Vidya Bal

Our organisation, Nari Samata Manch, was registered in 1987. But even before that, from 1982, we were informally working as an organisation. Today, when I trace back my intellectual journey after so many years, I realise that I was moving in the direction of this ideology much before 1982. But, at the time, I knew neither the phrase ‘women’s liberation’ nor the concept.

I worked for the prestigious monthly- Kirloskar for 22 years. I took up the job out of a liking for reading and writing and also the need for money. After I joined, I began to ‘grow’. At the age of 35, I came of age anew, intellectually.

Till the age of 30 to 35, I moved around fearlessly, without feeling the confines of a bounded, middle-class upbringing. Through Kirloskar I gained a great exposure to reading, thinking and meeting all kinds of people. Thus, without my realising it, my way of looking at myself, my family life and life in general underwent a change. I began to walk beyond the compound walls of familial and cultural traditions Rather than treading the safe path recommended by my elders and superiors, I confronted the new questions arising in my mind and even though I was restless and insecure, I began to live a life that I felt was meaningful.

Because of this my editorial standpoint and my writing also began to change. The texture of readers’ letters giving a positive response to this also began to change. For some time I felt satisfied with giving consoling replies to readers’ letters which were weighed down with questions. But soon I realised the need to take some action. From talking to like-minded friends about this, through setting up groups, the idea of starting Nari Samata Manch was formulated.

For economic reasons, I entered the establishment of Stree magazine in 1964. But when I resigned from its editorship in 1986, I realised that it was while working as a journalist that I had started moving in the direction of becoming an activist.

In 1981–82 we began groping towards giving form to the work of the Manch. In this group, together with us women, there were some men friends as well. When we met with people in groups to discuss the question of violence and injustice against women, people would say, “Is there violence in the homes of people like us? To talk about ‘these’ kinds of things you should go to the slums of the rural areas. That is where this work is really needed!” Around this time, in 1982, two ‘unnatural’ deaths took place in well-off, well-educated urban families in Pune. The first was Shaila Latkar, the second was Manjushree Sarda.  Both were educated, both had engineer husbands! These two incidents occurring consecutively had shaken not only Pune city but the whole of Maharashtra state. This was an appropriate time to generate awareness among the general public about violence against women.  For this purpose we activists held discussions/conversations with the young artist Sanjay Pawar and set up an illustrative pictorial exhibition. The pictures and the accompanying striking annotations were by Sanjay Pawar. This exhibition, pointing a clear finger at a reality that confined women, pushed them in a corner.

The name of the exhibition was I am a Manjushree, and it was not displayed in any art gallery but put up in several crowded open places continuously for a week. Activists of the Nari Samata Manch and other organisations remained present at all these displays. Among those who came to view this exhibition, making other spectators open up and talk about it, was a very special visitor. He came up to me and said, “I am Manjushree’s uncle, Venugopal Rathi. I came specially to see this exhibition!”

Another such incident occurred when this exhibition was desplayed in front of S.P. College. Looking at the display, one woman burst into tears. When I took her aside and asked her the reason for her outburst, she answered, “Today this exhibition has been put up in this square. At the next crossing is my daughter-in-laws’ house. She was taken to Hyderabad and burnt to death!  When I see and read these exhibits I am reminded of her.”

The exhibition, I am a Manjushree, went on tour in Pune and many other places in Maharashtra. Among the posters in this collection is one that gives the message that in order to bring violence against women into the light, the lock that has closed up women’s lips must be opened. This poster played an important role in touching the hearts and minds of women.

Manjushree’s husband Sharad Sarda was convicted by a lower court but declared innocent by the Supreme Court and released. Following this the Manch, standing on street corners, collected 10,000 signatures demanding a writ petition against the verdict.

This exhibition has definitely succeeded in generating awareness that violence against women occur in all strata of society. But women suffer all the violence without speaking, one day they commit suicide or are killed! Taking account of this, in 1983 Manch started a centre for ‘speaking out’ (English in original). The events of 1982–83 gave focus and direction to the work of Manch. From that time down to today, Manch has been running a counseling and help centre for women.

As the year 1987 began, incidents of violence against women were increasing and also coming to light. So, to revive memories of the Manjushree case, we took out a ‘light the night’ procession with candles. The famous woman poet Sarita Patki wrote a small meaningful song for the occasion. The well-known singer Madhuri Purandare wrote a simple tune for it. The words of the song were, “We will not suffer any longer now”. The procession was meant to put across this message. Those were the days of women only in the women’s movement.  Manch, which was set up at that time, from the very start up to today has adopted and held to the position that, in the fight against violence against women, men will be with us. In this ‘light the night’ procession too, men took part alongside us.

I cannot forget the memories from the conference of ‘Women Alone’, that we organised in 1989. In today’s social set-up, who are the ones recognised as ‘women alone’? It is the widows, the deserted women, the divorced women, and the unmarried women – those who are unmarried out of choice or those whose marriage could not be arranged. We had put an announcement in newspapers to bring together both urban and rural women. About 150 urban women and 100 rural women took part in the conference. We wanted to find out how this aloneness is reflected in these women’s religious, cultural, social and family life. To this end, we held group discussions on these topics. Since women from both urban and rural backgrounds were mixed up together in these groups, the discussions were meaningful. The participants became aware that whether in the city or the village, there are always problems, even though their colour and their facets might be different. In response to our newspaper appeal, many women had sent in written accounts. These writings were collected and published in book form as The Sighs of the Undefeated.

Love affairs between young college-goers are nothing new. But in the decade of the 1990s, Maharashtra was shaken by a series of incidents where a lover, turned down by the girl, went on to kill her. Taking up this issue, Manch started a ‘Friendship Zindabad’ campaign aiming to open up a dialogue with college students on the meaning of friendship and the acceptance of refusal. At the winding up of the campaign, we invited the famous actor Aamir Khan to administer an oath of “I will not commit violence or help in acts of violence” to the students. This was in 1998. Aamir Khan had an excellent interaction with the students. This programme proved to be significant, coming after the recent occurrence of the murder of Amruta Deshpande in Sangli and bringing together five to six thousand young people in a special atmosphere. Amruta’s family members also took part.

In 1983 we started a ‘Speak Out’ centre and 25 years later we set up the Dr Satyaranjan Sathe Centre for Dialogue with Men! The pressure brought by the women’s movement against the violence that women had been suffering for hundreds of years had resulted in the enactment of several new laws. There was a need for dialogue and reassurance for men who were disturbed and restless and therefore standing up against these laws, and so Manch took the step of setting up this centre. Taking off from this, we have started a platform called ‘We Men for Equality’ for young men in several organisations associated with the Manch.  In this the initiative comes from the men, but individuals like me and women’s organisations also take part. Using extremely innovative ideas and media, this programme has been going on for the last three years. On the eve of Women’s Day, on 7 March 2011, we held one such exciting event. The programme was inaugurated in the presence of 100 to 150 men and women with a sizzling tadka on a gas stove on the stage. We used leafy vegetables, cucumber, carrots, limes and chillies to decorate the stage. A woman chef, a woman who runs a working-class mess, a woman who runs a cooking class for men and a young male friend who, even though he has a job, does the cooking daily, took part in a talk show. The audience responded enthusiastically to the narration of their experiences. The hidden agenda of this programme was, “Women Count. Count women’s work.”

In the last 25 to 30 years, we have taken up several issues through a variety of projects. My journey through these projects, my personal experiences, and my work with the women around me have always told me again and again that The Personal is Political.

Vidya Bal