Roshmi Goswami is from Assam and is a founder member of the North-East Network. She was Program Officer with the Ford Foundation in New Delhi for several years, programming on women’s rights, before moving on to work with UN Women in New York. In this excerpt from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’ (Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited), she touches on her experiences of bringing women from the Northeast into the feminist mainstream.
I don’t know what changed my life or the precise moment at which that happened, but the mobilisation for the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing that started in 1993 was certainly one that brought about a permanent change and clear direction in my life. Monisha Behal (Ben) roped me into the Tezpur District Mahila Samiti’s (TDMS) efforts to document issues and carry the voices of women from north-east India into national and international forums.
The Beijing process was an unprecedented phenomenon, fraught with complexities and difficult dynamics, but one that held much excitement, hope and passion. To be honest, my initial engagement was driven largely by my loyalty to a north-east identity and the need to pay attention to the issues and politics of the ‘peripheries’ rather that of women, per se. I was already quite embroiled in the north-east identity question, having supported the Assam agitation with great enthusiasm.
The fact that its tough young leader, Bhrigu Phukan, was my husband’s cousin also brought many of these discussions and realities into our home. I aligned myself with the Naga students’ Union during my days at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong. Two of the top Naga student leaders, who were highly respected, became my friends and I learnt a lot from them, much of which helped shape my work and understanding, years later. To everybody’s great disappointment one of them turned into a corrupt but powerful politician, but the other remained committed to his ideology and pursued it through his legal profession.
In those days NEHU was a hotbed of politics. Faculty members, specifically in the social sciences, were mostly at loggerheads with one another, and used regional identity politics for personal advancement as and when it suited them. One may argue that this is common in any academic setting, but in a central university situated in a region embroiled in armed conflict and ethnic divisions, this has surely been particularly negative. It was very disturbing to see ‘tribal’ students being used as trump cards to secure advancement, with no effort made or genuine commitment to pre-empting ethnic conflict. Towards the end of my doctorate, willy-nilly, I took up a job as a lecturer in philosophy. I was a fairly good teacher, but my heart was not in it.
I realised I couldn’t continue in this half-hearted manner, and quit my job when I got a research fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. This was an interesting and decisive period in my life – I concluded that academia was not for me. I wanted to make change happen rather than be involved in pontificating about it. I headed home and, together with some friends, started an organisation called CACTUS; we began working with artisans specifically with loin-loom or backstrap women weavers, and gradually got drawn into their lives and the multiple identities that they negotiated as they eked out their livelihoods.
At some point during the Beijing mobilisation, Ben distanced herself from the chaotic Beijing madness, concentrating on practical grassroots action; TDMS was weighted down by internal contradictions, and I was left to keep the north-east regional flag flying high! But there were so many other comrades in that journey – Suneeta Dhar and Sumita Ghose from the co-ordination unit set up for Beijing, and Pramada Menon were constant allies, as were members of the National NGO Advisory Committee (of which I was also a member), the most dynamic being Vasanth Kannabiran and Ruth Manorama. Many other powerful and impressive women came into my life at this time and have remained in it, with their politics, vision, expertise and personal companionship – Shanthi Dairiam, Sunila Abeysekera and Kamla Bhasin.
I travelled extensively across the north-east, drawing women from the most marginalised sections into the process, but also trying to capture then strength and dynamism in a region of political strife and protracted conflict. I aligned closely with the Meira Paibis, the torch-bearers of Manipur, who were just beginning to move from community policing on alcoholism to raising issues of human rights violations. A trip to Imphal always meant a meal with these amazing powerful women at their home in the Palace Gate Compound.
Chaobi Devi, Thokchom Ramani and Kunjalata Devi were an inseparable trio who drew strength from each other and attended every meeting together, regardless of who was invited. But in Beijing the vivacious Chaobi withered into a disempowered old woman in an unfamiliar setting, without the strength of her buddies and her support base.
It was very sad to see her like that and it taught me some important lessons about what not to do when working with community women. There are so many happier and me inspiring memories about Beijing – but they would require a Beijing memoir by themselves! One that remains etched in my mind, however, is of Kamala Bhasin, who had reached China before us and was waiting to receive the two-hundred-and-fifty-odd women from India at the immigration line with her famous ‘Tod tod ke bandhano’ song-and-dance number. All of us, travel weary and dishevelled, greeted her with equal gusto and the deadpan, humourless Chinese authorities were overpowered by infectious feminist exuberance!
(Excerpted from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by: Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price: Rs 350/Softback.)