India: The inspirational power and courage of women who fight against the worst odds Print E-mail
 Sunday May 22, 2016


Why women can make the world go round

by  Saba Naqvi

A recent visit to Chhattisgarh reinforced my faith in the miraculous power of women who fight against the worst odds.
Sori Soni

Half the world's population may disagree, but let me stick my neck out and say that women are the stronger sex. A recent visit to Chhattisgarh reinforced my faith in the miraculous power of women who fight against the worst odds. First, as part of a fact finding, I met four Gondi tribal women, from Kunna village of Sukma district in Bastar who narrated their tale of being subjected to a "breast examination" by security forces. Briefly, they were rounded up and taken to the village school, surrounded by police, who then squeezed their breasts to see if they were lactating or not. This apparently is one of the advanced methods of police detection in Bastar. The reason why police lift up the blouses and squeeze women's breasts is because they believe that non lactating Adivasi women could be Maoists, while a lactating women is less likely to be.

The women who narrated this ordeal were Gondi tribals. Translators were required as the Gondi language cannot be understood by a Hindi speaker (the state does little to promote it and instead advocates Hindi among Adivasis). The first translator was a young man from the village. The women were shy and reluctant with him. It took a couple of hours before a woman was found and finally, the chilling tale was told. We were not the first people to hear it. The women had travelled long distances to tell the tale again and again. I marveled at their courage, fortitude and dignity in repeating this story of their humiliation. Presumably there is some expectation of justice and punishment down the road.

Later that night I met Sori Soni the former school teacher who was arrested and tortured and is now a known activist in Chattisgarh (some months ago her face was blackened with an acidic substance) besides being a member of AAP. She's an articulate and forceful personality but has concerns about the lack of justice that confronts women who decide to lodge a complaint. All too often the police refuse to lodge an FIR unless civil society and local politicians intervene.

As I struggled to understand the tough road to life, liberty and justice in Chattisgarh, it made me proud to see that so many women were pivots in the process. First, one must speak of Sudha Bhardawaj, trade unionist, civil rights activist and lawyer who has lived in Chattisgarh for 30 years (she was born in the US and educated in JNU). She was drawn to the late Shankar Guha Niyogi's Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and stayed ever since, becoming a formidable figure in the state, also founder of Janhit, a lawyers collective that works on legal aid cases, and a support for anyone who wishes to engage with the various issues in the mineral rich state, from labour rights to violations of tribal lands.

It was Sudha's work and the campaign to release Dr Binayak Sen that got Shalini Gera involved in the issues of the state. After 20 years in the US she returned to India in 2010, got a law degree and in 2013, founded Jagdalpur Legal Aid group or JagLag with three other lawyers. Today, two remain, Shalini and 25-year-old Isha Khandelwal. They both lived in rented premises in Jadgalpur till they had to vacate on the night of February 20 this year after a campaign of intimidation. Around the same time, journalist Malini Subramaniam also had to leave her home in Jagdalpur after her domestic help and landlord were harassed by the police, and she was threatened by goons.

The campaign was carried out by Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante type outfit propped up by the police. The Manch now claims to have "dissolved" itself, after a string of recent controversies. On 26 March this year about 100 people gathered outside the home of human rights activist and researcher Bela Bhatia, another remarkable woman who engages with the state. They shouted "death to Bela Bhatia" and distributed leaflets containing defamatory allegations against Bela and her husband, the economist Jean Dreze. Bela points out that pamphlets calling her a Maoist Dalal gives sanction to anyone to do anything.

Bela's engagement with the region began in 2006 but in January 2015 she shifted, bag and baggage. She really got the hackles of the security agencies up by helping tribal women register FIRs against security personnel for gang rape and grievous sexual assault. Three such FIRS have been registered over the last few months that have the potential to embarrass both police and the state government. Bela is determined to stay on but says that at times one become conscious of the silence of the night.

There are women who do not live in Bastar, but who passionately continue to engage with the region. Arundhati Roy has written the most powerful essays describing the conflict zone and the plight of Adivasis. There's also Delhi University sociology professor Nandini Sundar, who did fieldwork for her PhD in Bastar in the early 1990s. She's been involved ever since and would go on to become one of the lead petitioners in a PIL (Nandani Sundar vs state of Chattisgarh) that would lead to the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in 2011 outlawing Salwa Judum, the name for the state sponsored and armed vigilante force.

Is it just an amazing coincidence that so many women are at the forefront of this struggle in the heart of India?