Written by Ranjana Padhi and Laxmi Murthy, who have been associated with the autonomous women’s movement since the mid-1980s and were active in Saheli from around 1986-2006.
Posted on August 9, the day Saheli was founded in 1981.
There is no cure against mortality, yet there is a lingering sadness and a sense of loss at the passing away of a fellow-traveler, a saheli and a comrade. Any reflection of such lives becomes a reflection of the times. The times when we as women, and as feminist collectives, dared to go against the grain. The early years of the women’s movement were vastly different from the present reality where much is taken for granted and often celebrated ahistorically as individual achievement. The struggles of the 1980s made strident inroads into challenging the bastions of patriarchy in the form of collective resistance. Making that vital link in what is a virtually unknown history for an entire generation of young women might help to make sense of the present. Because Kalpana was active to the end, commenting – and raving – even about recent events, through the lens of a sharp feminist politics.
Kalpana Mehta, 67, a feminist activist of the autonomous women’s movement in India, breathed her last on May 27, 2020 at her residence in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Kalpana was diagnosed of the neuron disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in mid 2017. She gradually lost speech as well as mobility. Even then, she was tuned in to all events through the daily newspaper and communicated her thoughts and ideas through the application Tobii with friends who visited her during this time. Remaining engaged with news and sharing her political concerns and reflections helped her bravely cope with the symptoms of ALS. Also, her characteristic humor and witty rebukes directed at the powers that be were intact to her last breath.
Kalpana was a co-founder of Saheli Women’s Resource Centre that was set up in 1981 in New Delhi. She was one among the most active in shaping Saheli’s politics and equally, shaped by the collective. Saheli emerged out of Stri Sangharsh, a coalition of women’s groups in Delhi that led the campaign against wife murder or “dowry death” as it was euphemistically termed during the late 1970s. Saheli, a crisis response centre, was set up in 1981 to prevent such deaths, intervene in cases of domestic violence and provide a safe space for women in distress to talk, laugh, heal and fight back.
Politicizing the personal
Kalpana believed passionately in the slogan “personal is political” through consciousness raising circles, supporting individual women in distress and attempting to build solidarities among women who had experienced violence and politicise their personal struggles for justice. For her, women were not “cases”, and her allergy to the term in vogue, ‘case work’ was legendary. The debate about whether or not to continue individual support work raged on for a few years in Saheli, with Kalpana steadfastly on the side of wanting to not only continue extending support to women in distress but infuse new life into it by reviving “direct action” strategies: storming into matrimonial homes, accompanying women to claim their “stri dhan’ or even clothes and certificates; intervening in custody battles or exploitation by employers.
The inevitable burnout and inability to respond vigorously to the growing numbers of women approaching Saheli for help meant that there was more reliance on institutions that were patriarchal and strung with red tape. Yet, stopping ‘case work’ to focus more on campaigns directed at structural changes was not an option for Kalpana, who led the initiative to form ‘mutual support groups’ or women who had experienced violence and marital distress. After much leg work and emotional investment, the difficult realization that the common experience of violence could not be a binding political force hit Kalpana hard. The ideological underpinning of understanding domestic violence and discrimination within the family and marriage, also forged a robust critique of religious personal laws and their stranglehold on the dailiness of women’s lives. Thanks to Kalpana’s constant connections with crucial political work of individual support, it was not an abstract theoretical discussion about personal laws or uniform civil code. It was getting into the nitty gritty of individual women’s marital problems that brought a rich and nuanced understanding to personal law reform, and later, with growing Hindu fundamentalism, that made women’s groups articulate the demand for a “Uniform” Civil Code which by the 1990s became a right wing agenda, to an Egalitarian Civil Code, a core feminist demand.
Women and Health
Saheli was one of the pioneers of taking on the government, medical establishment and research agencies, in building one of the earliest and sharpest critiques of hazardous contraceptives pushed on women as part of the population control programme. The public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court by Saheli along with other women’s organisations against the introduction of the hazardous injectable contraceptive Net En, was an outcome of field investigations by Hyderabad-based Stri Shakti Sangathana, and research by feminist activists, not all of them doctors. From leg work at the National Medical Library where we sneaked in in the guise of medical students (pre-Google research was a different animal!); to innumerable trips to the lawyers, attending court hearings, bringing out publicity material, writing pamphlets, protests, demonstrations and meetings with the ICMR and government, Kalpana was in the thick of things. Gate-crashing, vaulting over walls and barging into a meeting called by a private pharma company bidding for the government contract to market a long-acting injectable contraceptive was a characteristically Kalpana-style guerilla action which got front-page attention.
Writing a street-play raising awareness about Norplant, a long-acting contraceptive implant, was an outlet for Kalpana’s creative spirit. Energetically directing rehearsals in a public park, oblivious to gaping bystanders, she managed to coalesce an innovative way of outreach, communicating complex medical concepts, ethics of research and a critique of the population control program in 20 brief minutes. The play, witty and irreverent and politically hard-hitting, was performed on the streets of Delhi and outside ministries along with leafletting.
Going beyond the critique of hazardous contraceptives, Kalpana began to get deeply involved in developing options for safe contraception and alternatives to allopathic interventions in women’s health. Through international networks painstakingly built over the years through International Women’s Health Conferences, correspondence with activists at the Boston Women’s Health Collective among others, the idea of ‘Paridhi’ was born. Paridhi, a group set up by Kalpana, began to import the diaphragm, a safe, reversible, inexpensive and woman-controlled contraceptive, conduct workshops on self-awareness and women’s health and popularize its use. The diaphragm was imported in bulk from a feminist collective in Brazil! Around the same time, shifting to Indore as primary caregiver to her ailing parents, she set up Manasi, a women’s health clinic. Along with a small team, she used homeopathy, acupuncture and other methods of holistic healing for women’s health problems. The clinic grew as a drop-in place for women to unwind, chat about their lives and seek support, in much the same way as Saheli had grown.
Her critique of the medical establishment and government did not wane, though. The hysteria orchestrated around research on vaccines to prevent cervical cancer had led to the introduction of the HPV vaccine. Clinical trials were reported being conducted on young adivasi girls from Khammam in Andhra Pradesh and Baroda in Gujarat. Over 23,000 girls were reported to have been used for testing. Six girls had died in these trials. Women’s organizations campaigned to raise the question in the parliament until the trials had to be stopped. The trials were being conducted on two unproven vaccines, gardasil and cervarix. Kalpana Mehta filed two PILs in the Supreme Court in 2012 and 2013 along with the women’s organization Sama in Delhi and feminist activists Nalini Bhanot and Rukmini Rao demanding the revoking of the license given to the pharmaceutical companies. As had been the practice since the early years of Saheli’s work in challenging long acting hormonal contraceptives, the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer also propelled Kalpana into painstaking hard work, reading and research to challenge what the medical establishment was professing while bringing in these companies, namely Glaxo Smithkline and MSD Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd. In 2018, a significant judgement in the Supreme Court set a significant precedent: the admissibility of Parliamentary Standing Committee reports as evidence and overruled the counsel of the pharmaceutical companies. As NB Sarojini, co-petitioner in the case writes, the court decision forced pharmaceutical companies to increase transparency and accountability in larger public interest.
Power and its malcontents
As with all feminist collectives of the time, Saheli had consciously eschewed not only donor funding but also adopted a form of organisation that refused to accept formal hierarchies, designations and authority. Decisions were taken collectively, and an attempt to reach consensus and accommodate personal experience and minority points of view. For more about the collective journey understanding power and hierarchy, read this write up from the souvenir marking 25 years of Saheli. The uneasy relationship of feminists with power affected everyone, but arguably, it forced the more dominant members to engage more intensely, especially on organizational matters. This was seen in uncomfortable forms in what came to be called the “Saheli split” in 1986 following which some highly active members who were also founding members left the organisation.
In one long meeting in 1990 to discuss organizational issues, Kalpana said, “The form of organisation closest to my ideal would be democratic centralism. I am torn between the two – collective decision making, for which I have theoretical commitment, but feel democratic centralism is better. In democratic centralism, all have rights but not opinions, to exercise rights in different avenues. There is no negation of hierarchy, but everyone has a chance to move up. With the practice of collective decision-making, the leadership has not felt a responsibility to the rank and file. In the name of “Collective” if we come minus preparation then it is a loose ineffective structure. For a Collective to work there has to be some common minimum ideological understanding.” Such an insight encapsulates the organizational predicament and challenges experienced by many collective political formations till date.
During intense arguments about the importance of process, with some of us insisting to prioritise the manner of decision making over the decision or activity itself, Kalpana’s frustration would show, “How can we have a perfect process in an imperfect society. That’s probably why I’m willing to compromise on both. If we concentrate so much on process – this paralyses the group. In the history of every organisation there are times when you can afford to spend more time discussing process. If we’re not able to accept the alienation that is occurring, how can we address it? I’m at a stage of life where I’m not willing to wait only for process. We need a minimum common understanding.”
Despite being one of the most visible Sahelis, central to all activities and decision making within the organisation, Kalpana deeply believed that “the essence of Saheli is the possibility of equal participation”. There was a recognition of hierarchies of various kinds from age, class, caste, language skills and articulation. Certain levellers were attempted: decisions were taken at collective meetings; there were no secret documents ; everyone got a key and equal access to the office; there was an effort not to project leadership outside by sharing representation in public; full timers had equal salary and everyone had equal access to fulltimery, core group membership and decision making. The attempt to improve these aspects was ongoing throughout. “We need to solve some practical problems. We don’t kill ourselves because society is imperfect. We don’t leave marriages which are not perfect. So why do we expect so much from Saheli – that if there’s not perfect democracy, why do we think of leaving it?” she once asked at another meeting.
Work distribution in Saheli not only knocked off the chip from many shoulders but also became a leveller in many ways. From keeping the office open and functioning to handling accounts and getting them audited, from leaflet writing to perspective papers based on endless collective discussions and drafts, from counselling women in distress to talking to authorities, Saheli equipped all volunteers with multiple skills to last more than a lifetime. Kalpana did it all with elan and grace – more often making each onerous task a fun-filled activity. Sale of Saheli literature and fund raising for Saheli was part of the collective identity we wore with pride and conviction as the aim was public outreach. No task ever was mechanical; each and every act was based on an ideological and political belief of how we organize ourselves vis a vis the world outside.
Like many competent feminists who found themselves in leadership roles, and shouldered major responsibility for the most part without complaint, she had remarked that people within organisations with more power also had it because others put them in the position of more responsibility. She quipped, “I am tired of doing all the work and then making others feel that we have all done it together.” Her vexed relationship with Saheli, an inextricable mix of a deep sense of belonging, and identification with autonomous politics, laced with frustration, disappointment and a sense of alienation was one some of us who had been very active in Saheli, could relate to. But unlike many feminists who left women’s groups to pursue careers or got absorbed in family life, Kalpana turned her inexorable energy to broader organising.
Widening the base
more than three decades steeped in autonomous feminist politics, Kalpana’s urge
to connect with grassroots struggles led her to forge solidarities with
people’s movements. In an article in the 2008 issue of Seminar, she wrote, “”Disappointed with the left and the NGOs, the
women’s movement has to broaden its own base. The opportunities are plenty.
Lakhs of women have been enrolled in panchayati raj institutions as elected
representatives on reserved seats, another lot is women of self-help groups. In
other words it is probably time to wrest back the co-option benefits being
enjoyed by the state in the name of women’s empowerment. It is also important to intensify our participation in
the mass struggles now that we are accepted as equal partners with thirty years
of history behind us. It is vital to fight the forces of communalism and to get
the right to protest which is threatening to undermine our strength in times to
It was this urge that led to her active involvement in the pan-India network Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS). Kalpana found a fresh lease of life when she together with a group of other activists set up WSS. Sexual violence by Sulwa-Judum forces on adivasi women were failing to draw any protests by women’s organizations. This trend was becoming more prominent. Anti-displacement struggles had become widespread across Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other states. On one hand, balancing solidarity work for these movements and giving dedicated time to your organizational tasks became more difficult. On the other, as continuous state repression on these movements became the modus operandi for state governments to coercively acquire lands, mountains, forests and water bodies, the lack of response from the broader women’s movement began to become more and more discerning. Years of presence of Indian security forces in Kashmir and states of the North-East had led to aggravated sexual violence on women among many other daily acts of repression on entire communities. WSS was set up in response to specifically focus on the growing incidence of sexual violence on women resisting land grab and state repression. By bringing to light the violence inflicted on women by military and paramilitary forces, WSS became an extension of the same feminist politics. Its analysis and actions attempted to keep step with the turbulent socio-economic-political scenario emerging all around us.
After one full year of the CBI giving a report covering up the crimes of rape and murder of two young women, Asifa and Nilofer in Shopian in Kashmir, WSS organized an unique protest in New Delhi outside the staff quarters. On December 13, 2010, over a hundred women and men brought loads of bed sheets to gift to the CBI to cover up their crimes. He bedsheets were sprawled with messages like: GIFT FOR YOUR NEXT COVER-UP! CBI INVESTIGATE YOURSELF! JUSTICE FOR ASIYA AND NILOFER! COVER-UP BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION NOT CENTRAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION!
There’s strong recollection of women’s groups storming into the office of the National Commission on Women on 10th October, 2012 and demanding justice for Soni Sori who had undergone severe torture and sexual violence at the hands of the Chhattisgarh police and repeatedly humiliated since one long year. The NCW had ordered an enquiry but the files had not yet moved. The NCW member who met the group said that the NCW had closed the case considering the matter to be subjudice. Women’s groups demanded the reopening of the case.
These are all collective actions. But friends remember Kalpana as the one putting herself entirely into such an idea and seeing it to completion. She was ever willing to initiate protest actions, symbolic or real.
Adieu, friend and comrade, adieu Kalpana! You will be remembered as a tireless foot soldier, a leader and a visionary. A fighter to the end, you infused everyone with your dreams and determination.
WE SINFUL WOMEN
is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.
It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become the just princes of the material world.
It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.
It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don’t insist now on raising it again.
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.
(by Ruksana Ahmad)