How do you assess the life of someone who did not hold high office, but whose passing resulted in an outpouring of love and sorrow across countries?
Kamla Bhasin, described by many as a feminist icon, died after a brief struggle with cancer on September 25, aged 75. She knew she was going, as did her friends. But till the very end, they surrounded her and she, the great communicator that she was, tried to engage. Indeed, her life as a feminist was marked by her ability to engage with people of all ages and nationalities.
Trained as a social scientist, Kamla was an integral part of the early group of women’s rights activists in India in the 70s. The feminists fought many battles for women’s rights and justice, including against dowry and for changes in the rape laws. The feminism they articulated was located within a fight for social justice for all. Their struggles were also grounded in a firm belief in collective action, in embracing diversity and in consciously reaching out to all sections of society. They were a part of many larger civil society coalitions that raised a voice against the wrongs in Indian society.
Kamla added another dimension to these struggles. Apart from the passion, and even the anger, she recognised the need for humour, for creativity, and, in her own words, for “love”. These were the qualities that were so integral to her poems, her songs, and the slogans she coined. Short, precise, incisive, and always fun. Fighting patriarchy was not a grim business; it was a positive affirmation of our right to equality and justice.
Kamla articulated this sense of affirmation in the dozens of beautifully illustrated books for children she wrote. They elucidate how patriarchy can be tackled not just by protests, but also by injecting confidence in little girls to dream big and become anything they want to be. And by challenging boys and men to recognise and celebrate these dreams.
I did not know Kamla as closely as the many who have written tributes to her on social media and in the press. Yet, in the 80s, when the women’s movement was visible and active on many issues, she was a presence you could not miss at any feminist gathering. Or forget. Over the years, I have been blown away by her ability to simplify complex concepts so that any child, or even an adult, can understand them. I hope the legacy she leaves behind in her books for children will be taken forward and that they will continue to be printed and circulated in many languages. In fact, if governments had any sense, they would make books like hers part of school curricula.
One of her recent books, Many Notes One Symphony , which can be freely downloaded from the website of Sangat, the organisation she set up to bring together South Asian women, is strikingly prescient of the hate-filled times in which we live. Think of the extent of hate that can drive a photographer to stomp on the inert body of Moinul Haque, one of the men who had protested the heartless eviction of his fellow Muslims from their village on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Assam. The police, who watched while the photographer, Bijay Shankar Baniya, performed his disgusting dance of death, had shot Haque in the chest. How do we address the depth of this hatred for other human beings? Where does it come from? How is it nurtured? What should we do to reverse the flow of this river of hate?
Kamla’s book speaks to this in a way that a child would understand. In fact, a child would understand; it is the adults who are a problem. In Many Notes One Symphony , Kamla spells out why we need diversity. She locates this in nature when she writes, “Difference does not mean inequality or inferiority-superiority. None is superior, none inferior in nature. Can we say which is better — fire or water? Birds, butterflies or animals? Ants, cats or elephants? Seas, mountains or villages? Day or night? Winter, summer, rains or spring? Similarly, in our families and communities, everyone has his/ her own place, role and importance.”
So simple, yet such a relevant and comprehensible explanation of the concept of diversity, more relevant today than ever before. Kamla also speaks of justice, something at the very heart of feminism. She writes, “Without justice and equality it is difficult to have genuine togetherness. Unity among different people is possible only when there is justice, mutual understanding and respect.”
And then these words, which ought to be repeated many times: “People involved in self-centred power politics are the ones who divide people in order to control and rule. We believe by definition, anyone who divides people and spreads hatred cannot be religious. Truly religious are those who have compassion and love for all, and who are truthful and just.”
Kamla Bhasin was not just an ‘icon’; she was a beacon who shone a light on the way forward. A way that lies in the compassion and love that shines through her poems, articles, books, songs — and her life.
The writer is an independent journalist and author.