The passing of Kamla Bhasin, gender activist, advocate of social justice in South Asia – scholar, poet, friend, and comrade – has left a gaping hole in the lives of thousands of people whom she touched with her work, her life, her love. To her we owe so much.
My first introduction to Kamla Bhasin was as a student in an elite women’s college in Delhi University. I came to study here in the early ’90s from a small town where my experience of patriarchy and patriarchal thinking was in many ways different from those of my mates’, who belonged to more privileged metropolitan backgrounds. But more about that later.
Learning of Kamla
Ensconced in the safe environment of a women’s college where issues of gender were discussed and debated with great freedom and openness, I felt liberated, heard, belonged. These were also the decades when the study of gender was becoming 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.
Though most of the courses we studied in literature departments then had no representation from south Asia, as students we began to read about feminist movements around the world and in India. We got a new vocabulary, we protested, we marched, and we bristled. Within the safe walls of our college we felt empowered. Most of us left college with a certain confidence that comes with privilege.
Those were also years when the “uncomfortable” issues of class and caste and their intersections with gender remained largely stifled in classroom discussions. Though in the world outside, in the period after the Mandal Commission protests and the demolition of Babri Masjid, new voices, both radical and conservative, were becoming louder. The world was changing.
This was the time that I first heard of Kamla Bhasin. In 1991 at the Women’s Studies Conference at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, a woman activist beat a little drum and chanted a slogan. This was Kamla Bhasin, screaming “Azaadi” against patriarchy surrounded by a group of women. That story remained with me. Decades later we all heard that chant again, powerfully echoed by students and women all over the country who refused to give up. Refused not to be counted.
Because of happenstance and some volition I found myself teaching in a women’s college where most of the students were either first or second generation learners or came from relatively under-privileged contexts. And it was in the classroom, as a teacher, that my real education began.
Learning from Kamla
By the early 2000s the student demographic in public universities was beginning to shift. There were more non-savarna students now than ever before. The students began to challenge the ossified pedagogical practices that had dominated classroom teaching so far. My own disquiet as a young student who had come to Delhi from a small town was resurrected.
There was a demand in the classroom, sometimes explicit, at other times smouldering, to inflect mainstream academic discussions on gender with non-metropolitan registers, connect them with South-Asian histories and social realities, recognise differences, call out privilege. It was some years later that the English Department in our college offered a course on women’s empowerment in India and I had the good fortune of teaching Bhasin’s Understanding Gender. Teaching this text has been rewarding in more ways than I can enumerate.
I recall an incident when I had asked the class studying this course if they would call themselves feminists. While some students (mostly savarna) responded with alacrity and said that they did, many had reservations about the “label”. There was much 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 it meant gender justice was more important than fighting caste oppression, if it meant reservations for women in buses and the Parliament, if it meant rejecting motherhood.
While these questions were fiercely interrogated in class, the students began to read Bhasin’s work. Written in a style that spoke to all, they gradually found their questions being addressed one by one. We also had the privilege of inviting Bhasin to the college several times to speak to our students. Hearing her talk about her work in rural Rajasthan, her monumental contribution to women’s education, her rejection of developmental projects that did not address issues of entrenched patriarchy, her social justice initiatives – Sangat and Jagori, the challenges in her personal life, her commitment to collaborative political work, had students enthralled and inspired. 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 we had come a little closer to understanding what feminist work involves. For those months the classroom became the world. We learnt to disagree and listen. We began to see ourselves as beneficiaries of and participants in a long and continuing struggle for gender equality that courageous women like Bhasin led.
The course remains very popular with students. A few years ago, as the semester was winding down, this quiet girl who hardly ever spoke in class came up to me one day and said, “Ma’am, main Haryana se hun. College ke baad mere gharwale shayad meri shaadi kardenge. Lekin Bhasin Ma’am ki baatein sun ke aur unki kitaab padhke mujhe lag raha hain main unki baat nahin manungi. Mujhe aur padhna hai. Kuch banna hai. Ma’am, main shayad ab apne aapko feminist keh sakti hun. Thank you, Ma’am”.
Antara Datta teaches English Literature in Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi.
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