Eminent feminist, author, poet and a stalwart of the women’s rights movement in India, Kamla Bhasin, passed away on Saturday, aged 75. Bhasin was reportedly diagnosed with cancer a few months ago.
Below are messages from some of her friends and comrades, remembering Bhasin and her spirit that lives on.
I first met Kamla in the mid 1970s while I was still a student at JNU. Subsequently Kamla emerged as one of the foremost feminists of contemporary India. She came to activism from a Development framework which highlighted patriarchy and gender. She incorporated this with a critique of globalisation which impacted women adversely, even as it expanded choices for those at the top, perpetuating greater violence on the marginalised. She remained committed to peace and solidarity in South Asia, challenging those who raised slogans from a plank of hyper nationalism and sought to raise hostilities between countries and the people in this region. She remained committed to promoting the struggles of women across India for their rights and against violence. Hers was a powerful voice against those who push divisive agendas and hatred in the name of religion and nationalism. We owe it to her to stand firm against efforts being made by those who seek to disturb India’s secular fabric and hijack the platform for women’s rights to promote fundamentalisms of different hues and shades. I deeply mourn the loss of someone who became a friend over four decades of engagement with ideas, action and perspectives in the women’s movement in contemporary India. Farewell dear Kamla. We shall miss you.
Feisty Kamla, her enthusiasm, her sense of humour, her dedication. Her way with words — how she made the azadi chant of the Pakistani women’s movement ours too. How until the last days of her life, she acknowledged mistakes and kept learning — that is the most powerful feminist legacy she has left behind. The way she brought together young feminists from across the barbed wire borders of our South Asian nation states. These lines she wrote are engraved on my heart:
मैं सरहद पर खड़ी दीवार नहीं उस दीवार पर पड़ी दरार हूँ।
I am not the wall that stands at the border, I am the crack in that wall.
Farewell, Kamla. Float across those borders now, be the breeze that brings peace…and be at peace yourself.
Trying to think of something that captures Kamla, I think perhaps the unique thing was her ability to communicate. Right from street plays in which she often drew passers by into the play by establishing a kind of “joke-y” camaraderie with them, to communicating with the many young feminists from rural and urban India for whom she held workshops, to writing about complex ideas in a simple language and speaking at international meetings, somehow she did this with such ease and humour, often breaking into song, that it was remarkable. She had none of the hesitation that women may often feel about not speaking out, she wasn’t someone who remained silent. She spoke, she sang, she danced, she laughed — and sometimes cracked poor jokes as well. But I like to think that in some ways she perhaps made people think that feminism was fun, and perhaps they thought, well, if it is such fun, maybe I should go there too!
Kamla- Her multiple talents never ceased to amaze me. To have even one of the qualities that Kamla had would be impressive enough, but all together in this one human being, it was dazzling. Singer and songwriter, story teller, poet and author, artist and activist, maker of magic through her rare skills of communication, Kamla was a most influential voice in women’s movements in the seventies and after. She fought patriarchy as an ideology not in the narrow sense of men versus women. There were sharp ideological differences in the early days of joint movements between the autonomous women’s groups and communist women working in left wing women’s organisations, but Kamla had the capacity to see the bigger picture — and helped to build bridges and bonds. Later, at a time when narrow national chauvinism dominated public discourse, Kamla worked hard to build people to people, women to women relations with Pakistan and countries of South Asia. She was an ambassador of peace. Her talent, creativity, energy, commitment to fight injustice and to top it all her wicked sense of humour— endeared her to all who came in touch with her. She was courageous, facing adversity in her personal life with such dignity. She will be missed. Salaam dear friend and comrade. Your work will live on.
V Rukmini Rao:
I first met Kamla in the late 70s ,when she came to visit the National Labour Institute. She invited me to stay with her in Bangkok when I visited and since then, we have remained friends. We may not have always agreed and maintained the same perspectives, but we could work together smoothly. Kamla had the quality to draw in people with her charisma, her obvious love of life and fun side. Kamla was an evolving learning person all her life and shared her knowledge generously with all around her. While our journey together started by addressing violence against women, she worked to promote adolescent girls rights, and in Sangat training programs she specially invited me to address environmental issues. She worked on many other issues — health, sensitising men, promoting democracy and others. Kamla did not believe in national boundaries. Having been born on the other side of the border before partition, she promoted Peace in the region and saw herself as a South Asian. She dreamed of a united South Asia on the lines of the European Union. Kamla lived the slogan, the personal is political. When her daughter Meeto was born, she started writing nursery rhymes describing that girls were equal to boys. When she faced personal family crises, she discussed how our suggestions of going to courts for justice did not work. She changed her inputs into her training accordingly. Much will be written about her contribution to the women’s movement, but I would like to share the essential Kamla. She nurtured friendships over generations, she turned her personal crises into opportunities for learning for all, she was strong and loving. She did not hesitate to apologise if she was wrong. Kamla quickly became the life spirit of every meeting she organised. She sang feminist songs she had written, and more recently only spoke and wrote in hindi. She could get everyone to move quickly and galvanised all women, young and old with the slogan, “Hum leke rahenge Azadi” and she taught women to be spirited and free, teaching them to wolf whistle to gain attention. When she was in hospital she continued to worry about developments in Afghanistan and how to support young women who needed to leave or confront the taliban. A feminist to the end, my friend Kamla Bhasin.
Monisha Behal from the North East Network (NEN):
Kamla Bhasin – a rare one. Creative composer, writer, working towards transformative activism. She created an impact on several of the young women of NEN who were sent for ‘training’ on those wonderful month-long feminist courses in Nepal. And those girls returned with new perspectives, fresh ideas and above all, the zeal to work with women of all categories. That was the magic .
And so, thank you Kamla…… We pray for you Kamla and the great soul that you are.
From us all in the North East Network.
Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland.
Kamla, Kammo to her friends, is no more.
It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that the vibrant person I knew will no longer organise, joke, sing, write, dance, encourage and inspire us all.
I have known Kamla since 1981, and from the day I met her she has been a source of inspiration. Kammo would often say our children had grown up together and so had we. Certainly I had grown up in her presence. Along with all I learnt from Vina Mazumdar (our beloved Vina di– sadly also no more), and my dearest friends, Sahba Husain and Rajni Palriwala, I learnt from Kammo too so much about women’s issues, the importance of the movement, the connection between different movements and feminism, and above all (for me, anyway), the place of art –music, dance, poetry, and humour– in the movement.
Her own life was filled with difficulties and sadness. Yet she bore it all with courage and even laughter.
I have so many precious memories, of protests, meetings, sing-songs, of our children’s birthdays. I treasure these. Kammo will live in my memory as she will in the memories of all those who knew her.
I met Kamla for the first time in late 1970s when the journal Manushi was being initiated and we met at her house in Bhagwan Das Road in Delhi. She had a baby with her then. Was it Chhotu? Kamla was hence part of so many initiatives, known, unknown, in what we call the women’s movement in Delhi as also women’s studies which was centered around CWDS and Vina Mazumdar and other pioneers. At the second IAWS National Conference in Trivandrum, we had a longer talk about a) What was shaping women’s studies research including funding sources? and b) Could women’s studies be free if the university environment was not free? A resolution to this effect was passed and Kamla played a key role in carrying forward this discussion at the conference.
I next met Kamla in the camps set up post the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage. Although working in different spaces politically, we were constantly finding common grounds and meeting. I had moved out of Delhi and it was during a proposed SAARC conference in Colombo, that Kamla approached me to co-ordinate a Sangat organised South Asia seminar on women and land rights as part of the parallel civil society conference of SAARC. It was the midst of a conflict with LTTE in Sri Lanka and Sangat had released a pamphlet along the lines of feminist response to peoples’ union in South Asia, if my memory is correct. I prepared the Sangat report on Women’s Land Rights in South Asia. Kamla wrote an introduction.
Our association continued when an old friend and fellow traveller, Abha (Jagori) organised a workshop on single women and land rights in their training centre in Kangra (Himachal). Although living in different regions, I met Kamla during IAWS national conferences, particularly the Jaipur conference with Kamla in IAWS EC. I was coordinating a sub theme on culture, and Kamla told me, “you have done so much work, why don’t you take a flight back after the conference?” There are so many of these memories but the more recent ones was as also through IAWS when I coordinated the plenary on Women’s Movement in Delhi on 30th January, 2020, where her speech not only energised the conference but also moved us to tears as she spoke of the painful personal experiences of her life in the past although she was laughing and singing outside now. I had met her late daughter Mitoo too and saw her care for Chhotu. We were in touch till her last few months. It’s difficult to imagine Kamla has left us. I am deeply saddened but cherish being a fellow traveler in so many movements.
When I think of Kamla, there are so many memories that flood in. One of the things that was of course, most special about her was her ability to express and communicate feminist ideas in a language that was so simple an effective that even a child would have no trouble understanding. That was always something very inspiring to me, something I learnt from her. Kamla faced many tragedies and difficulties in her life, she had the ability to grieve and be open about sharing that grief, but the thing you really remember about her always is her irrepressible sense of joy and love for life and people.
The first time I met Kamla was at a protest somewhere. I was a student then, solemn and awkward. And Kamla would always say in protests, “Why don’t you dance?” She would always be dancing and singing all kinds of songs–songs she had written, progressive and feminist songs, but also filmy songs. So my first encounter with Kamla is basically her taking my hands and deciding that this young girl needs to dance. And in the years since, that’s how I remembered her. She has shared stories with me about her encounters in South Asian feminist meetings where others may have been solemn but she would always be cracking jokes. She insisted on hope even in the most tragic situations. She was the kind of a person who would get up in the morning, put a spring in their steps, a song on their lips and who make it their job in life to inspire others to dance to music. What can be more positive?
We owe the slogan “Mahilayein maange Aazadi” to Kamla in India because Kamla was the one who brought it from the Pakistani feminist movement into India. I don’t know how many such legacies there must be which are undocumented and not mentioned, which we actually owe to the foremothers of the women’s movement in India, foremothers like Kamla, whom we were fortunate to be able to know and enjoy as friends and comrades for a while.
My earliest memories of Kamla are of long hot summer afternoons in 1979 spent on various lawns and parks of Delhi rehearsing ‘Om Swaha’, our street play on dowry. A small drum (damru) in hand, Kamla played the Madari – Sutradhaar – drawing in the crowds, her face filled with a smile. In rehearsals, Kamla was ever ready with a joke or a pun that she was was the first to chuckle at, wholeheartedly. If there was an argument about how to depict a women’s issue, she invariably had a simple, practical and generally acceptable solution.
Cut to Lahore, 1988, where I was part of a group of artists invited for the Faiz Ahmed Faiz Festival. Kamla, organiser from the Indian side could as well have been the host from the Pakistan side – for her it was one big party, lines rubbed out with songs, continuous expressions of love, hope and camaraderie. That’s how I remember Kamla – joining hearts with joy.”