Teacher and activist, Vasanth Kannabiran takes pride in her tireless crusade for women's rights. She says she could never have described herself as a writer, poet or scholar but for the feminist movement.
As she walks towards you slowly, in her crisp cotton saree, with bobbed silver hair and a warm smile, she exudes a radiance that is almost palpable — one that is but a reflection of countless struggles braved, of numerous wars won. Of a life spent well.
Vasanth Kannabiran sits down to talk, with a grace unmatched perhaps by another 72-year-old. Her journey, as a teacher, feminist, activist, writer and poet, too, matched by few.
Undertaken to stand up to the gory truths of her time, it is a journey of over three decades. One, marked by an unrelenting effort to amend rape laws of the country, the countless rallies against dowry deaths and domestic violence, protests against communalism and a tireless crusade for women's rights, among many others. It is a journey that has defined the lives of thousands of women across the country.
She closes her eyes for a moment and tries to gather a few of its few fragments. “In the decades that have passed,” she says “there is so much that has been forgotten; yet so much that cannot be forgotten.”
It started with the formation of the Stree Shakti Sanghtana (SSS) — one of the first women's collectives in the country that politicised women's issues and changed the entire political discourse of Andhra Pradesh, in the late 1970s. “That was the time of mypunarjanma(rebirth). Until then a teacher of nearly two decades, I was roped into the group more through personal contacts, than through any feminist conviction,” she says.
Her first encounter with the movement began with the Muktadar Commission set up to enquire the rape of Rameeza Bee in a jail in Hyderabad and the custodial death of her husband in 1978. “It was like a revelation about what it meant to be a woman; about what it was to be gang raped; and about how women were victims of law and police bestiality,” she says.
With the soiled Mathura judgment, she, along with the SSS and other women's organisation, fought relentlessly to amend rape laws through “The Forum against Rape”. Days and nights were spent drafting amendments to the law that was to protect countless women across the nation. Vasanth has since, travelled miles — barely realising at that point how many more miles there were to go.
Going from door to door distributing pamphlets, holding demonstrations, and protesting in front of police stations to bring forth police brutality; her lived reality has been that of countless women she has worked with.
“We even put up candidates for elections and campaigned only to have a platform to talk about issues and raise awareness. That was the only way we were allowed to address huge crowds. We didn't get any votes; we never expected to,” she smiles.
Ask her about the women's movement of today and there is a moment of unexpected silence before she speaks. “Those days, wherever there was a dowry death, rape or violence, we were there — conducting rallies and organizing protests. Today, caps are worn and candles are waved vigorously in protest.”
Although women are more aware today, Vasanth affirms that violence against them has only increased. “There is an influx of global values and distractions making it difficult for young women to perceive the various ways in which violence is playing out,” she says. “Every protest of the past taught us lessons for life. Today, although there is noise, there are no real-life lessons being distilled down.”
Rally against arrack
Amid a sea of experiences with which she has grown old, Vasanth talks about one — that took place over 15 years ago — with a marked enthusiasm. One in which rural landless dalit women, along with poor women from across Andhra Pradesh were at the forefront of the demand to ban liquor. Vasanth visited 80 villages, addressed rallies and documented that struggle. “It was July 17, 1996, that we organised a State-wide rally protesting the government's decision to repeal prohibition on arrack. That day, we expected 1,000 women at the rally; over 12,000 turned up! It was incredible,” she says, as if the protest were taking place here and now.
The enormity of the gathering warranted the help of even police vans to drop the women back at bus and railway stations after the protest, she says. Yet, it was a total media blackout with absolutely no coverage. And, after a few weeks the ban on arrack was quietly lifted.
Fighting relentlessly, nevertheless, for what she believes, Vasanth is an “unrepentant feminist”. Challenging her roots, she has even been deeply critical even of the undemocratic trends in the Left, despite being born into a family of first-generation communist leaders in Andhra.
She resurrected the history of women in its movements through her research, at a time when the radical Left was unwilling to recognise the importance of women's perspectives.
Besides working with disturbing realities, she has made that reality visible to thousands through her writings — in articles, book, poems and even ballets — in both English and Telugu. “I could never have described myself as a writer, poet or scholar but for the feminist movement,” she says.
Her tryst with rural Andhra, Vasanth holds closest to her heart. Interacting with hundreds of women, she translated complex realties of child marriage, gender and caste-based violence and abuse in the regions, into simple truths that the women could connect to their rice, land or loan. The women's programme at the Deccan Development Society is one such.
In a country plagued with bloody violence of communalism, Vasanth also played a major role in providing relief and fact-finding assistance in a riot-torn Hyderabad of 1980, besides Gujarat. The peace process initiated between the AP government and Naxalite groups, also saw Vasanth bring in a whole new gender perspective to the revolutionary movement through an “An open letter to the Maoists”. One that, several of them agreed, the movement gravely lacked.
Working towards gender development, training and adult education across borders, she says that there has not been a single counselling out of which she hasn't gotten a new perspective. “The movement I was involved with gave me a perspective no other philosophy could,” she says.
That Vasanth was among the 1000 Peace Women to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize cannot be missed. Today sitting unassumingly in her house in Hyderabad, she maintains that she was unworthy of it.
“The journey I undertook gave me a sense of self, worth, relevance and abundance of love from thousands of women who needs I seemed to voice. It gave me a feeling that life has been worth living. What more could one ask for?” she says.
Vasanth Kannabiran's journey is one that cries at every step that there is no alternative to brutally questioning yourself and doing what you believe in: A freedom that the women's movement gives you in abundance.
Reblogged from : The Hindu : Opinion / Columns : The Power of Women - A liberated mind