Kamla Bhasin
Kamla Bhasin

NEW DELHI: She could unassumingly cheer a passionate meeting of India-Pakistan peace activists from the back benches. It would be difficult to tell her own nationality though. She could signal the end of a long night for the region’s women from her wheelchair, with rousing poetry when she was ill. But she would clarify quickly. The journey was not anti-men, but against patriarchy.

Kamla Bhasin, who passed away on Saturday at 75 after a short struggle with cancer, would perhaps be best remembered for grafting a slogan that Pakistani women first used against Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship on the body politic of India — the universal and unalloyed demand for Azadi, the fight for freedom.

It was back in 1991, according to one version of the slogan’s journey to India, that Bhasin, in her forties caught people’s attention at the Women’s Studies Conference at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, as she beat a little drum and chanted a slogan. ‘Azadi’ against patriarchy while being surrounded by other women.

Azadi is now a common clarion call at almost every student protest. More recently, the expression echoed during student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s popular chanting, demanding ‘Azadi’ from discrimination, Brahmanism, and poverty, at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016 and later, at the anti-CAA-NRC protests that have challenged India’s new and communally inspired citizenship laws.

Inspired by a slogan first raised by Pakistani women, she came up with her own poem based on its spirit

The slogan also made its way to pop culture, as part of the movie Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh as a rap artist, in a song by Dub Sharma. Bhasin was an eminent poet and a flagbearer of women’s rights in India and South Asia since the 1970s.

She was born on April 24, 1946, in the district of Mandi Bahauddin, now in Pakistan, then shifted along with her family to Rajasthan after partition.

In an interview with The Quint in 2019, she said she heard the slogan first in the 1980s among feminists in Pakistan. “Pakistan at that time was ruled by Ziaul Haq. The first group that rose up against Ziaul Haq was not a political party, it was a group of Pakistani feminists. I witnessed one such meeting and that’s where they chanted it. The chant went: Aurat ka naara — azadi/Bachchon ka naara — azadi/Hum leke rahenge — azadi/Hai pyara naara — azadi.”

Inspired by the chant, Kamla Bhasin improvised and came up with her own poem based on its essential spirit. “I know enough women who are totally patriarchal, who are totally anti-women, and I have known men who have worked for women’s rights their whole life.

“Feminism is not biological: feminism is an ideology.”

What began as a women’s battle cry was soon harnessed to the struggles of labourers, dalits, adivasis and so on. During ‘One Billion Rising from South Asia’, a campaign to end violence against women, she recited the now famous lines. “From patriarchy — Azadi/from hierarchy — Azadi/from endless violence — Azadi/from helpless silence — Azadi… for self-expression — Azadi/for celebration — Azadi.”

After quitting her job at the UN in the 1970s, Kamla Bhasin began to work full-time on her feminist network Sangat.

Tributes poured in from across South Asia as Bhasin was given a tearful funeral at Delhi’s Lodhi electric crematorium. “She was not only a women’s rights activist, but also a philanthropist who set up and helped setting up many fine public interest institutions like Jagori in HP & School for democracy in Rajasthan,” said senior human rights lawyer Prashant Bhu­shan. “She will be missed by many.”

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2021

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