enrolled for a law degree and completed Masters in social sciences.
She spoke the language of the Gonds, looked like one and surprised bureaucrats and village authorities who played truant. They were stumped to find that this “tribal woman” knew what she was talking about. But her initiatives to empower the villagers and tribes were not well received by those in power, who, she says, saw her as a threat to their vote bank.
Without the backing of an NGO or a political outfit, Daya Bai found her struggle an uphill task.
Her persistence had led to a few changes but the authorities and politicians were always trying to belittle her achievement, she pointed out. She found maximum resistance from the authorities, especially police personnel, on the issue of land rights. She dealt with physical and mental torture for several years.
The latest cause that she has taken up is against an NGO that seems hand-in-glove with a major industrial unit based in Maharashtra. Tribals are being urged to plant Eucalyptus trees in areas where they grow food crops. This tree will sap water available for the crops and other vegetation, she says.
Speaking for women
Daya Bai has also played a significant role in retrieving missing or abducted girls and fought against atrocities on women. However, a death penalty for the perpetrators is far away from her mind. That will never solve the problem, she says.
She is concerned over the denial of justice to the “Suryanelli girl”, who has repeatedly claimed that she was raped by Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman P. J. Kurien.