Kavita Panjabi

As I climbed up the hill to the women’s movement conference being held at St. Andrew’s College in Calicut in 1991, echoes of “Shit problem, don’t stay here!” rang out all around. An older woman with a knee problem came limping down the hill and firmly took my suitcase with a welcoming smile: “I’m taking this – you’ve just arrived, you must be tired.” And then, with a wide grin: “Shit problem, don’t stay here! Book yourself a room at the guest house nearby.”

The saathins from rural Rajasthan, a spirited contingent of large number, had been using the courtyard of the college for their defecations – Hum toh khule maidan mein karte hain – why on earth should we use dirty rooms indoors? They are so unhygienic… -   completely trashing, with their firm irrefutable logic, the urban feminists’ desperate pleas that they use the toilets meant for the purpose. No, not even if the latter cleaned up after them with their own hands. No argument, no other logic seemed to work – it’s the college yard, it’s the public domain of students, the private property of the St Andrew’s Trust – all failed to convince them. Till somebody quietly asked “Aap kya kisi aur ke aangan mein kabhi yeh kar sakoge?” “Nahin ji, kaisi baat kar rahein hain, kisi ke aangan mein kabhi koi yeh kar sakta hai?” they replied, almost in a chorus. “Par yeh college ka aangan hai,” the person pointed out gently.

It had been a question of finding the right idiom to translate concepts across cultures – and the women’s movement was a place where enough effort was made to make this happen. The political and intellectual challenges of crossing such boundaries of class, caste, region and language, and the joy of actually experiencing the tentative, new found solidarities between women, of working together to strengthen them, had got me hooked.

Something else happened in those three days that was almost like an epiphany. It was in a room, barely twenty feet -by -twenty, with women assembled from all over the country, from dalits and grassroots sathins to those just returned from the U.S. universities and international assignments.  Ajitha, the ex-Naxal woman of legendary daring (at least three movies had already been made on her), had realized that no existing  political party would ever take women’s concerns seriously and had demanded that the  national women’s movement conference be held in Kerala that year… She was speaking now.  Haltingly, gropingly, narrating her pain. Of repeated sexual violation in prison, of more sexual harassment by doctors, of a level of trauma that robbed her of her very capacity to speak, and finally the determined rescue operation by the nuns of a convent who nursed her back to language and spirit. It had taken her seven years to find her tongue again, and she used it that day to create an electrifying solidarity in that crowded room. Not even the repeated breaks for five interpreters to translate her words into five different languages could break that spell. There was a stunned silence when Ajitha finished talking. Then a poor rural woman from Madhya Pradesh cried out – “I will make my daughter a lawyer so that she can ensure no woman has to go through such suffering again!” And another from Rajasthan exclaimed– “We will strengthen our sangathanas such that no one can dare do this to a woman when we are there…” And the more ‘sophisticated’ urban women remained silent, not trusting their voices lest they break down completely. It was the experience of a certain quality of bonding with women whom I had never met before and would probably never meet again; a bonding that connected me to both history and the future, and became one of the rare compelling forces of life.

The agonized yet powerful promises of those women from the villages of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan continued to haunt me as I listened to six and ten year old Muslim children, in Gujarat in 2002,[1] telling us what  they had seen being done to their mothers in front of their very eyes. And they continued to drum in my head as I heard peasant women, in Nandigram in 2007,[2] trying to express both the trauma of having been gang raped by cadres of the ruling political party, as well as their fear and fury  at having their land appropriated forcefully.

It was in 2007, a few days after over one lakh citizens had spontaneously hit the streets of Kolkata in protest against the party/state sponsored killings in Nandigram, that I received an email from some students, addressed to those of us who may “consider them to be an ‘apolitical’ generation.”  It carried restless Facebook comments from over forty of them who had been at the march – extremely disturbed, agitated and angry, yet also charged with the positive energy of the turnout. These students, women and men, went on to form the Citizens’ Initiative and work in Nandigram and Singur over the next three years. One of them, in an earlier Independence Day piece in a Kolkata newspaper, had elaborated the perspective of her generation on political activism. Expressing complete disillusionment with corrupt political parties and self-serving  NGO personnel, she had said that their activism and feminism now found expression in their personal work-, in their creative and academic writings, and theatre. The point was worth noting, but what was missing in such choices of “individualized activism” was the collective vision, without which no historical transformation is possible. It was the thrilling, unifying experience of that momentous march that had awakened them to the historical possibilities of collective action.

For those of us who still have lived stories – or actual memories – of the nationalist struggle, the socialist dream, the Dalit movements, or even the idealism of Naxalite activism (that has survived the negative impact of its violence) coursing through our veins, the need for collective action can come almost naturally. But for those of us who do not have these memories, who have seen only the demolition of Babri masjid, the sexual exploitation and butchery of Gujarat, the horrors of Kashmir and Khairlanji, adivaasis crushed under the brutal crackdowns of the state and the violence of Maoism, and the rabid waves of fundamentalism raging across a ‘globalized’ world of consumerism, where is any sustained inspiring vision of collective historical transformation? Can the women’s movement today offer such a shared dream for the future – as the one offered on that day when Ajitha shared her pain?


[1] A Report on the Impact of the Gujarat Genocide on Children and the Young by Kavita Panjabi, Krishna Bandopadhyay, Bolan Gangopadhyay. Supported by Citizens’ Initiative, Ahmedabad, 2002.

[2] Territorial Warfare to Reign of Terror – Nandigram: Peasants’ Demands for Democratic Rights and Political Choice. An Independent Citizens’ Report, Kolkata, 8th March, 2008.