Kamla Bhasin: A Legend

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Kamla Bhasin Indian feminist

I first heard of Kamla Bhasin in 1977 when, on completing my undergraduate degree, I opted to work on women’s issues at Seva Mandir, Rajasthan, an organization working on issues of rural development and people’s empowerment. Kamla had left Seva Mandir by that time, but her work as an indefatigable activist and organizer was unforgettable. The staff at Seva Mandir and the rural and Adivasi people with whom she had worked spoke of her charismatic leadership and continued to perform and sing the songs of freedom and empowerment that she had composed and sung with them. Kamla, way back in 1977 was already a legend. 

Kamla, a small woman, had an enormous presence, a wicked sense of humour, and a huge heart. She was a networker par excellence. A visionary with the ability to communicate feminist ideals in a down-to-earth manner she spoke to wide ranging audiences in a very local idiom. She understood the power of the word and wielded it with confidence, flamboyance, and a mischievous smile. Always bold and outspoken, she was someone who got in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in her unflagging commitment to justice.

Kamla Bhasin by Jael Silliman
Kamla Bhasin by Jael Silliman

Kamla became a feminist icon who communicated her philosophy through her personal story. The songs she composed and sang on women’s rights, and her writings have been translated in many languages. They ring across the sub-continent at movement events, workshops, protests in colleges, on the streets and in the fields. Her thirty books have a similar resonance – they inspire and demystify feminist ideas and praxis for every woman to be able to grasp and share with confidence. She also wrote eight books for children that challenged gender stereotypes and empowered girls and a book of feminist jokes. 

Kamla worked with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Delhi for twenty-five years where she identified innovative development work in Asian countries and forged networks between people across countries. Her work took her across the continent where she sharpened her development experience and ran capacity building workshops through the Sangat network. The alums stay connected and engage in cross border efforts to advance women’s rights and build solidarity and peace. These networks of sisterhood and solidarity she developed are a lasting contribution.

Through her work at the FAO, Kamla remained very active in the Indian women’s movement and other movements for democracy, peace, secularism and human rights.  She was a founding member of Jagori (1984). Jagori is still a leading feminist organisation in Delhi, committed to building a just society through feminist values through its engagement with a range of partners and women leaders from marginalized urban and rural areas in support of women’s rights. The issues Jagori addresses include ending violence against women, rights and entitlements, leadership development and deepening feminist consciousness. To extend her reach to rural women she was a founding member of Jagori Rural established in 2003. Jagori Rural has a campus in Himachal Pradesh to train feminist leaders and girls to end gender discrimination. It runs numerous outreach programs especially for young girls and adolescents. 

In 2002, Kamla resigned from FAO and joined the Sangat network full-time. Since then, Kamla has been a key player in Sangat, housed in Jagori. Sangat organizes one-month long gender training workshops for young feminists across South Asia that equips them with a feminist understanding on a range of critical feminist concerns from environmental issues to gender and sexuality. Alumni of this network recall their experience in these training sessions as being transformative.

Most recently, Kamla as the South Asia Coordinator has played a pivotal role in the One Billion Rising Campaign. As 1 in 3 women on the planet will be raped or beaten during her lifetime, which is one billion women and girls, women in communities across the world rise each February to shine a light on the injustices faced by survivors. They figuratively rise through dance to express joy and community and are determined to create a consciousness that makes violence unthinkable.  This consciousness extended to the Earth in a call for Rising Gardens to nurture a garden “as an act of resistance…. (to) connect people and communities with the Earth. To grow one’s own food…is revolutionary in this age of ecological, environmental, societal and spiritual collapse.” 

Kamla worked with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Delhi for twenty-five years where she identified innovative development work in Asian countries and forged networks between people across countries. Her work took her across the continent where she sharpened her development experience and ran capacity building workshops through the Sangat network.

Kamla, in addition to her manifold speaking engagements, made the time to be both friend and mentor to many, working with organizations and serving on numerous boards addressing issues of human rights, religious harmony, secularism and peace. I had the honor of serving with her on the Board of Swayam, a Kolkata based feminist organisation, committed to ending violence against women and girls. Anuradha Kapoor, Founder Director poignantly notes: “Kamla has been a tremendous source of inspiration, strength and joy for all of us at Swayam. Her sharp insights, guidance and unstinting support have been invaluable in Swayam’s development and growth. Her constant encouragement and enthusiasm were truly motivating. Despite her towering personality and multiple commitments, she always was available for Swayam and took great pride in our work. She was my mentor, my family, generous with her love and laughter, and leaves behind a void that can never be filled.” 

Kamla transcended our world on September 25th, after a short but very difficult struggle with cancer.  During that time, her comrades and friends from the Indian women’s movement held her close, knowing she would not be with them much longer. Ever feisty and communicative she posted video clips of herself and her legion of comrades singing as she continued to buoy their spirits while courageously battling for her life. Kamla, no stranger to bruising battles, personal and political, was unable to surmount her final challenge. Feminists from across the city and the country gathered to give her a rousing farewell. Together with her sister, two generations of feminists carried her on their shoulders to the electric crematorium, singing her songs, keeping her spirit and presence alive. Tributes flowed in from across the sub-continent mourning the loss of this vibrant spirit, this leader and icon of the women’s movement. 

Her legacy lives on through the deep friendships she nurtured across borders, her powerful thoughts, actions, words and songs, and the institutions she founded and developed that continue to play a role in the struggle for equality, peace, and justice. Suneeta Dhar, a co-traveler for three decades and a core group member of Sangat, sums up her spirit: “Kamla embodied the spirit of a Neem tree (Azad-dirachta Indica), known as a free tree in the Indian sub-continent. Her incredible free spirit, a passion for Rising Gardens, her slogan regarding the “Power of Love” over the “Love of Power” will continue to resonate.” Kamla, you are an inspiration – a shining star in the firmament.

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