Boundaries were meaningless to Kamla Bhasin. Wherever she went, she made an impact. Her spirit was what one would first connect with. Her laughter, her Buland awaaz, her singing, her slogans, her poetry, her style of communication mesmerised many. People were inspired by her, took her as their mentor, became friends with her.

Bhasin, who died on September 25, was a leading spirit of the women’s movement, scripting amazing songs, capturing the various ideas and expressions of the movement – songs that travelled across India and the South Asian region.

The famous “Azadi” slogan was crafted by Bhasin and the renowned Pakistani feminist Nighat Said Khan. Her rendition of it imprinted itself on how other movements now express their own ideas of freedom and their demands, renewing the power of this chant to take on fresh meanings. With pride she would say, see how the slogan has travelled to Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kanhaiya Kumar and the other students have transformed it.


Kamla Bhasin was born in Village Shahidawalli in Gujaranwala district in the Punjab, just before Partition, on April 24, 1946. She was one of six siblings. After Partition, her father got a job as a doctor in Bharatpur, so the family moved to India. After going to school in various small towns and villages of Rajasthan, Bhasin came to Jaipur for her final years of school. She finished her college and university education in the city.

Her college and university friends remember her as a bouncy, sporty person (she was college sports captain) who was always full of fun. Her laughter filled the corridors. Bhasin studied economics and in 1967 went to Germany to do research. She returned to India to work in the area of water, adult literacy and child development in Sewa Mandir in Udaipur.

In Udaipur, she was known as motorcycle-wali: she drove a motobike around the city and in villages for her work, something that people on those parts had not been seen a woman do before. Scooters and mopeds yes, but not on motorbikes. By the mid-1970s, she was married and by 1980 had two children. She and her husband moved to Delhi. From being a smalltown wali, Bhasin soon became a Dilli wali.

Street activism

Bhasin’s street activism began in Delhi as part of a collective led by Saheli (one of the first women’s groups, formed in Delhi in the 1981). It was a period of churning. Protests against dowry deaths brought the women of Delhi out on the streets. Women had also been galvanised by the the Supreme Court verdict in 1979 acquitting the police accused in the 1972 Mathura rape case. Feminists began to work on making the rape law more effective and later on amendments to sections of the Indian Penal Code related to dowry.

In 1984 came the ruthless massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, in which mobs killed more than 3,000 Sikhs. These killings affected Bhasin deeply as she was married to a Sikh. It prompted her participate more intensely in the initiatives around her.

Other key events unfolded: the undermining in 1986 of the Shah Bano verdict related to maintenance for divorced Muslim women; the anti-sati movement in 1987; the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case in 1992 that eventually led to the Vishaka guidelines listing protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. That year also saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which brought more violence and killings. The need for street action by people’s movements was never-ending.

From these events emerged one of Bhasin’s earliest songs: Tod, Tod ke Bandhano ko Dekho Behne Aati Hain. Forty years later, it has become the signature protest song for many women. Bhasin was a prolific poet. Over the years, Jagori, the organisation she co-founded in 1984, has published several books of songs by Bhasin and other songs of the women’s movement.


In the 40 years of raising two children, including one with special needs, participating in street action, teaching feminism, gender, patriarchy, masculinity, disabilities, writing books on these subjects and on women and the media, researching women’s Partition narratives, working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Bhasin did not tire. Even when she celebrated her 75th birthday on April 24, she was planning campaigns with all of us.

Her contributions are many. She started Jagori Women’s resource and Documentation Centre with old-time friend and colleague Abha Bhaiya and other feminists. Even today, Jagori is a valuable resource for women in North India. The two also set up Jagori Rural in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district.

Bhasin was among a first generation of Indian feminists who made connections with others in the subcontinent and forged South Asian movements for feminists. The seed of this idea was planted at a training programme in Murree in Pakistan hosted by Nighat Said Khan and the Women’s Action Forum of Pakistan.

Building bridges

At that point, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was not easy to build bridges between Bangladesh and Pakistani women: the events leading up to Bangladesh Liberation had left many in Bangladesh angry with the Pakistani army for its war crimes. The regional platform stood in full support of the Women’s Action Forum when it apologised to the women of Bangladesh for these crimes and their silence. A letter with hundreds of signatures was sent from Pakistan to Bangladesh.

Similar divisions exist between Indian and Pakistani feminists, since the official discourse labelling the other country as the enemy encourages ordinary citizens to start thinking of people across the border in hostile terms. It is a chasm that Bhasin and Nighat Khan managed to bridge.

To the south, Sri Lankan and Indian feminists in the 1980s were critical of the war crimes of both the Sri Lankan army and the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan feminist movement had taken up this issue upfront, along with the ethnic hostility between Sinhalas and Tamils. South Asian feminist collectives worked to ease these differences.

Nepal and India appeared to have an easier relationship, but the Indian state’s patronising policy towards Nepal sometimes created friction.

Still, it became clear that being critical of each other’s state apparatus need not come in the way of relationships between inter country feminist groups, as human rights were universal with no restrictions of boundaries

She also worked relentlessly towards peace between India and Pakistan, with activists like Syeda Hameed, Tapan Bose, Kuldip Nayar and others. In 1999, the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia was born called. More than 70 Pakistani women led by the fiery human rights activist Asma Jahangir came to Delhi and Jaipur to interact with women for over a week. What a sight it was. In Jaipur, a few hundred people from the city came with their children to see what Pakistani women looked like.

Bhasin was a regular at the annual Wagah Attari border event, where Kuldip Nayar, Justice Rajinder Sachar, Syeda Hameed and others led activists on August 14 to light candles on the Indian side of the border as Pakistani activists stood on the other side.

Her commitment to peace in this region was amazing. One of her last meetings was about seven hours before she passed away: she joined the online meeting of the Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Development from the ICU bed till she had to leave because a doctor wanted to examine her.

Making music

My own association with her started way back in 1984, when I knew little about the women’s movement or feminism. My work started out with the understanding of rural women’s issues. Our work space was the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme, which was a conglomerate of grassroots activists, researchers and social workers, some in NGOs, some in research institutions and some in the government.

It was a time when we thought that the urban feminists did not have much to contribute and initially we kept our distance. Then we started singing her songs. Rural women also had their own beautiful feminist songs. Bhasin and the women grew from each others’ expressions. Very soon, Bhasin was making songs that used the melodies of Rajasthani folk tunes.

Bhasin’s persona, her songs, her understanding of feminism, patriarchy, gender, masculinity drew us together and we became friends. We started working together on campaigns collectively. One of our most significant tasks was working together in the executive of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies from 1993 to 1996. Bhasin was the general secretary and I was a member and on the editorial board of the association’s magazine.


In 1995, we brought the association’s biennial conference to Jaipur. We hosted around 1,500 participants. This was after the Bhanwari Devi judgement that year, by which the rapists had been acquitted. Participants were strengthened in their resolve to fight the deep injustice to which Bhanwari had been subjected and to express solidarity with her struggle.

In 2013, Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya started the One Billion Rising campaign with Eve Ensler, the American playwright, to end violence against women globally. The thrust was Strike, Dance, Rise. Massive mobilisation began all over the country. We all rose year after year on V Day, the day for ending violence against women, on Valentine’s day, February 14, hoping to create a world woven with love and not hate. Violence against women could stop if love was brought centre stage.

One of her last plans that I worked with Bhasin was on building a campaign on women’s property rights, in 2018. We aimed to build awareness amongst women that they had the right to ask for their share of family property and not relinquish that right to their brothers. It was a completely decentralised, democratic, and multifaceted campaign, typically Kamla style. Posters, slogans and songs were made by everybody under Bhasin’s leadership.

New directions

Over past three decades, the debate in the women’s movement has moved from our universality and commonality of being women to intersectionality. This has not only transformed the discourse but also many times led to a break in dialogue. Bhasin faced questions from Dalit, trans feminists and other feminists on her views on the concept of intersectionality. For a person who believed in dialogue, this breakdown went against her grain.

In the lives of us feminists, there are no barriers between the personal and the public. It was the same with Bhasin. Our relationship grew stronger over the years, cemented by singing. Our songs changed over the years, from movement songs to other genres too. In the last three months of her illness, when she was between hospital and home, she insisted that I come to meet her. Every meeting involved eating and singing till late into the night, reading lyrics out of the books she had written.

One night over dinner, I asked her what she had been doing during the struggle against the Citizenship Amendment Act. She said that she went to three protest sites. Everywhere she went, she was asked to recite the “Azaadi” chant. Just a few days before she passed away, she said that she wanted to write a book for children on Bilkis Dadi, the octogenarian who had been at the forefront of the protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.

She wanted to talk about cancer and how we need to be healthy. She wanted more expressions about older people. She wanted to make posters of the wonder women who were her peers. One night at 3, a poster arrived on WhatsApp, asking our opinion about whether the sketches were any good. She had six such posters in mind.

Kamla Bhasin’s was a life of sisterhood. Several friends came from afar to look after her in her last few months. At her cremation, many women friends and movement sisters were the pall bearers. They sang all through till she was consigned to the electric fire.

Cancer finally seized her body but not her spirit. She did say that she may lose the battle but that she would transcend into another world. Those of us who were her friends are convinced that wherever she is now, she is having fun with her daughter Meeto, her friends Nigar Ahmed, Asma Jehangir and Sonal Shukla and her brother Indu – those whom she described in one of her Facebook posts as her own.

Adieu Kamla. You will live on in all our hearts.

Kavita Srivastava is the president of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, Rajasthan.