By Beena Sarwar
The annual international 16 Days of Activism against gender violence takes place this year without the pioneering South Asian feminist and poet Kamla Bhasin, even as her songs and poetry enliven many events during this period and beyond.
The 16 Days are observed annually starting 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. They end on 10 December, with international Human Rights Day. These are integrated issues that Kamla fought for all her life. And she did this with love, joy, music, poetry and compassion.
As she famously said, “I am a feminist, and I do not hate men. I am a feminist and I do not hate women who are not feminists. I am a feminist – and I laugh.”
She was very clear that the fight is not against men but against patriarchy and its associated evils – violence, discrimination, and oppression. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human” – it’s not about dominating men or wanting to be the same as men.
Kamla would have appreciated the slogan “Feminise to Humanise” coined by her friend and fellow activist Lalita Ramdas. This is the title of an upcoming online event on 28 November, part of a monthly series organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network, or Sapan. The series, themed ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’, was a concept close to Kamla’s heart.
Kamla was born on 24 April 1946 in Shaheedanwala neighbourhood of Mandi Bahauddin in Lahore city in undivided India. She always had an affinity for the land of her birth and developed many close friendships there, as well as in other parts of South Asia. Many of these relationships began in the late 1970s.
One of them was with her ‘twin’ in Lahore – feminist and educationist Samina Bano Rehman, born in Aligarh on the same day as Kamla. Kamla never tired of remarking at the coincidence of their parallel lives.
Another is the Bangladeshi activist Khushi Kabir, to whom Kamla passed on the mantle of Sangat in January this year – the South Asian feminist network she founded nearly half a century ago.
Khushi credits Kamla with helping her to go beyond the hurt and anger of 1971 to form solidarities with Pakistani feminists. For Khushi’s daughter Rohini Kamal, the two “came in a pair… they were life partners. So it is I got two mums.” Kamba, as Rohini called Kamla, even took care of Rohini’s health, physical and mental, taking her to doctors and even paying the bills. “And so, so many times I told Kamba things I couldn’t tell anyone else, not ma or my friends.”
When Kamla was diagnosed with cancer in July, Khushi was desperate to be with her. She submitted her passport to the Indian High Commission at Dhaka. They asked for her previous passports, which she provided.
Kamla passed away barely three months later. Khushi never got the visa.
It is cruel to keep people apart like this. Why should South Asians need visas to visit each other? Why can’t the region be like the European Union, and allow free trade and travel to its people?
The rigidity of governments and their policies makes the very idea seem preposterous. But is it?
A South Asian Union?
I first heard about the concept of a South Asian Union years ago from Dr Mubashir Hasan, former finance minister and hawk-turned-dove.
In the 1990s, Dr Mubashir was among the founders of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), a network that Kamla was also part of.
Kamla’s visits to Lahore were incomplete without seeing Dr Mubashir and two of his closest friends Asma Jahangir and IA Rehman, both also among PIPFPD’s founding members.
When Asma died suddenly in February 2018, friends in India could not attend her funeral. With no visas, they had to content themselves with organising tributes to her. One of the largest such tributes was in Delhi. Kamla and her close friend Dr Syeda Hameed, Dr Mubashir’s niece, were among the organisers.
Coordinators of the first Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore, October 2018, had to jump through hoops to get Kamla over as a speaker. That was the last time Kamla visited her beloved birthplace.
Kamla’s words for Asma at the conference ring true for herself today: Asma, she said, had only left her body. “Her soul is here, her passion is here, her compassion is here, and her ideas are here.”
These ideas, she added, live in each person who works to uphold rule of law, human rights, democracy and the concept that “all humans are born equal and free with rights and dignity”, enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
This was the last time she met Dr Mubashir. When it became clear that he would not be around much longer, Kamla and other friends in India were desperate to see him but were prevented by the visa issue. He passed away in February 2020, aged 98.
Dr Mubashir and his friend journalist Kuldip Nayar had for years been in the forefront of the joint celebrations of India and Pakistan’s independence days at midnight, August 14-15, at Wagah border.
The tradition has continued despite obstacles from the governments. In 2018, the youth group Aaghaz-e-Dosti introduced a flagging off ceremony in Delhi, with Kuldip Nayar passing on the baton to them. This was his last public appearance. He passed away barely 10 days later. His granddaughter, journalist Mandira Nayar, is a Sapan core member who will host the November Feminise to Humanise event.
The following year, Kamla Bhasin flagged off the peace march. A few months later, the pandemic struck.
With her South Asian vision, Kamla was solidly behind Sapan when the coalition was formed in March this year after an online brainstorming session on how to go beyond ideological divides in the region.
By June, she was having a difficult time. The pain and grief of the pandemic all around also impacted her elder brother’s family in Jaipur; she felt terrible about not being able to be with them. Her son Jeet, Chottu, was ill. And she was facing attacks on social media for remarks she had made in May about the transgender community.
It speaks to Kamla’s grace and courage that when made aware of her lapse, she apologised unconditionally and publicly, adding: “Feminism to me is about continuous learning and listening to each and every person. I will not try to explain the clips being circulated, but rather step back, reflect, learn and understand.”
Who knew that her time to reflect, learn and understand would be so limited.
A few days later when I asked her to speak at the next Sapan event, she replied that she was checking into a hospital the following morning, 21 June, to get a biopsy for an abscess on her liver. “I don’t think I will be fit by 26th. If I am, I will listen to all of you. Love.”
She shared the link to her brief address at the KA Abbas Memorial Lecture, 8 June, when she introduced the keynote speaker, journalist P Sainath. Her brief, rousing remarks in Hindi/Urdu and English, with her trademark sparkling eyes, smile, head-wagging and raised fist, set the stage for Sainath’s talk on the issues India is facing.
How much poorer India and Pakistan would have been, said Kamla, had Abbas not lived and written his books, newspaper columns and films on neglected issues. She reiterated her belief: “When people like Abbas Sahib leave their bodies, only their bodies die… Their ideas don’t.”
As long as such people are with us, “dreams will remain alive, hope will remain alive. We will fight, we will win”.
What is so special about them, she said, is that they have “the four-letter word love in their hearts – unconditional, radical love. It is this love that does not allow them to be silent when they see hatred, injustice, inequality, attacks on human rights, on democracy, on our Ganga Jamuni culture, attacks on Mother Nature.”
Kamla’s words about Asma, about Abbas, about Sainath and others she paid tribute to hold true for her too.
“Diagnosed with liver cancer last night. I am in the hospital for 8 days. No discomfort at all when I came. Just the tests have damaged things. Love” – Kamla’s July 2 reply to my message was calm and stoic.
Two months later, she was gone.
Activist Kavita Srivastava in Jaipur, another Sapan mentor and old friend of Kamla’s, broke the news about Kamla’s passing on 25 September, a little after 3 am India time, sharing grief at the departure of someone “who celebrated life whatever the adversity”.
Chottu had been left severely disabled as a baby, catalysed by a severe reaction to a vaccine. Kamla’s partner Balajit developed severe mental health issues after the Sikh massacre of 1984.
In 2006, they lost their 27-year-old daughter Meeto to suicide at Oxford. A few weeks after Meeto’s death, Kamla wrote to friends about a realisation she had – “that our movements, networks, and involvements” would provide her a reason to live.
She lived up to that promise.
Herself a child-abuse survivor, Kamla believed that patriarchy is harmful not only to women but also to men, as she powerfully stated in the Aamir Khan-hosted TV show Satyamev Jayate, 2014.
Through her words and songs, Kamla helped many understand “how harmful patriarchy is to men”.
Bridges not walls
Kamla often said: “I am not a wall that divides but a crack in the wall that allows light and sound to pass from one side to the other.”
She also said, “Walls turned sideways are bridges.” And: “Without peace in South Asia, there can be no progress.” In keeping with this spirit, just hours before she passed away, Kamla participated in an online session of the India national chapter of PIPFPD.
To Mandira Nayar, who is hosting the Sapan event on gender violence dedicated to Kamla, the late feminist was like a nurturing tree under whose shade so many gained their strength.
A couple of weeks after Kamla passed on, Mandira had an idea – as a result of which a potful of soil from Kamla’s garden in Delhi has reached Khushi in Dhaka. Mandira sent it in a box made by the women in Nizamuddin, an urban slum in the heart of Delhi in the shadow of the five-star Oberoi hotel. The women are with Ishaenoor, a self-help group started by Aga Khan Trust for Culture as part of the Nizammudin urban renewal project.
Another potful of soil is destined for Lahore, whenever someone can take it. There is more for other friends as and when it can be managed, depending not least on visas. Flowering trees around South Asia seeded in the soil from Kamla’s garden will be a reminder, if one is needed, of the values she stood for and worked for, in which she lives on.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, co-founder and curator of South Asia Peace Action Network (Sapan). This is a syndicated piece produced for the Sapan News Network.
To participate in the Sapan event ‘Gender Violence in South Asia: Feminise to Humanise‘ on November 28, 2021, register here.
To watch it live, follow Sapan on Facebook.