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An Epistle from an Activist

By Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

May 14, 2013

Dear Sipra*,

About a week ago I read in the newspapers of a 16-year-old girl set ablaze by her family in Khanakul village [of West Bengal, India] for protesting against the marriage they had arranged for her. She was determined to study further and had the courage to defy her parents. This morning’s newspapers again reported that the Class X student is fighting for her life with 60 per cent burn injuries in the best-known government hospital in Kolkata.

Let’s call her R. R’s parents have been arrested but it looks like the state has, so far, not done much else for her treatment. Nor has her case been taken up by any NGO. The media says R has not yet been visited by any social activist. So that includes me, since you consider me one and have asked me to write about my experiences as an activist.

But do I qualify as an activist? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. What have I done since first learning about R’s case a few days ago except feeling deeply horrified and angry? Nothing! It was only today after reading about her medical condition that I called up a couple of activist friends and emailed members of a network of women’s organizations here. The email has elicited a few positive responses and members of two organizations are slated to visit the hospital tomorrow. On the basis of their findings, we will decide on a joint course of action and hopefully, the state too will act.

However, why did it take me so long to make this small move? Is it because I sometimes take far too long to decide whether to act or not act? Or is it because I am unsure of the procedure in this case, not knowing any one high up in the administration and not being familiar with the functioning of the health sector? It could be so. But could my inactivity also have something to do with the perception that once I make a move, it is going to be a long-drawn affair, consuming my time reserved for other things? Some of the other things being my research and writing as a self-taught historian; my bilingual activist writings and other prose pieces for alternative spaces; literary translation and occasional teaching as a guest faculty; book-editing assignments that are thrust upon me now and then by academic-activist teachers and friends; and my organizational work as the chief functionary of the voluntary group Ebong Alap [that explores innovative pedagogies for developing critical citizenship primarily among the youth]. Not to mention the usual responsibilities of the immediate and extended family that I am gradually learning to shirk!

As things stand now, I neither have a job nor a profession as I did ten years ago. The fact that I earn very little doesn’t bother me much because I have learnt to manage and be content principally with whatever my husband earns. I am deeply engaged in each of the things I do, but it is getting increasingly difficult switching gears between several kinds of activities. And with this comes the overwhelming realization that, as much as I passionately engage in social activism, I haven’t been able to stick to activism alone. I have done other things as well and they brought me pleasure and recognition. But social activism can neither be part-time philanthropy nor can it be a full-time paid job.

If you ask me what inspired me to become a social activist, I would not be able to give you a clear answer. To me social activism is not very different from political activism in the larger sense of the term. I might qualify as a social activist because I work towards changing social perceptions. But I have not always looked upon social activism (when we grew up it was called social work) in these terms. Since early childhood I have closely observed quite a few deeply committed social workers who have had a lasting impression on my mind. For them social work was synonymous with philanthropy and the larger politics of making structural/conceptual changes had no place in their scheme of things. Later, when I joined the feminist consciousness-raising group Sachetana in my college days—that was about 30 years ago—it changed the way I looked at the world, at politics, and at social activism. I do what I do today because I have seen first-hand how transforming peoples’ ways of seeing changes the world little by little. But the passion and dedication with which the old school of social workers did what they believed in had also touched me to the core much before I learnt to reason. So there is a curious mix of both the philanthropic and the radical feminist tradition working within me, sometimes producing eccentric outcomes that I myself find difficult to fathom!

Coming back to R, I slept over the case for a week because I had other things to do. But what about my activist friends? Did they not know about the case or were they as busy as I was? Would R’s case have been taken up earlier had she been the usual victim of domestic abuse, that is, torture by husband and in-laws? Or had she been a girl with physical or psycho-social disabilities? Or a lesbian or a transgender person? But as her natal family has inflicted severe burn injuries on her for refusing to get married, R is not an easy fit into any of these slots. Is that why it takes time for activists to respond to her case and not simply because R comes from a poor family of a poor village? Have our responses to violence against women altered with increasing specialization in the NGO sector in recent years, even as such specialization has resulted in foregrounding issues that have been invisible for very long? Simply put, do we have a lot more specialists than general physicians now?  Is that a healthy trend?

These thoughts apart, I have also been greatly disturbed ever since I read about R for a totally different reason. The eager and animated faces of the adolescent girls, whom we [from Ebong Alap] have been interacting with in Sunderban during our awareness campaigns about gender as a social construct, have been flashing through my mind. As you know, some of them have been participating in public meetings in their villages, advocating for girls’ education and prevention of adolescent marriages. We have always discussed precautions with them, just in case they were threatened by vested interests in that area who are opposed to such awareness-raising activities. But now with this horrifying news, I am gripped by a different kind of fear. What if they are tortured (to death?) by their families for resisting marriage? Would we get to know in time so that we might prevent what happened to R?

There is a slim chance that we might because there is a local group called Disha to which some of these girls belong. It is likely that the older members who lead the group would get to know if any girl is under pressure and would be able to counsel the girls’ parents as well as provide moral and some material support to the girl concerned. Disha, in turn, could talk to us at Ebong Alap if they required additional support and hand-holding. So there is some cause for hope in working in tandem with an awareness-raising group of volunteers at the grassroots who are actively working towards overturning age-old customs.

At the same time there is blinding despair. This is mostly to do with trying to raise funds from donor agencies for the work that we do. We are almost always faced with the difficult choice of catering to local needs and priorities on the one hand and the program priorities set by donor bodies on the other. But ‘development’ and the politics of funding in our part of the world today is another story and we better not get into that for the time being.

Hope you find this of some use.

Warmly,

Sarmistha.

*Sipra Mukherjee is one of the editorial board members of Café Dissensus.

[Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, Independent researcher and social activist working from Kolkata.]

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