25 YEARS OF SAHELI: Celebration and struggle: strengthening autonomous politics

25 YEARS OF SAHELI: CELEBRATION & STRUGGLE.

STRENGTHENING AUTONOMOUS POLITICS

Newsletter Dec 2006

A morning to remember...

An indignant, “Hey, where’s my name?!”… followed by a pleased, “Aha, there it is…!” Women peering over each other’s shoulders, stretching up to find their names inscribed on a white banner in various colours, in different handwritings. Names of all the women who have ever been in Saheli. Names gleaned from old daily diaries, minutes books, letters, e-mails and word of mouth. An attempt to record what was hitherto only oral history.

Bal Bhawan on August 12, 2006, was witness to a historic occasion: Saheli completes 25 years of activism. As Kalpana, one of the founder members succinctly put it, “One of our main achievements is that 25 years have gone by, and we are still here. When Saheli started in 1981, we did not know how far we would come. The values have not changed. The faces have changed, of course. The flyover is the same…we keep thinking it will fall, but it still hasn’t. I want to congratulate ourselves, those who have gone by and those who are here, as well as those who will come, for keeping us going for a long long time.”

Almost two hundred women came – 3 months old to 80 years, from Mumbai and Munsiyari, Betul and Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Pune, Kolkata and Canada. The invitations had gone more than four months earlier, and everyone made time to be with Saheli. And it was a day for matters of the heart, of politics, of memories…of togetherness. Some the past, some the present, and all the future of Saheli. Old friends and new, milling around and sipping tea, some taking a quick bath, until they were ushered into the hall, decorated with glorious posters and banners that we had put together for the occasion.

Hey Jee Re .. Hey Jee Re ..” the sounds of the old favourite song filled the room, as more people filtered in to take their seats on the steps of the amphitheatre.

The meeting to mark 25 years was an occasion to take stock of what kind of autonomy we had dreamed of in 1981 and what is the practice in the reality of today’s changing world – seen through presentations by Saheli as well as a sharing of experiences and analyses by friends from other autonomous movements.

And with Vani conducting the show, the morning had begun!

Shweta, who confessed that she was very nervous, gave a brief introduction to what Saheli is, and who we are, along with showing pictures projected on a screen on stage. Photographs of the first office in Gouri’s garage, with the cane chairs and table, drew appreciative laughs from the audience – not to mention the gasps when we told everyone that we still sit on the very same chair underthe flyover today! Shweta stressed that there has been a continuity in our political perspective, while we have changed in response to newer challenges.

“Every member of Saheli has come with different hopes, and expectations… some emotional, others political and yet others…something else… Everyone’s life situation has been different. The attempt has always been to move forward keeping in mind differing needs, talents, skills, weaknesses and strengths,” she added.

The source of our strength has been our friends, supporters and co-travellers, who have always stood by us – right from the very beginning until now. There are some who may have never stepped into our office, but feel linked to Saheli’s politics, and sometimes demand accountability from us!

Saheli has touched many lives… and who knows where, how and which Saheli one will encounter! When we asked some of the women who do not or cannot come to Saheli for whatever reasons, why they had left Saheli, they replied, “Who said we have left Saheli? We have NOT left Saheli!”

CHALLENGING INEQUALITIES...

Vani illustrated how Saheli’s significant contribution has been to visibilise and challenge inequalities. “Saheli has never been a very large organisation, and the question, for generations of Sahelis has been: is smallness a weakness, or a strength? Can we make a difference?

We started as a ‘women’s space’ – a campaign group that sought to reach out to women facing domestic violence. And from our handling of this we learnt that there is a deeper silence that needs to be broken. Today, an autorickshaw driver knows what a ‘mahila sanghathan’ is – but 25 years ago the concept of a ‘women’s space’ was novel. For women to come out of the domestic space and claim public space, was almost revolutionary. To draw connections between domestic violence and the societal sanction for it, and the inequalities in law that serve to isolate women, as well as the links between unequal property laws and community identity.

Similarly it was a group of women in Patancheru who discovered unethical trials of the injectable contraceptive Net En. Saheli has played a role to make visible the linkages between health policies and violence against women, hazardous contraceptives, the national agenda of population control and its impact on women.

And so also for communalism - to make the connections between the trauma that women were going through in a private space like the family… and its connections with larger questions of religious and community identity, social and judicial processes… seeking change… seeking accountability from the state and its institutions, the discrimination in laws, especially personal laws. We sought to make ‘women’s issues’ public issues.

At the same time… we believe we need to constantly push for change, while also learning from various other movements. If visibilising is the first step, we also know there is much more to fight for… in our strategies, the changes we hope for… the world we dream of.

VISIBILISING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

With photographs to illustrate, Vani continued to talk about Saheli’s work on violence. Saheli started in 1981 out of the campaigns against dowry and custodial rape in the late 1970s, which shook the country and catalysed the emergence of women’s groups in several cities. Mathura, Rameeza Bi, Maya Tyagi, Sudha Goel… became symbols of the women’s movement these issues and the issue of domestic violence remained the focus of Saheli’s work... like much of Saheli work... is not just ours... it is all of ours, especially the many women in the room, whose history/legacy we were sharing with each other!

Rallies against violence were unheard of until we began breaking the silence around issues like domestic violence. Violence inside homes that had social sanction… the sanction of the state and the police. In the early years, Saheli’s work with women in crisis was marked by direct/street action. From demonstrations outside in-laws homes where women had been murdered for dowry; going and retrieving stri-dhan and a woman’s belongings from her marital home; demanding accountability in workplaces where women had been harassed... shaming men who beat their wives… there were many ways Saheli responded to situations. So much so that some women approached Saheli to ‘demonstrate on demand!’

Our work on rape has not been restricted to policy level alone. Street protests, reaching out to the public, and attempting to change the culture of acceptance of rape as a ‘normal’ part of society, has been an important aspect of our campaign. ‘DILLI, CHUPPI TODO, HINSA ROKO’ (Break the Silence! Stop the Violence!) was how we appealed to the silent spectators on the street. We also distributed leaflets in crowded bazaars, in street corners and on the University campus. Stickers declaring ‘NO MORE VIOLENCE’ made their presence felt in many parts of Delhi, on cars and scooters. Through rallies and ‘TAKE BACK THE NIGHT’ actions, we have attempted to reclaim our space, and our right to move around freely on the streets of Delhi – by day or by night. Trying to reach out in public spaces, using posters etc. Yet, as women’s groups, we have been unable to tackle the spiralling violence against women in the city. There is a growing tolerance to violence, even within women’s groups. There perhaps needs to be a re-look and perhaps change in strategy.

Simultaneously, like other groups, we have engaged with law reform, and using the judiciary. Knowing fully well the limitations, and that the law and judiciary are entrenched in patriarchy. Yet, we have had to engage with the legal system, which does set some benchmarks for what is right and wrong, and provides some access for redressal for women. This has been a problematic question, with which all activist groups, and women’s groups have continued to engage. We continue to fight for laws, fight with the NCW, and fight for implementation, while being aware of what a limited impact legal reform can have – whether in the case of 498A, domestic violence, amendment to rape and dowry laws.

One of the main areas we have worked on recently is sexual harassment at the workplace. We have engaged with it at many levels. After the Vishakha judgement in the Supreme Court, we realised that most women were not even aware of the judgement. So we did a survey – going to and talking to women about the issue, raising awareness - and brought out a report called ‘Another Occupational Hazard’. After that, we developed a play Mahaul Badalna Hai. But our engagement with the issue has been long standing. When we looked at old daily diaries of the 1980s, we came across cases of women coming and telling us how their male colleagues would harass them.

We also did crisis intervention, individual handling of cases, and ran a shelter for four years. Simultaneously, we have always felt we must reach out. One of the areas we have had a strong linkage with is universities in Delhi. With Delhi University …linkages with Gender Studies Group - DU, Forum Against Sexual Harassment, Campaign for a Safe University; with JNU Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment. And on a positive note, we also do feminist self-defence workshops or Wenlido, with college students, activists, transgendered, women working in corporations etc.

The play, Om Swaha was sort of a marker in the movement. There was another spontaneous street play following a rape in a nearby school in Lajpat Nagar. Our play on sexual harassment, Mahaul Badalna Hai, involved a longer process – developing a play out of the survey, out of women’s experiences; developing it, and taking it out. We took it to a variety of places – from a May Day rally, to a domestic workers’ union, to a college event.

We also dealt with dilemmas along the way. Working on sexual harassment, in a context where there is a proliferation of NGOs poses a peculiar problem. For public sector companies, there is a state, or a management. Confronting is relatively easy – you can put pressure, tell them there is a law, etc. When it comes to NGOs, how do you exert that same pressure? To some extent they are ‘our’ people, with ‘our’ politics. How do we evolve strategies without getting divided? These are some of the questions we face.

How do we cope with the scale of violence that is growing –from sex selective abortion to communal violence to individual cases of rape, violence on lesbian women… the range is enormous, and we are also coming across nuances. Like many other groups, we too are grappling with these questions.

WOMEN AND HEALTH CAMPAIGNS IN SAHELI

Going on to talk about Saheli’s work on women’s health, Vineeta mentioned that campaigns on women and health have always had an important place in Saheli. She focused on the strategies we adopted, and the methods we used to reach out to people. Reaching out to the public however was not the only method used – we also filed court cases, attended public hearings, raised questions in Parliament, lobbied with MPs, released press statements and wrote articles. We also dialogued with the government, and attempted to pressurise them – be it the ICMR or Health Ministry, or occasionally the Drugs Controller – with whom we have never had a good relationship! We have gheraoed him, shouted slogans, and probably made him wish these women would go away and leave him alone. But we had a responsibility to protest about hazardous contraceptives and drugs for women, and we did!

Besides this, we work along with several groups – both within the country and internationally. In fact, there are many of you here who, along with us, became decoy customers to expose the illegal sale of drugs. Other forms we used were - intervening in meetings and raising questions and protesting, signature campaigns – in early days on paper and now on e-mail. The use of e-mail petitions, while undoubtedly helping to garner support fast, has also come in for its share of criticism and they have their weaknesses and strengths. We have been using the newsletter and reports from time to time, and the document such as the one brought out specially to commemorate Saheli’s 25 years to publicise our views.

We also developed a play on Norplant. To take to the streets with a play on hazardous contraceptives was not easy. The subject of contraceptives is not easy to broach face to face – such was the situation 15 years ago, and it continues till date. We have also sung songs – whether or not they were tuneful! Parchis, leaflets have also been used.

The slides Vineeta showed kept the audience rapt. The picture of Saheli’s ‘Red Book’ on contraception and women’s health, the poster against population policy, the poster demanding a ban on sex determination tests, and an old parchi (pamphlet) about a workshop on women and health, with the contact address as Gouri and Buchy and the old Nizamuddin address!

Summing up our work on women’s health, Vineeta said, “25 years is a long time, and it is tempting to ask what we have achieved.”

Estrogen-Progesterone drugs was one of the early campaigns. The drug was used for a variety of reasons. There was a ban in the 1980s, but EP drugs are now being used for hormone replacement.

Sex determination, after a long struggle, was banned in Maharashtra, and then a central law in 1994. After a PIL, the PCPNDT amendments were passed. But even now, we don’t know if the Act has teeth.There has been just one conviction so far.

Hazardous drugs – it is a long and complicated story. The list is long -Net En, Depo Provera, Norplant, Quinacrine sterilisation, and there are anti-fertility vaccines. With Net En and Depo, many things have happened since Patancheru (where the first illegal trials were exposed). A case in the Supreme Court was successful in stalling the introduction of Net En into the family planning programme for 14 years.

Norplant too is about to be introduced and Quinacrine sterilisation is still being illegally used, particularly in Bengal. Trials on anti-fertility vaccines have been indefinitely shelved – perhaps due to the weight of the campaign, and also due to scientific objections. This too can be counted as a success.

But as far as clinical trials go, we also raised the ethical dimensions. Matters of informed consent in clinical trials have been an important aspect about which we have written and also protested.

The importance of autonomous politics in the sphere of women’s health cannot be emphasised more. To remain independent of government as well as funding agencies, and stick to our views is crucial. This independent stand in the women’s health movement (vis-a-vis funding) has been severely jeopardised over the past 10-15 years, and this is a question before us.

CAMPAIGNING AGAINST COMMUNALISM

Sadhna recounted some of Saheli’s work on communalism, the strategies used and the challenges we face. When Saheli started, no one could have known what was in store for us. While we began to fight against rape, domestic violence and dowry, and even against the building of sati temples, we began to realise that it is not sufficient to fight against these alone. The forces of communalism are very strong and complex, and a huge challenge before us. This challenge continues till date. The way in which religion is used/manipulated, customs, traditions and culture - it is extremely complex.

Saheli’s struggle against communalism has been at various levels. First, the campaign against communalism involved understanding the way in which family, community and marriage exerted their control on women. Relief and rehabilitation during communal violence has always been an area of our response, right from the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage. Second, fighting against communal hatred in society and working towards peace. Our work has also focussed on punishing the guilty in communal riots. Another important aspect, especially since 1992, which women’s groups in particular have raised, is the manner in which communal forces have used women’s bodies to spread communal hatred, especially the sexual violence in Gujarat in 2002.

In 1984, we concentrated on relief and rehabilitation, and spreading the message of communal harmony. The specific ways in which communal violence affects women was not so central to our work or perspective. But the ways in which women’s lives were specifically impacted, and the manner in which communal forces were getting more and more strengthened, and the consequent impact on women’s lives, eventually became central to our understanding. Gradually, we saw the way in which communalism began to play a central role in Indian politics – and the nexus between religion and politics began to play itself out on women’s lives. Be it Shah Banu or the debate on the ‘Egalitarian Civil Code’(ECC). Another disturbing aspect was the way in which women increasingly were being used by communal forces, and becoming ‘communal agents’, spreading communal hatred. In 2002 in Gujarat, women’s bodies were directly used to dishonour the other community by raping and murdering women.

Through case work too, we could clearly see how communities and religion controlled women’s lives. We intervened in inter-caste, inter-religious marriages, dealt with inequalities in personal laws, and confronted the lack of rights for women in the family. The manner in which personal laws reinforced the unequal status of women in the family became apparent, and it was clear that we had to struggle for women’s rights within the family. Even as the impact of communalism in society began to increase, it became more and more difficult to raise the issue of women and personal laws. At Saheli, our perspective has been to articulate women’s rights within the family, understanding women’s unequal status within the family, as well as inequality in religious laws. We felt that this issue had to be taken out of the framework of minority and majority religions, and looked at as one of women’s domestic labour. Second, we felt that to disentangle the issue from the religious debate, we had to take a perspective of democracy and citizenship. That women must have equal rights as citizens in this society. The women’s movement has faced these pressures, and with the growth of communalism, has come even more under pressure. Without going into the debate in detail here, it is enough to say that by now, it appears that the women’s movement has somewhat settled to a position of reform within personal laws, through which women’s lives will improve.

The sati issue was portrayed as one of ‘tradition’ vs ‘modernity’, ‘Indian’ vs ‘Western’. We were always small in numbers – 12 or 20, even in rallies, and the pro-sati forces always had huge numbers with them. We have always had to face this backlash that we are out to ‘spoil’ ordinary women, and the anti-sati campaign was also seen in this light. This engagement, since 1987, was a long campaign not only against sati, but also against the glorification of sati, the building of sati temples etc. We see that laws are quick in coming, but implementation is not effective. This too has been a question for us.

These campaigns are a solid example of joint alliances and working together – on the anti-sati campaign, and the campaign for ECC. We have drawn a lot of strength working together, and have also given a lot to joint campaigns. Of late, inter-caste marriages and the resultant caste-based violence has come up in a big way.

Our attempt has always been to have a clear position on various issues – through campaigns and alliances. But in terms of strategies, we are still grappling with how to confront the growing impact of tradition, religion, community and family on women’s lives. Not only at the level of politics, but in civil society, media, the market – rituals and customs are being used in a big way. It’s really difficult to make any breakthrough in that. How do we see religion in our own lives? At a political level, and social level? And how do ordinary people look at religion? How do we bridge this gap? What kind of strategies can we use? It is a big challenge before us. We need more clarity in our thoughts, and clear strategies to deal with this very complex situation we are in.

RELEVANCE OF AUTONOMOUS POLITICS

Laxmi went on to outline the relevance of autonomous politics today. Many historic documents of Saheli state that Saheli did not start with any manifesto or blueprint for the revolution. Our own experiences were the starting point of our analysis…linking personal to political, a slogan that has been crucial for the movement. Autonomous politics is usually defined in the negative – that we are not affiliated to a party or government, we don’t take funds, but what is the meaning of autonomous politics? What is the fundamental core?

Whatever change we want to bring about in society, we begin the transformation within the organisation itself. We start from a notion of collective functioning, non-hierarchy and democracy within the organisation. Oppressed people – whether women, Dalits, workers, adivasis, homosexuals… if we want to give everyone equal opportunities in society, where no one dominates, imposes their views on others, or crushes the other, we have to apply these principles even within the organisation. We have tried to follow these principles, even if we may not have been successful all the time. We cannot say there is absolutely no hierarchy or power. But we can definitely say that this is our dream, and we keep discussing, acting and trying to find ways to make it a reality.

We work together with others to bring this change – within ourselves, our organisation and within society. There are many autonomous groups here – from Mumbai, and also from Delhi. We make no bones about the fact that we have to work with others. And we do not apologise for being small (though we do lament in secret!). But whichever campaigns we have taken up it is clear that although a small group, we are able to make a lot of noise. It has been a very natural part of our politics. While conducting a campaign against violence recently with the ‘Dilli Chuppi Todo’ placard, only seven of us were on the flyover, and thousands of people could see what we were saying. Even in health campaigns –right from the early 1980s, we dared to stand up and say that population was not the reason for poverty, but the other way round. No one wanted to hear it at the time. We also protested against hazardous contraceptives and how women’s bodies were being targeted – no one wanted to hear that either. We slowly managed to convince the Left, the socialists, and other progressives, to see our point of view. And now there is a consensus, 25 years later, that we must all fight against population control. So when we talk of strategic alliances, who do we work with – issue-based alliances with broad range of progressive organisations. In communalism, we were part of Nagrik Ekta Manch, SVA, PMS and Aman Ekta Manch. We participate in joint forms, taking with us our feminist politics.

Another important point of autonomy is funding. We raise money from individuals for our work, survive on volunteer power and do not take institutional funding, of which we have a very deep critique. It’s not that we have never taken institutional funding – we have taken, for some projects. This too was the subject of much debate. But for the past 20 years, we have not taken any institutional funding for our work.

This critique of institutional funding evolves from our critique of institutionalised feminism. It comes from the government – whether the Women’s Development Programmes of Rajasthan and UP, or the Women’s Commission’s set up. There are many people associated with these programs here in this room – and we would like to keep the discussion going, the dialogue open on this issue. Our critique has often been misinterpreted to mean that we will not work with these institutions. But we engage with them with all our criticality – whether the National Commission for Women or the UN or the Beijing processes.

Current challenges – communalism, militarisation and the market economy overshadow our reality. In the context of these larger forces, can we make a difference?

The answer is a big YES! We will definitely bring change. And this faith is because we do not see our politics in terms of big or small, but in terms of the sharpness of our perspectives – where do we fight, and what strategies to adopt. We also have faith that we will bring about change because you are all with us, and together we will bring change.

And this was an ideal point to laugh at ourselves, through the song ‘Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi’ (Feminism …. A long time coming!), a take off on ‘Samajwaad Babua’ – Gorakh Pande’s hard hitting satire of socialism. Through this song, we take pot shots at the labels of ‘Western’, ‘city-bred’, funded feminists; the co-option of women’s issues by all political parties, and the State; and also make digs at the confusion of collective functioning arising out of our allergy to domination! The Left too comes in for its share of spoof, as we satirise their fear of the ‘L’ word and marginalisation of lesbians.

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi (2)

England se aayi; Amrica se aayi

Dilli se aayi; Mumbai se aayi

Jan Andolan to ban hi naa paayi

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

World Bank se aayi; McArthur se aayi

Oxfam se aayi; Norad se aayi

Phir bhi autonomous kahlaai

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

Nafrat netagiri se aur dikkat hai hierarchy se

Nafrat netagiri se aur dikkat hai hierarchy se

Par Collective ne sab ko rulaayi

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

Sarkaar se aayi, Mahila Aayog se aayi

U.N. se aayi, Beijingva se aayi

Sab milke khichri pakai

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

Congress ne uthayi, Bha.Ja.Pa. bhi utahayi

Mulayam, Laloo ne bhi doharayi

Par arakshan ne band bajayi

Naarivaad unka dhire dhire aayi

Nirasha Left se paayi, Saat Behne apnayi

Aath March manayi, morcha khub chalayi

Par woh lesbian saawal se sharmayi

Yeh kaisi naarivad aayi?!

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi!

Naarivaad behna dhire dhire aayi

Thunderous applause, continuing as we all filed out for much needed tea.

And we came back to a lighter look at collective functioning – a spoof on Saheli’s group process while trying to develop a play on sexual harassment at the workplace. Enacting a typical scene at a weekly organisational meeting touched a chord in all of the veteran meeting goers and drew many laughs.

The finale, singing ‘Mahaul Badalna Hai’ from the play had the audience clapping along.

RELEASE OF THE HISTORY DOCUMENT

Akshara, summing up the past few months as the ‘horrors of the collective’, gave a brief background into the process of documenting the history of Saheli. “We went back to the Daily Diaries and minutes books for the past 25 years. For people who have not been in Saheli for very long, it was very exciting looking at conversations by people who we had only heard about but not met and as for older Sahelis, they got completely side tracked because they would be looking at minutes books and saying ‘Oh, I said that that day?’ or ‘When did I ever say that’. Some of the new people felt a little left out!” Relating her discovery in a file of a parchi of the first anti-sati rally in early November 1987, Akshara had the audience in splits when she admitted, “It struck me yesterday... that of everyone here, I’m the only one who is younger than Saheli!”

Talking about one of the other sources of information for the history document was a series of interviews with old Sahelis and new. She pointed to Ashima, now sitting silently in the audience, who for the last few months had been dedicatedly following up and making sure we got responses – thanks to her now famous, ‘wee reminders’. We spoke to a lot of people, met whoever we could meet. And they told us about their interpretation of Saheli history. And as is the case with any history which has interpretations, we had varied responses. We’ve had nostalgic ones, regretful ones, bitter ones. So we put together a document which presents a broad history of the autonomous women’s movement over the past 25 years, with regard to Saheli’s role in it. And there’s no way that such a document can hope to be exhaustive, nor can we claim that our interpretation of Saheli’s history is truer or more valid than any other. We’ve also tried to put together this history as faithfully as possible because we were, and still are in the process of creating it.

Nidhi then went on to translate what Akshara said into Hindi.

Taking the mike, Deepti reiterated that making the document has been the result of the effort of many many people – a genuine collective effort. So its release too must be collective. “I would like to call some people up to the stage. The founder members present here: Gouri, Rukmini, Kalpana, Vichitra.. please come up,” called Deepti, amidst much hooting and clapping.

And others associated since 1981 were also called on the stage - Abha, Chandra, Prabeen, Malika, Savita, Urmil, Elizabeth, Jayashri, Nilanjana, Ranjana, Runu, Ajita.

“Two people without whom this document would not have been possible. Who worked hard, helped us to maintain our sanity and took on major responsibilities on their shoulders – Ashima and Nalini. A special thank you to them!”

Calling on the camera-shy Sahelis also to come: Divya, Shweta, Vani, Sarvesh, Vimla, Vidya, Jyotika, Rajni, Kamla, Radha and many more, without whom we cannot be on the stage!

And any of those who want to join Saheli – all of you come up too! And someone comes!

Adds Deepti, “The Sahelis you see on stage here, it is not a complete picture. One of our close comrades, Satnam, is ill, so cannot be here. And Davi is sitting in Durban and Lata in London. We are missing all of them acutely on this occasion!”

Holding hands, in a circle, the purple history document, still hot off the press, is waved in the air. Some of us can hardly believe that it’s printed! We were proof reading it just two days ago!

And with everyone on stage, we sing “Hey jee rey” again.

A TIME FOR SHARING

Says Vani, “Now is the time we would like to hear from you about Saheli, about yourselves, about the dosti, the fights, the work, the action… everything.” And the perfect person to start with is, Kalpana.

Beginning with congratulating everyone for keeping Saheli going all these years, Kalpana, a founder member also said that these are very difficult days. “The links with younger people have lessened. Many have gone to NGOs, since you can do revolution and also get paid for it. Voluntary efforts have gone down. We need to think how to go ahead in this scenario. Another change is that in the beginning, it was important to establish our identity as the women’s movement. But the sweeping changes and challenges we need to respond to – the biggest challenge is how can feminism bring another dimension to larger society?”

She also regretted that Delhi and Mumbai are deaf to issues outside of metros. Unfortunately, if the government is centralised in Delhi, the movement also tends to get centralised. Delhi has the media, the courts, the contacts, far more resources to raise issues. Saheli needs to extend its support and solidarity to movements in smaller towns.

Rukmini, also a founder member, who had left Saheli in 1989 to go to Hyderabad and work with rural women, responded to Kalpana’s comment about working in NGOs. “All of us have to do jobs,” she said. “Saheli is a very important part of our lives – we squabbled a lot, but we knew we could call people up anytime, when you needed them. Our love and support for each other was immense.”

“About autonomy – on the one hand we are supposed to be autonomous. On the other hand, we live in a society, where we are not at all autonomous. The conference in Kolkata – women coming from NGOs, and their aspirations are that they want to work in an autonomous way. The work and understanding I got in Saheli I have applied wherever I went. All my learning is from Saheli. Saheli is like a source of inspiration. Leadership for women, and male support is the focus of our work in mixed organisations. I am especially happy to see so many youngsters. And I hope the spirit of Saheli will go on very strongly.”

And then a butterfly fluttered on to the stage, in the shape of Saraswati from Bangalore. “For me, the politics we are talking about, is very precious. I will act out and show what I feel. Whatever are our ideals, they are like butterflies. We are seeing that.. but it is very difficult to catch. And when you do catch, you just have to put it inside, and it keeps fluttering. Without speaking, I want to show it.” She goes on the stage and catches a butterfly, and becomes one herself!

Mallika, who was around 21 when she joined Saheli and became part of the movement in Delhi, said, “We also have our roots in Saheli and then took different routes… moved on to translate our politics into practice.” Now living in the mountains and the Sarpanch of her Van (forest) Panchayat, Malika farms the land and is also part of a women’s group - Maati. Now our struggle is different. ‘Personal is political’ is something that we understand. But the political is also personal! What is happening to people in the mountains? Our lives are linked to the mountains/forests/water/grass. Now we are getting to experience first hand the impact of globalisation on women’s lives. How, when there is no ownership of resources, life and livelihood is devastated. We keep coming back to Saheli, because we hope that you become the face of our struggle, our voice.. and keep alive a relationship that goes back 25 years. And go on for 50..100 years!”

From Nainital, Uma Pant brings out a quarterly newsletter, Uttara. Following the Kanpur conference of the autonomous women’s movement in 1993, she went back and began a small organisation – Maitri, working on women’s issues and social issues. In 1994, during the struggle for Uttarakhand state, Maitri joined the movement, and Uttarakhand Mahila Manch (UMM) emerged. “The Manch is not in good shape…we keep meeting, having discussions, we do some work...keep leaving...and then joining again. And coming here, we hope to get strength from all of you, and be part of the laughter, the spirit and solidarity” she said.

Jamuna, speaking in Telugu, with Rukmini translating, related how, in 1986 she used to come from 40 km away in Ghaziabad, but would find it useful and valuable to come for even one hour. She spoke of her own journey from a political secretary to a leader in the ML movement, to gaining feminist consciousness through her own personal struggle. She now runs Gramya, a women’s group in Hyderabad.

Well known feminist writer Vidya Bal from Pune, drew many laughs when she said, “There are many reasons for me to be here, but one of the main ones is that Vineeta is my daughter. And in this crowd, I would like to introduce myself as Vineeta’s mother. I remember days 20-30 years back, when everybody asked her, because she was always introduced as my daughter, whether she writes. And she was disgusted with this question!” Vidya Tai also shared that her organisation back home ‘Nari Samata Manch, is also going to complete 25 years next year.

Kalpana who was known as ‘Kalpana of Jagori’ because there was a Kalpana of Saheli, said, “At such gatherings we have the founding mothers of these organisations, and they come up and say “It’s so nice to see young people”. And people like us are not founders of anything. And we no longer qualify as ‘young’. But a whole lot of us here are very much part of the movement, who have grown up in the movement. It’s a different space we occupy. Not founders, and no longer young.” For me, it has been a friendship with Saheli in many ways. Individual activists – Sadhna, Ranjana, Vani, Laxmi –have been my friends, and we have grown together in many movements. For us from Jagori, being two women’s organisations in Delhi, if anything happens, the first person you call up is Saheli. And I hope Saheli also calls us up first! (yes.. yes.. someone murmurs)

“Being part of a women’s organisation that is also an NGO, having a group like Saheli to work with keeps us on our toes, and that is the role that Saheli has played. Though they are irritating at times, it’s nice to have groups like Saheli, and other such groups to work with and consistently keep discussing our politics and figure out where we are going as a movement. And to be able to reflect honestly, at the times when we feel we are down. Whatever the history between Jagori and Saheli and many other groups, we need spaces to reflect together on where we are going...what are the issues, what is our politics, who are our alliances. But at the end of it all…Saheli, you are an inspiration to all of us and we value your friendship tremendously,” added Kalpana.

“I don’t know what to say... You are all one of us... This is not the time to get tangled up in debates and issues. We are all carrying a big chunk of history. .. and to keep that history going, to carry that history on...” said Abha. Relating the experience of anti-war in Lebanon rally with very few protesters, Abha said, “We were acutely feeling that we should broaden, get more inclusive. And the questions about autonomous politics – yes, all that is true. But for our voices to get stronger, we need to go beyond. I want to think together about how to build a movement.”

Said Abha, while volunteering to come for a Saturday meeting in Saheli, after not climbing up the stairs since the split, “A little bending down is not so bad. For our politics, for the purpose of building a wider, stronger movement. We have to discuss issues threadbare... but let’s not despair, but take this time to build together.”

After Gouri too added that she would come on Saturdays, Vani remarked that such gestures are some of the best gifts we could get.

Anchal, now in Kriti, a non-funded resource centre, came to Saheli in her first year of college. “Saheli was my first word into feminism, in the way it stood for autonomous politics. I took the way Saheli was set up back to LSR and set up the Women’s Development Cell,” she said. “Saheli for me has been a form where different people, doing different kinds of jobs can put their creative energies and their politics and create something solid. Saheli stands for a solid women’s group across the board, across the country. Four chairs, 9 volunteers is what we started out with 7 years ago in Kriti. I think it’s really possible to not take grants and put our energies to create something that is beautiful and politically strong.”

Sarojini, who was in Jagori for 7-8 years, and now in Sama, regaled the audience with her re-telling of the first time she came to Saheli. “When I first came, for the screening of ‘In the name of medicine’, I was so tense. I don’t know how I climbed those steps. I thought everyone would tear me apart because I was from Jagori! I had heard so much about Kalpana from Saheli – and I was scared. But the film was interesting, and I relaxed, and then I went back.” Abha encouraged Sarojini to interact with Saheli on issues of population and contraceptives. “I learnt a lot. Kalpana insisted I develop rigour in my work and made me read multi-centre trials! Now I can critique very well!”

Echoing the spirit of collectivity, Prabeen said, “Firstly, we must all congratulate ourselves. The one thought that led to the formation of Saheli – this thought is still carried forward: that our doors, and our minds will always be open to all women.” Bringing up serious matters of cleaning, Prabeen continued, “I would do jhadoo very conscientiously (maybe because I’m a Virgo), and Gouri would do it. But the rest would leave the place in a dump! A huge big debate – do all feminists have to be dirty, and do all feminists not have to tweeze their eyebrows? And that’s an ongoing debate.”

Chayanika from Forum, Mumbai called the relationship with Saheli “like twin organisations, but non-identical twins in two different cities. We call each other up all the time. When there is a difference of opinion with Saheli, it makes us very restless. It forces us to think.”

Another compliment from Jaya of Nirantar and Prism was that Saheli’s involvement in anything has both depth and enthusiasm/ vigour. “PRISM has a special relationship with Saheli. There are very few such groups that function as a forum and not institution. There are many challenges – how to combine activism and the pressures of daily life, earning money. Saheli stands as an example of what is possible. For queer issues – and their connections with class, caste, sexuality – are apparent in Saheli’s work and politics. Saheli office has been very important to us in PRISM and Voices. Several meetings take place there. Saheli space is one where you feel a sense of belonging – you don’t feel an outsider. So we can’t even say we thank Saheli, because we feel a sense of belonging in that space.”

Kavita Srivastava from Jaipur, who described herself as a ‘hard core feminist’ lamented that she often is left out of feminist spaces because she works with mixed forums like civil liberties groups. “Saheli represents the fountainhead of the ideology of feminism which we all got attracted to. We began in the government-run WDP. But if groups like Saheli and Jagori did not exist, we would have had no connection to the women’s movement. I love feminist spaces and I love what Saheli represents. We need to see – what are the threads that connect non-feminist progressives to the women’s movement. The ‘dilli walli’ feminist no longer intimidates. Has there been a change in idiom - are ‘dilli walli’ feminists (which Saheli represents) really imbibing the changes that feminisms across the country are inspiring?”

Hasina from Awaaz-e-Niswan and Forum, Mumbai made a strong case for Saheli to extend support to Muslim women’s issues. “It is a responsibility to see that after 25 years, has our movement touched on the issues of Muslim women?”

Ranjana, sharing her political confusion, said, “I feel increasingly the sense of the world changing – sense of devastating changes. Watching TV, the soap operas etc...the early fervour I felt – where my feet would not touch the ground in my enthusiasm, I now feel the ground is being pulled from under my feet. Recently in Delhi – lakhs of people have been displaced due to factory closures and evictions. I shared with Uma that a well known male progressive had made a very good presentation. She said – this is the sexual division of labour! They can be experts on one thing, but we have to be everywhere – against communalism, militarisation, raise the women’s question everywhere. The challenges before us are much more than we can conceptualise or theorise or even talk of it. We need to take stock of them. It would not be honest to not share that today I am feeling lost.”

Congratulating Saheli for being ‘Old and Gold’, Naseem from Action India said that today was a learning experience to get a sense of history of the women’s movement.

Said Manoranjan Mohanty, professor at Delhi University, “It’s an absolutely wonderful occasion. I have been absolutely outraged in the last few months after Kalinganagar killings and Salwa Judum, but moments like this give me strength. I am the beneficiary of the movement – of groups like Saheli and PUDR. Saheli is a defining symbol of the women’s movement. A particular characteristic of such autonomous and political people’s movement like Saheli is that it discovers dimensions of domination and oppression hitherto not known. And that has been the contribution of the women’s movement. And the methodological and theoretical contribution is that we still don’t know all dimensions of oppression. Three cheers to Saheli.”

“Congrats and best wishes from Stree Adhikar Sanghatan,” greeted Anjali, who has been a friend of Saheli since her days of working in Uttar Pradesh.

Chandra Kanjilal, an old associate of Saheli, now in Andhra Pradesh, remarked that it was wonderful to see so many new faces, and suggested that Saheli use this platform to network throughout the country to look at rights/livelihoods issues of rural women.

Gouri wondered aloud if Action India, which was soon to celebrate 30 years of existence, could give the same richness that Saheli has been able to give. “But all morning, I have been feeling envious, frankly. Truly. I wonder why can we not replicate the kind of relationships we had in Saheli? I don’t think such a thing is possible in an NGO. Why it is not possible I can’t say. But it is true that that kind of sisterhood is not there. And I have really been feeling very envious. So I will come on Saturday. Again. Who am I to congratulate, when I am a founding member of Saheli?!” Gouri also added that she did not leave Saheli, but was told to choose between Saheli and Action India. “The split in Saheli should never have happened. The work with grassroots through Action India is also needed. These activists also need paid work. Question is how to combine these politically. Would like Sabla Sangh to reconnect with Saheli. How to widen it? The Mahila Panchayat network, and the other women leaders though in NGOs, are talking about women’s issues. My request is – can Jagori, Action India, Sabla Sangh, Saheli take the lead and celebrate March 8th?”

Vidya from Sabla Sangh, admitted that when some Sahelis had come to interview them, she fought! “When we have been working together since 1984, why are we divided? You people are working in the air – unless you join with the grassroots and work, how can we bring feminism? How can the flames of feminism be fanned and spread?,” she asked passionately.

The song by Sabla Sangh: “Mein Tum Ko Vishwas Doon, Tum Mujh Ko Vishwas Do…” had everyone clapping to the beat.

Lunch was the next item on the agenda, and everyone went out to eat the excellent poori, aloo sabzi, pulav, raita and gulab jamun. Wandering around, reading the excerpts of interviews on the walls, catching up with old friends, exclaiming over how long it had been...it could have gone on forever. But the audience was coaxed into the hall for an afternoon of serious discussion.