In memory of someone for whom activism, academic pursuits and institution building were not unrelated exercises. Paramita Banerjee pens a tribute to Jasodhara Bagchi.
On 9 January this year, Professor Jasodhara Bagchi breathed her last at 8.20 in the morning. A professor of English in the Jadavpur University, Jasodharadi (di – a shortening of ‘didi’, a form of address for the elder sister for Bengali Hindus; but also the Bengali equivalent of the ‘Ma’m’ or ‘Miss’ used to address lady teachers) was equally well- known for her role in strengthening an academic-activist convergence in the early days of the women’s movement in India. She was one of the major movers and shakers behind persuading a reluctant university and a disdainful University Grants Commission to establish the School of Women’s Studies (SWS) in Jadavpur University, the first of its kind in eastern India. As its founder-director, she steered this school from 1988 through the initial teething years and the adolescent tensions of an unwanted girl child – guarding this institution with the ferocity of a tigress protecting her cubs till the times had changed. When she retired in 1997, SWS was firmly established. Little wonder that she was honoured as the Emeritus Professor of the School and continued to teach there till the end.
Educated at the Presidency College, then affiliated to the Calcutta University, and at Oxford, Jasodharadi was also one of the founder-members of Sachetana, one of the earliest women’s rights organisations in West Bengal. She was also among the founder-members of Maitree (literally, friendship), an informal network of women’s rights organisations and individual activists in West Bengal, formed in 1996 and active till date, which had played a significant role in getting women’s voices heard by the then government in the state in its formative years. One such incident that deserves special mention in this context is that of an attempt at hushing up the incident of a Bangladeshi woman being raped in the Howrah Yatri Nivas (an accommodation facility in Kolkata’s most important rail station). It was a collective protest under the banner of Maitree that had forced the then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, to offer a public apology and reopen the case – leading to the prosecution and conviction of the accused. As one of the most senior founder-members of Maitree, Jasodharadi’s contribution in determining the strategies of protest and other action points in Maitree’s early years can hardly be over emphasised.
Everything said so far consists of information that many would have already read in obituaries in the print media and on the internet. However, in this personal tribute to a mentor who had been my first guide into the social development sector, I want to cite a few incidents that have not found mention in these obituaries. Small events, but quite remarkable in my understanding. In 1991, when the School of Women’s Studies was just three years old, Jasodharadi was courageous enough to host the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) Conference at the Jadavpur University. It was her able leadership that managed to garner a whole set of volunteers from among teachers, research scholars and students of different departments for this huge conference to be held without any visible snags anywhere.
The second one happened sometime in 1992, after the establishment of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a Kolkata-based collective of women in sex work. Few people remember and even less, if any, from DMSC acknowledge this, but the first conference of women in sex work under the banner of that organisation was held in the UG Seminar Hall, now christened Anita Banerjee Memorial Hall, in the Under Graduate Arts building of Jadavpur University. It may be difficult to understand today, when DMSC has become famous for organising national and international sex workers’ festivals in venues as huge as a football stadium, the level of determined struggle that Jasodharadi had to undertake to host this event under the aegis of the School of Women’s Studies. The University authorities were reluctant, to say the least, to allow women in sex work inside an educational institution – but Jasodharadi stuck to her argument that they were women first and sex workers later, and the University housing a School of Women’s Studies simply could not refuse entry to women – irrespective of their income-related engagement in life. It is perhaps ironical that the then Director of the Institute of Public Health & Hygiene in Kolkata and the spearhead of the Sexual Health Intervention Programme (SHIP) at Sonagachhi, one of the major red light districts of Kolkata, would use this particular conference to air his views that female sex workers’ rights had to be understood separately from the larger issue of women’s rights per se.
Later in that same year, on 6th December, Babri Masjid would be demolished. A year later, Sahmat – a Delhi based collective – organised a protest march in Ayodhya on that day and invited all India participation. Jasodharadi was one of the participants – travelling with the rest of us youngsters in not-so-comfortable public transport and sharing an uncomfortable bed in a dormitory. She had already had one hernia operation and wasn’t exactly in the pink of health – but her commitment to lending her presence to promoting communal harmony was strong enough for her to make this trip. In case some are already thinking if the need for publicity had something to do with her journey – I would like to point out that neither did she need to be an unseen face in a huge rally with people from all over India, nor does this feature anywhere in her readily available obituaries. Her commitment was genuine.
As the Director of SWS, Jasodharadi had also led a pioneering action research programme in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, York University, Canada, on the sexual and reproductive health of women in situations of urban poverty. When this multi-layered study was conducted (1994 – 96), capturing both quantitative and qualitative information at the levels of information and services available as also attitudes and perceptions – data of this kind related to women living in urban slums was hardly available. Carried out deliberately in two wards of the Khidirpur area of Kolkata, West Bengal, this study aimed to capture, among other things, the extent to which religious differences affected reproductive choices of women – if at all. And, the findings substantially indicated that women made deliberate, rational choices with reference to spacing child birth and terminating the possibility of pregnancies through tubectomy – irrespective of which religion they were born into and believed in. Just as a passing reference, it may be mentioned that Khidirpur is a mixed religion area of Kolkata and during the study period, the distribution as per electoral rolls was 60% Muslims, 37% Hindus and 3% other religions (comprising Christians, Buddhists etc). Also, the only reason to mention this one among many research projects undertaken by the School of Women’s Studies under Jasodharadi’s tenure as its Director is because of its importance in drawing attention to women’s health issues in urban poverty situations, which continues to be a comparatively neglected aspect till date.
Needless to say, she had authored and edited/co-edited a number of scholastic books, more in English, but some in Bengali as well. While at the helm of SWS, she had started the process of publishing/re-publishing writings by women in 19th and early 20th century Bengal – a pioneering initiative that made it possible for younger people to taste the thoughts and writing skills of some of the earliest Bengali women writers. It is perhaps not very surprising that her very last book written in Bengali, Parijayee Naree o Manabadhikar (Migrant Women and Human Rights, in translation), scheduled to be released at the Kolkata Book Fair of 2014, had to be released later in a small function at the Press Club of this city since the Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild, the organisers of the Fair, refused permission at the last minute – citing the ambiguous reason that the book contained ‘controversial’ information. As a regular attendee of the Book Fair since it started in 1975, I cannot readily recall any such incident ever before. There are many like me who keep wondering whether this refusal was prompted by the fact that Jasodharadi was known for her leftist views throughout her lifetime. It is difficult to fathom why a democratic government would want to silence controversy, though. However, this incident definitely indicates that Jasodharadi was no chameleon; her understanding and analyses did not change to please anyone. She had not baulked at challenging the Left Front government when justice was denied to the Bangladeshi woman – despite her leftist views. Small wonder then, that she did not hesitate to write a ‘controversial’ book during another era. Those at the helm of the Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild who denied her the permission of launching this book are people whose names few know and even less would remember. Jasodharadi will continue to live in the hearts of many – not only because of her books, but because of her actions and mentoring of several generations of students, academics and activists.