The death of Kamla Bhasin, activist for gender equality, advocate for social justice in South Asia – scholar, poet, friend and comrade – has left a gaping hole in the lives of thousands of people she has touched by his work, his life, his love. We owe him so much.
I first met Kamla Bhasin as a student at an elite female college at Delhi University. I came to study here in the early 90s in a small town where my experience of patriarchy and patriarchal thinking was in many ways different from that of my fellow students, who came from more privileged metropolitan backgrounds. But more on that later.
Installed in the safe environment of a college for women where gender issues were discussed and debated with great freedom and openness, I felt liberated, heard, in my place. These were also the decades when the study of gender became central in literature and social science departments and there was a happy consonance between what we studied and our own experiences of gender discrimination as young women.
Although most of the courses we studied in literature departments then had no representation of South Asia, as students we began to read about feminist movements around the world and in India. We acquired a new vocabulary, we protested, we walked and we bristled. Within the secure walls of our college, we felt empowered. Most of us left college with a certain confidence that comes with a privilege.
These were also years when “uncomfortable” class and caste issues and their intersections with gender remained largely hushed up in class discussions. Although in the outside world, in the period following the Mandal Commission protests and the demolition of Babri Masjid, new voices, both radical and conservative, were growing louder. The world was changing.
It was around this time that I first heard of Kamla Bhasin. In 1991, at the Women’s Studies Conference at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, an activist thumped a small drum and chanted a slogan. It was Kamla Bhasin, shouting “Azaadi” against the patriarchy surrounded by a group of women. This story stuck with me. Decades later, we have all heard that song again, powerfully taken up by students and women across the country who refused to give up. Refused not to be counted.
Due to chance and some willpower, I found myself teaching at a women’s college where most of the students were either first- or second-generation learners or came from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. And it was in the classroom, as a teacher, that my real education began.
Learn from Kamla
In the early 2000s, the demographics of students in public universities were starting to change. There were more non-Savarna students than ever before. Students began to question the sclerotic teaching practices that had so far dominated classroom teaching. My own worry as a young student who had come to Delhi from a small town was resuscitated.
There was a classroom demand, sometimes explicit, other times brooding, to influence traditional academic discussions of gender with non-metropolitan registers, to relate them to South Asian histories and social realities, to recognize the differences. , to call privilege. It was a few years later that the English department at our college offered a course on women’s empowerment in India and I was fortunate enough to teach in Bhasin Understanding genderr. Teaching this text has been rewarding in more than one way that I cannot enumerate.
I remember an incident where I asked the class studying this course if they called themselves feminists. While some students (mainly savarna) responded eagerly and said they had done so, many had reservations about the “label”. There was a lot of talk about what feminism was, if it meant being anti-men, anti-marriage, and anti-family; if it meant women should have more power than men, if it meant equal economic opportunities, if it meant being non-religious, if it meant women in cities are more enlightened than those in rural areas, if that meant that gender justice was more important than fighting caste oppression, if it meant reservations for women on buses and parliament, if it meant rejection of motherhood.
As these questions were fiercely questioned in class, the students began to read Bhasin’s work. Written in a style that speaks to everyone, they gradually found their questions answered one by one. We have also had the privilege of inviting Bhasin to college several times to speak to our students. Hear her talk about her work in rural Rajasthan, her monumental contribution to the education of women, her rejection of development projects that did not address the issues of entrenched patriarchy, her social justice initiatives – Sangat and Jagori, the challenges of his personal life, his commitment to collaborative political work, captivated and inspired the students. She spoke with kindness and fire, lightness and depth, critically and with conviction. And always as a friend.
After studying Bhasin’s work for an entire semester, we felt that perhaps we had come a little closer to understanding what feminist work entails. During these months, the classroom became the world. We have learned to disagree and to listen. We began to see ourselves as beneficiaries and participants in a long and continuous struggle for gender equality led by courageous women like Bhasin.
The course remains very popular with students. A few years ago, as the semester was drawing to a close, this calm girl who hardly ever spoke in class came to me one day and said, “Ma’am, Principal Haryana is hun. College ke baad simple gharwale shayad meri shaadi kardenge. Lekin Bhasin Madame ki baatein sun ke aur unki kitaab padhke mujhe lag raha hain principal unki baat nahin manungi. Mujhe aur padhna hai. Kuch bana hai. Madam, principal shayad ab apne aapko feminist keh sakti hun. Thank you ma’am.
Antara Datta teaches English literature at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi.