Dust clouds rising up to the sky, making the light from overhead lamps a hazy red is my most vivid image of the uprising against the Internal Emergency of 1975–77. Thousands and thousands of people coming to meetings, raising the dust, shouting slogans, unafraid of the police barricades is what I remember. I still relive those months of hurried nightly wall-painting and cyclostyling of anti-Emergency material; ladling out food to dozens of people who would drop in day and night after elections had been declared in 1977; my freedom fighter and social democrat parents absent for days conducting campaign meetings, and my thirteen year old sister scribbling “down with emergency” on the side-walk with a chalk. I can still visualize all those women and men dropping off their watches, gold ornaments and rings into the collection boxes, and people waiting patiently into the small hours of the morning for over-worked and hoarse-voiced speakers to address the mass meetings, galvanising the momentum for political change. The broken picket fences with hundreds of people climbing over them for a glimpse of the podium remind me sadly of the broken dreams of the nation after the Emergency was lifted in 1977.
Another visual image etched in my mind’s eye is the sea of people and wooden logs occupying railway lines en route the ‘Long March’ to Aurangabad, in December 1979 to press for the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University. Such a simple and symbolic gesture, but it had more than 100 Dalits being killed during the decade long agitation in Maharashtra. In the 1970s and 80s, the politics of class, caste and patriarchy were considered indivisible. Women’s issues were tied up to slum-demolitions and unemployment as much as to family violence and sexual harassment.
What we had learnt in study circles became lucid and grounded when Ramesh (whom I met during the Emergency) and I shifted to live in a drought-prone village in 1987. The perpetual cycles of ill-health, drudgery and dispossession, as well as the multiple oppressions of women caught in the intersections of caste, class, marital and motherhood status, sexuality, religion or disability became painfully obvious. So did the gutsy and resilient ways in which the poor women who refused to accept defeat came to the fore. Those five years, amongst other things taught us to listen to silence, to the unsaid words of subordinated people. They exposed us to the overt and covert ways in which casteist patriarchy and patriarchal casteism operate in rural communities. At the same time, we were nudged into relinquishing ideas about women’s ubiquitous victimhood. We learnt that women speak candidly about sexual matters in trusted groups, and that sexual relations outside marriage, including same-sex relations, happen all the time but that they are ignored as long as the myths of monogamy and heteronormativity are never openly challenged.
We saw heart-rending poverty where we stayed. I remember a young girl who couldn’t leave home on the days her mother took her only dress to the local well for cleaning, and siblings who went to schools on alternate days because they only had one school uniform between them. We saw unmet health needs and the utter lack of answerability of public and well as private sectors to people’s entitlements and rights. Time and again we saw young married women, heads bent, facing her husband’s kinship and village elders, in the event of domestic strife or violence. I would be reminded of Draupadi, facing the male relatives of her five husbands, asking for justice at being publicly disrobed by their cousins. When economic, political, legal and cultural power are all concentrated in the hands of one’s husband’s relatives, when one has been stripped of one’s name and identity, and when one’s own family, home and friends have been physically and psychologically alienated, could a woman really expect to find justice, I’d ask myself.
We learnt the hard way that it’s never too early or too late to intervene in domestic violence. In the early years, women were brought to us by their natal families after they had been deserted by their husbands. The main purpose of many brothers would be to send the woman back to her husband, irrespective of the risk to her life and safety. Today most women come much earlier and while they’re still living in their marital homes, making the negotiation for marital property rights before they decide about their future, relatively easier. I still remember the ugly stages of escalating intimate partner violence against women in our early years; the slaps, the punches and kicks, the brutal sexual and emotional abuse, the bouts of depression, possessions and self-harm attempts, and finally the death, either homicidal or suicidal. To smell the charred flesh of a woman you spoke to last week, to convince the family to keep pouring water over her during the eternal wait for the ambulance, the messed-up dying declaration that the woman gave in the presence of her in-laws, to get her to eat at least a few spoonfuls of ice-cream, and later on in the middle of the night to identify her bloating body in the morgue. Added to which at her funeral, to hear murmurs of what was going to happen to her children, and then within a few weeks to see another younger bride of the husband; in many cases, the sister or a cousin of the dead woman. But just when you thought all was lost, to also see local women from MASUM’s various programmes barging into the gram-sabha, asking questions to the village leadership about citizenship rights, threatening a walk-out of all daughters-in-law from the village and setting up vigilance and support committees for the safety of women at high risk! You’d wipe your tear and smile yourself to sleep because you’d believe there’s always hope in the relentless agency of women who’ve been at the bottom of the power pyramid all their lives and who now refuse to stay there any longer.
The experiences of the past four decades have imparted important insights. The rise of right-wing women and of violent identity politics has been an eye-opener during the past two decades, alerting us once more of not falling into the trap of essentialising women or treating them as a homogenous category. Our nuanced understanding of sexualities, gender identities, sex-workers’ rights, disability rights and eugenics grew tremendously during the past two decades. Simultaneously, we were alerted to the fact that singular and victimhood-based exclusionary identity politics could be subversive to the process of inclusive and progressive social transformation.
Ideas take time to gain root, but eventually they do, so we need to keep trying or else be prepared to lose out to the consistent hammering of right-wing fundamentalist or neo-liberal propaganda all around us. Campaigns may take years or even decades to be ‘owned’ by the public, but eventually they do. It lightens my heart when someone from the audience questions me today about what we’re doing about the decreasing sex-ratio. I feel the adrenalin rush when people feel revolted about early tubectomies of poor women or State sponsored mass-hysterectomies of mentally challenged women. I remember the heckling and hostility of crowds when we campaigned against anti-women medical technologies and anti-poor State policies in the 1980s and feel grateful that amidst so much that’s going awry these days, hope strongly prevails. I remain convinced about the inalienable relationship between means and ends. And my resolve to remain part of a politics that is untiring, egalitarian, aware of difference yet inclusive, that maintains its sense of humour and its quest for aesthetics, and which heals with compassion as it destabilises present systems of domination, grows stronger by the day.