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Goddesses of all causes

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 7.09.08

The Goddess of Small, Big and Medium Crusades is at it again — raising the pitch on yet another cause. Skipping Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee’s public meeting in Singur that she was supposed to address, Arundhati Roy, architect-turned-actress-turned-film-maker-turned-bestseller author-turned-polemicist, winged her way to Kashmir last fortnight to wield her passionate pen in support of the separatists’ demand for azaadi.

Some 10 days after she left Singur, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) head Medha Patkar is faxing letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Union railway minister Lalu Prasad, demanding explanations about the floods in Bihar. In between she was busy touring the interiors of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

And in a three-room flat in Golf Green, Calcutta, a frail 82-year-old woman has a been-there done-that air about her. Litterateur Mahasveta Devi has, in her youth, trekked remote villages and wielded her pen for her favoured cause — tribal uplift.

Meet the crusaders without a pause. They’re women who, their critics say, are constantly in search of a cause. After being the face of the Narmada agitation for two decades, Patkar is now crisscrossing the country, in her capacity as coordinator of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (a network of grassroots groups), lending support to fishermen in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, to farmers whose lands are being acquired for industry, protesting against a bus stand near the Cauvery in a Tamil Nadu town and sitting on a dharna on the Tibet issue. “The Narmada issue is a dead one now and she’s desperately looking for a cause,” says a former associate. “It’s part of my larger struggle against the current paradigm of anti-people, anti-environment development policies,” retorts Patkar.

Roy has converted cause hopping into a fine art ever since she took up cudgels for surrendered dacoit Phoolan Devi in 1994 over the depiction of her life in Shekhar Kapur’s film Bandit Queen. Along with lawyer Indira Jaising, Roy helped Phoolan Devi sue Channel 4, the British television broadcaster which produced the film. Phoolan later dumped Roy and struck an out-of-court deal with Channel 4.

ALL ABOUT LAND: Arundhati Roy has been supporting the separatists in Kashmir (top); (Below) Medha Patkar addressing a rally in Singur

Roy’s bestseller, The God of Small Things, provided the perfect launch pad for her, a launch pad few grassroots activists get. Soon she was declaiming on issues as diverse as the Sardar Sarovar dam, the nuclear tests of 1998, the terrorist attack on Parliament House, globalisation, the American occupation of Iraq, West Asia and American power giant Enron Corporation and now Kashmir.

Mahasveta Devi has confined herself to writing about and fighting for tribals since the 1970s, but of late she’s been vocal on a range of issues, from Nandigram and Singur to the US nuclear ship Nimitz docking at Chennai port. “I am an activist. You cannot limit me to tribal activism. If I see something that needs to be nipped in the initial stage, I will lend my support. My fight is against the system.” But Devi doesn’t remember signing a petition against the Nimitz. “Maybe I felt that we had to protest against it, so I protested.”

These conscientious objectors don’t spare even their ideological fellow travellers. Devi was part of the Communist Party of India’s youth wing in 1943 while doing relief work during the Bengal famine. “I was thrilled to bits when the Left Front came to power,” she says. Both Patkar and Roy have been the darlings of the Left. That didn’t stop them from hauling West Bengal’s CPM-led government over the coals for its industrialisation policy. “I had never thought that they would dilute their ideology,” Devi laments.

Some of this has perhaps contributed to the image they have of being against progress and change. Referring to Patkar and Singur, CPM MP from Jadavpur Sujan Chakroborty says, “She has joined hands with those who do not want progress in Bengal.” But Patkar says, “It is wrong to call us anti-industry. We just want a form of development that is less destructive. It is we who are forward looking.”

That’s not all they stand accused of. Some view them as strident, obstructionist and uncompromising. Historian Ramachandra Guha in a newspaper article in 2000 called Roy’s polemical essays “self-regarding and self-indulgent”. Likening her to former journalist and minister Arun Shourie, he wrote that “both think exclusively in black and white... Both arrogate to themselves the right to hand out moral certificates. Those who criticise Shourie are characterised as anti-national, those who dare take on Roy are made out to be agents of the State.”

Certainly, many sympathisers of the Narmada movement were embarrassed and miffed when, in December 2000, Patkar and Roy demonstrated outside the Supreme Court, protesting against an order allowing the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to be raised.

Even former comrades in arms in the Narmada valley accuse Patkar of being uncompromising. The Vadodara-based non governmental organisation Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH) —Vahini, and the Delhi-based Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) worked with the NBA in negotiating the rehabilitation and resettlement of dam oustees. But when an acceptable package was worked out, says Ambrish Mehta, a leading light of ARCH, Patkar insisted on continuing the struggle and opposing the dam itself, instead of working to ensure that the package was implemented properly. “She not only predicted that resettlement would be impossible, she actively worked to see that it was made impossible, magnifying every small problem that arose during implementation,” charges Mehta. “The movement was being put before the people for whom it was formed.” MARG’s now-retired founder-director Vasudha Dhagamwar was uneasy that Patkar’s group was not in favour of sharing information with the affected people. MARG ultimately opted out of the Narmada movement. “We didn’t want any controversy,” says Dhagamwar.

atkar denies being uncompromising. “We have always wanted a dialogue, but what isn’t offered at lengthy meetings is offered only after days of fasting by us. Then they call us obstructionist,” she laments.

The big question, however, is whether Patkar and her ilk really represent the people on whose behalf they speak. Mehta says that in the Narmada valley, tribals accepted land given as compensation. The NBA activists accused them (and the NGOs that helped them adjust to a new life) of selling out.

But Himanshu Thakkar, who worked with Patkar for close to a decade, says that when people cannot counter an ideology, they pick on individuals for personalised attacks. Ripostes Mehta, “Any criticism of Patkar’s style is manipulated to mean criticism of the cause itself.”

Devi escapes such finger pointing. “She is a deeper person,” says Dhagamwar, “with far more solid contributions.” Her work has genuinely improved the lives of the tribal communities she worked with, through a combination of PILs (public interest litigation), raising issues at international fora and her writing. “She has never held dharnas,” notes Naba Dutta, who works with the Calcutta-based Nagarik Mancha, “never made stringent demands and is always open to negotiation.”

So what makes these women tick? Certainly, each has an anti-establishment streak, inherited from her family. Mahasveta Devi’s father Manish Ghatak was part of a parallel literary group, her mother a social worker and her uncles were film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and the founder editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, Sachin Chaudhuri. Patkar’s father Vasant Khanolkar was a freedom fighter and trade unionist. Her mother Indu, who worked for the postal department, started a women’s organisation, Swadhar. School vacations were usually spent in doing shramdan (voluntary labour) in villages.

Roy was brought up by her forceful mother, Mary Roy, after she (Mary) separated from her tea-planter husband. Her mother gained fame when she won a case challenging the Syrian Christian inheritance law which discriminated against women.

Devi came into full-time activism in the 1970s when she became aware of the plight of tribals while researching for her book Aranyer Adhikar, based on the life of tribal leader Birsa Munda. “I do not know what drew me to the cause. I felt their pain and perhaps that pushed me to take a plunge into social activism,” she says. In the 1980s, Patkar was just another PhD scholar at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences interested in the impact of development on traditional societies. She went to Gujarat on a Unicef project and became familiar with the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of the Sardar Sarovar dam oustees. As her involvement grew, she made the Narmada valley her home, leading a peripatetic life in the interiors and even learning to speak Bhilori, the language of the Bhil tribals. Roy, says Tehelka editor and friend Tarun Tejpal, “is a genuinely intelligent and concerned person deeply involved in trying to understand the forces at work in society.”

These women have been buffeted by life. Patkar has been attacked, jailed and has undertaken several fasts. Associates say her health has taken a huge knock. In her younger days, Devi dodged musclemen of village lords as well as the police to visit tribal hamlets. Of the three, it is Roy who most resembles the affluent urban-centric armchair activist. But Tejpal insists that Roy has not had an easier life than other activists. “She was there walking in the Narmada valley. In the last four years, she has spent more time in Kashmir than any journalist.” Her book has sold over 6 million copies and has grossed her tens of crores of rupees. “She could have basked in it for the rest of her life, but she didn’t.”

Innuendoes about their personal lives are another professional hazard. Nudge-nudge wink-wink comments about their activism being an outlet for unfulfilled sexual desires are directed at all women activists. But Dr Rima Mukherji, consultant psychiatrist at AMRI Hospital, Calcutta, says there isn’t enough research to substantiate whether sexual repression is a factor in women’s activism, though she admits it could be the case. “Bottled up emotion or encouragement to voice one’s opinion in the formative years could be a reason for aggressive activism. It’s the childhood experience, personality and a feminist temperament that make women aggressive activists.” Adds Dr J. R. Ram, consultant psychiatrist, Apollo Gleneagles, Calcutta, “I don’t think that sexual repression is a driving force for such activists. Such comments are generally made by men who cannot accept women beyond the saas-bahu image.”

Yet activism brings rewards too, in the form of recognition, membership of government and international committees and awards. Patkar was a commissioner on the World Commission on Dams while Roy got to participate in the World Tribunal on Iraq. Apart from the Rs 5 lakh Jnanpith Award, Devi got the $50,000 Ramon Magsaysay Award. Patkar too won the Magsaysay, though she had to share hers with Baba Amte. Patkar also won the $310,000 Right Livelihood Award (which netted her $77,500, as it is to be shared by four awardees). Roy hasn’t done too badly either. While her book got her the $30,000 Booker Prize, she also got the Lannan Foundation’s $350,000 Cultural Freedom Award in 2002 and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004. To be fair, Roy donated the entire Booker Prize money to the NBA while the Cultural Freedom Award money was distributed among 50 organisations.

The gains, perhaps, ease the pains.