Vibhuti Patel Documents Women’s Liberation in India

Vibhuti Patel is professor and head of Department of Economics and Director, Department of Post-Graduate Studies and Research at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She is a founder member and trustee of the Anusandhan Trust and its organisation, Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), and a trustee of Vacha, Women’s Research and Action Group (WRAG). She got radicalised in the Gujarat of the early seventies and became both political activist and feminist. An excerpt from her memoir, published in ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’.

Communal riots in 1969

When I was in Class X, Gujarat experienced the worst communal riots of the post-Independence period in 1969. We lived in the walled city of Vadodara, where the impact of the riots was felt greatly. Just opposite our locality was Kangalpura (meaning the locality of paupers) where Muslims lived around the Jama Masjid. During the riots their homes, shops and even the mosque was attacked and looted. In my personal life, I had had only a positive experience of hard-working, poor Muslims – masons, carpenters, petty traders – and would even accompany them on Moharram processions. During the 15 days of the 1969 riots, I saw the most barbaric face of lower middle class and poor Hindus who stuffed their homes with what they had looted – food, footwear, plastic ware, electronic goods, utensils, clothes. I was totally shaken, lost faith in religion, stopped observing religious fasts, and started questioning everything I had learnt in the past. I had finished reading all the books in the school library – Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi, Sharatchandra, Tolstoy, Dickens, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, and the major Gujarati authors of the pre- and post-Independence periods. From school I would go directly to the town hall to listen to the lectures of dacoits-turned-Gandhians, Dr Subbarao, Rajneesh (he was not a god-man then) but came away unconvinced, as all of them wanted women to be only volunteers and followers.

Working in a New Left group

In school I was impressed by my art teacher who talked to us about youth radicalisation in the West, about the Naxalbari movement in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, and about revolution in Vietnam. I borrowed many books from him. He told me about a library where I could find books about these movements, and also about study circles I could join. After attending one study circle of Dr A.R. Desai’s during the summer of 1970, some of us founded a youth group called Study and Struggle Alliance (SSA) to fight against injustice. Teachers in the faculty of science at M.S. University, where I was studying, would tell students in class who were interested in my work not to associate with me because I was a ‘communist’ – an anathema in Gujarat.

Because of my parents’ insistence, I had to appear for the medical sciences entrance exam, but I left the answer papers blank. My study group had decided that I should opt for the arts and specialise in economics, as the working class movement needed comrades with a deep understanding of Marxist economics. So I sat for the arts faculty entrance exam and enrolled for a B.A. with economics, mathematics and sociology as my subjects. As members of SSA, seven of us contested university elections on the slogan of “Principles, Programmes and Policy”, concerning student and youth issues. By now, my personality had taken a 180 degree turn. I had undergone a total metamorphosis, had become fearless, militant and focussed on global and national political issues debated among the New Left. Even the dons of student politics would borrow my notes and seek my help in their studies. Nobody harassed me on the road even when I returned from gate meetings at 12.30 a.m. on my bicycle. In my family, my parents were very impressed that, instead of fussing over gold, expensive clothes or eating in hotels, I was arguing with everyone about the Vietnam war, trade union struggles in Surat, literacy programmes in workers’ communities, apartheid, and so on. Industrialists in my family told my mother to curb my activities each time they saw me on the streets of Vadodara, shouting slogans and waving a red flag.

I was given the job of translating important political documents from all over the world on women’s liberation; on the youth uprising in Sri Lana; the radicalisation of youth in Europe and America; and on the civil rights movement. This exercise sharpened my articulation of political issues, and by 1972 I was asked to give lectures on these subjects in study circles. During 1971-72, Com. Tariq Ali came to Vadodara twice and gave lectures based on first-hand experience of the youth movement in Sri Lanka, under the leadership of Rohan Wijeveera, and of the Bangladesh Liberation struggle against Pakistan, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I was highly impressed by Tariq Ali’s charismatic personality and forceful style of speaking. Although there were bitter factional fights among the amoeba-like New Left groups, all factions were friendly with me as I was a foot soldier and care-giver, not a leader.

(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.)

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