Chhaya Datar

My Journey

I was not born an ambitious person as far as a career is concerned. I fell in love at an early age of 17 and hence my parents were keen that I marry first and then maybe study further. So, I got married at the age of 18, even before I graduated. I had two children and would accompany my husband to different places while he explored his career options. I enjoyed being an efficient housewife, attending parties and learning new dishes in Delhi’s cosmopolitan environment. Although the general atmosphere was complacent, I could feel something stirring inside me and the only way I was able to express my restlessness was by publishing a few short stories in Marathi magazines.

After ten years we landed in Mumbai, my hometown and a vibrant city for many movements, particularly the labour movement. By then my frustrations with being confined to family duties had led me to explore the outside world. The year was 1972, the year of the drought and hence also the beginning of the Anti-Price Rise Movement. I was curious as a journalist but did not participate as an activist. I remained a journalist-activist for almost two years. This was also the beginning of many social movements including Jaiprakash Narayan’s call for Sampoorn Kranti. The Naxalite movement was on the wane but many youth groups had emerged and rallied around the Sampoorn Kranti call. The whole atmosphere was so vibrant and inspiring. The historic declaration of Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a consequence of these social and political movements.

I was very fascinated by the work of some well known social workers, such as Baba Amte in Vidarbh and Aba karmarkar in Thane district, working with Adivasis and Shramik Sanghatana at Shahada, Dhulia district (now Nandurbar) organizing Adivasis and landless labourers [it’s not clear who was working in Dhulia. Was it you? Because Baba Amte and Aba Karmakar seem to be working in other districts.]. At a later stage of my life in Delhi, when the children were a little older, I had started reading Marathi weeklies, such as Sadhana and Manoos, which reported on the activities of some of these organizations. I had an affinity towards rural areas and issues since my parents were idealists, who participated in the freedom struggle and took us to live in the villages for two years, where they taught in the new higher secondary schools. I was touched by their concern for the simple life and the need to be involved in the efforts to emancipate rural people. My in-laws too had participated in the freedom struggle and were active in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement. Thus, the environment around me was very conducive and supportive of my activities, but I was still not in a mood to plunge myself into the life of sacrifice and dedication due to family commitments.

At the age of 30, I was introduced to the world of social activism. I travelled to Vidarbh, Dhulia and Thane. I had a strong desire to get involved in some meaningful social work to explore where I could be most suited. Finally I made up my mind to work with Shramik Sanghatana and their supporters in Mumbai and Pune. Magowa was one such supporter youth group. Being exposed to Marxism was a very intoxicating time for me as I felt I could see many social phenomena in a clear light and I was coming out of my cocoon.  Then I was a novice, ideologically, but today I can see the differences in their strategies for intervention and transformation. My association with these two organizations helped me identify the stirrings within me as an aspiration for freedom from the monotony of a housewife’s life and as a sign to explore my inner strength to take my life in my own hands and also as feminism. In 1973, Magowa’s editor gave me the responsibility to edit one issue of a monthly on Marxist feminism. Gail Omwedt provided the reading material.

The real credit for inspiring me to be an activist lies with Shramik Sanghatana. Their activists asked some of the women in Mumbai and Pune associated with Marxist study circles to organize special workshops for adivasi women, about their rights as wage labourers, land rights, state repression, etc. Their complaint was that women were not coming forth in large numbers for the agitations planned by them. In these workshops we realized that the women were also flagging issues of alcoholic husbands, wife beating, sexual exploitation by the landlords, etc. The discussions made us reflect on our own situation back home, on gender relations within our own organization. We also noticed that women took time to decide to participate in agitations but once they had made up their minds they were certain and never got scared by police atrocities. We were becoming aware that women were not only interested in class issues but also intrigued by their relationship with their own men. Later we realized that it was the gender dimension that they were concerned with.

I always remember one incident which challenged my consciousness as a middle-class housewife, not willing to commit to the adivasi cause wholeheartedly but working with them as an apologia. One day, Thagibai, a leading activist in the adivasi movement was not there for the workshop; this was justified by saying that it was her brother-in-law’s wedding. The next day we saw her run and enter the campsite. We noticed burn marks on her forearm; she said she had been punished by her mother-in-law for expressing the desire to attend the workshop instead of fulfilling her duty as daughter-in-law at the wedding. She smiled with satisfaction and said, ‘I knew that as a loyal organizational worker I needed to be here, and hence I escaped at night when everybody was asleep and walked 12 kilometres to get here.’ I was amused and fascinated by her strength to defy community loyalty and comply with organizational discipline. Nobody had ordered her to be present at the workshop but she figured out her priorities when faced with the dilemma of organization vs family, based on her gut feeling. I felt guilty about my ambivalence to commit myself fully to this cause due to the pressure of my family responsibilities.

My understanding of feminism deepened in March 1980 with the Mathura rape case. Many of us in Mumbai organized a demonstration and rally demanding changes in the rape law. Within the Marxist framework we had analysed patriarchy under which women were subjugated and doubly exploited, but we never looked at the conditions that sustain exploitation. We studied that lack of education and access to property and employment were the causal elements. But the rape issue dawned upon us the role of violence in women’s lives. Lack of education and also employment were the symptoms or consequences of women’s lack of mobility, their vulnerability to violence within the home and in the public domain. It was a powerful revelation, which increased my commitment to fight patriarchy. In 1980, the rape law agitation was a turning point for many women of our time. We started identifying overt and covert violence in all aspects of women’s lives.

Today, at the age of 67, I feel closer to the ecofeminist stream, which explores strategies to fight not only patriarchy but very specifically ‘capitalist patriarchy’ which is bent upon destroying the ecological basis of our planet. It has great concern for food security in the light of climate changes as well as technological innovations in the area of agriculture, animal rearing and the processed food industry. Ecofeminism feels that capitalism has allowed the markets to run amok in the area of food, where quantity and quality are both concerns for women who have lost control over land and all kinds of regeneration. Ecofeminists’ main concern is how to bring about an ‘alternative to development’ where subsistence is centre staged and market forces have receded. I feel sad that very few women in the movement in India have shown interest in these concerns. There is an urgent need to take up these issues before rural women get entrapped and indebted to the market forces through micro-credit groups and micro-finance companies under the banner of ‘development’.


Chhaya Datar