Madhu Kishwar says that she has no qualms about admitting her mistakes in ‘Zealous Reformers Deadly Laws’
When I started working in the social sector in the late 1970s, I had little idea about many things.”
You don’t expect such frank words from activists, often seen as know-alls. Well, this is Delhi-based social activist Madhu Kishwar, better known as the firebrand editor of the women’s magazine Manushi, talking about her past mistakes.
Sitting in her office, a doe-eyed Kishwar continues her candid confession, “I have learnt from my mistakes. Everyone should. There is nothing wrong in it. Simply because every act of activism has something to teach you.” Even as you see logic in her reasoning, she adds, “There can’t be one thumb rule for every situation.” If one has to respect India’s social diversity realistically, this message needs to be the common thread across all legislations brought for social reform, she stresses.
The point forms the nucleus of her latest book, Zealous Reformers Deadly Laws, just published by Sage India. Kishwar’s tome is as much for the sceptic as for the realist. It has a lesson in rationalism for those who suspect the motives of activists, or for those who feel that laws are often toothless when it comes to fighting injustice. It also offers enough meat for a rationalist to chew on. Not only because it offers realistic solutions to issues concerning our society, but because it is sincere in stressing the need for real reform and is an honest attempt to look within the world of activism Kishwar is familiar with for almost three decades now.
The book, a collection of her select articles written in Manushi spanning many years, has a chapter on the inheritance rights of Ho women, and how it is not always true that tribal women have more rights than their non-tribal counterparts. The chapter brings alive an old sore. “It shattered me,” she says. Kishwar is referring to Maki Bui, a widow from the Ho community of Bihar’s Singhbum district. Maki Bui wanted to bequeath her house to her daughter. But according to tribal laws, it should go to one of her husband’s agnates after her death in the absence of a son. Kishwar, through Manushi Sangathan, filed a PIL in the court in 1981 to help Maki get justice. The case went on for years and so did the threats of her husband’s family. She had to leave her village fearing harm, and one day died unsung, without justice. “I learnt from the case that I have no right to put someone’s life at risk,” says the Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies.
Her other articles include dowry issues, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, the women’s reservation bill, domestic violence, the nature of women’s mobilisation in rural India. What emerge are sensible suggestions. One of them is the need to “figure out ways to strengthen civil society’s own organisations, particularly the family and kinship ties.”
Noting “our 19th Century reformers who started reform acts first at home,” Kishwar says, “Families can play an important role in reforming society. Our endeavour has to be to persuade people to respect others’ rights not because of the fear of a jail term but because they do not feel it is right to damage the interests of others.”
While it is vital for men to play a positive role so women get their due, so also is it for feminist groups to discard the idea that if you don’t support them, you are against women’s liberation. “Not all of us need to agree on everything, but there should be space for those who disagree. There should be a willingness to listen to them. They may be right.”
That each has space in the society has led Kishwar to spearhead a campaign at present to save the rickshaw-pullers from being wiped out of off Delhi roads.SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY