Nearly a quarter century ago, Roop Rekha Verma, professor and acting vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, asked her colleagues a simple question: why is there no mention of a student’s mother’s name on any academic document?
The next day, the university passed an order and new forms were printed. It made national headlines and soon, all Indian universities did the same.
Recently, a video of the spare, sari-clad senior distributing pamphlets at a Lucknow traffic intersection went viral. The pamphlet urged people to discard hate, and highlighted how our two biggest religious communities had fought side-by-side in 1857 Lucknow to resist the British. “Whenever we stand united in terms of religion or caste we succeed,” she tells me in a steady voice over the phone.
Verma, now 79, and still in Lucknow, one of six children of a doctor and a homemaker, first distributed communal harmony pamphlets on the road in the 1980s when she was a philosophy professor. Colleagues said she was not ‘maintaining the dignity’ of Lucknow University. But she has never cared about such things.
“I was discomfited by the whisper campaign around Babri Masjid and the hidden meaning, loaded words that people had started using. For example, they began saying M instead of ‘Muslim’,” she says.
In an age when most urban protest is barricaded on social media, Verma fights inequalities of caste, gender and religion on the street. In hopeless times she poses questions to herself: “How can I face myself if I stop trying?” For her, scholar Anand Teltumbde, and others who have been jailed for fighting for disadvantaged communities, are the real patriots.
Verma’s first encounter with idle chatter was when her parents sent her and her sister out of Mainpuri, a town northeast of Agra where they grew up, to study further. “What is the need? They will get spoilt,” people said. But when the girls came back on holidays looking and sounding the same, other families were inspired to send their daughters too.
She has been detained a dozen times in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. “They don’t allow us to protest or distribute pamphlets or even hold a candlelight vigil for a rape victim,” she says. “They bundle us in a vehicle and leave us in a remote place.”
“The routes to protest are totally diminished,” she says about peaceful dissent. “If we want to unite and raise our voices so people can get solace that the public is with us, they will not allow it. That comfort is also taken away.”
She was put under house arrest when she attempted to hold an event expressing solidarity with the family of the Hathras teenage gang rape victim. Fifteen years before Hathras, she was able to offer more help to another teenage gang rape victim.
The 13-year-old daughter of a rag picker was kidnapped and gang raped in a moving car by six men from influential families in the Ashiana neighbourhood of Lucknow. Verma was part of a team that successfully fought an 11-year court battle.
“I’ve always seen the police toeing the line of the government in power, but it was never so spineless and servile,” she says, about what she witnessed in the aftermath of Hathras, when the police hurriedly cremated the victim’s body and guarded her family, discouraging media access. A former legislator held a meeting attended by upper caste supporters of the accused.
Words are impotent
It’s not like the Samajwadi Party (SP), then in power, didn’t attempt to interfere after the Ashiana gang rape case. “Of the six accused, four belonged to powerful families close to the SP. But when we made a hue and cry, they stopped all interference. After that there was no obstacle from the ruling party,” says Verma. “Now we just can’t imagine that we can get justice.”
Indians were unhappy in the time of Jawaharlal Nehru too. “We had failures then too and we used maximum words to express disappointment, never realising that there were many worse times to come,” she says. “Today words are impotent. We used them to describe smaller faults.”
I ask the philosophy professor about the meaning of life in these divisive times. Her answer is rooted in her real and perceived reality of New India. “Everything that was beautiful and brought meaning to life and connected you with the wider collectivity without dividing it into caste or religion has been lost or at least seriously damaged,” she says. “It arouses deep depression and a sense of loss.” Yet she has no choice but to go on.
Priya Ramani is a journalist on the editorial board of Article 14. She is the co-founder of India Love Project. Her new column tells the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work.