Debating India


Battle Of The Atoms

Paromita Shastri

Monday 1 November 2004, by SHASTRI*Paromita

Their gritty stories repose some faith in this unjust world. Here, we salute six women who fought against the system, and won.

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Sanjib Mukherjee

Courage is an uncommon virtue, they say. But for many Indian women, it’s as commonplace as life itself. We bring you here a few ordinary women with extraordinary lives, women who refused to be victims. Who had enough grit and doggedness to triumph over phases of trouble and tragedy that are their constant companions: sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, riots, gender bias....But for each voice that finds a place here, there are ten that chose to keep silent, fearing further harassment, societal frown or plain embarrassment. Some had gone to court and feared prejudice; some were willing to tell their story but not expose their face. Some developed cold feet. It shows how far our women have still to travel to take courage in their own hands and give it the shape they want. But it also makes it clear that step after step, we’re getting there.

Premalata Das

Headmistress, Nalini Vidyamandir Rayagada, Orissa

When 36-year-old law graduate Premalata Das decided to join Nalini Vidyamandir, a residential school for tribal girls run by an ngo in Orissa’s backward Rayagada district, her family was naturally up in arms. She’d have to contend with the poverty, unemployment and alcoholism-ridden, near-primitive lifestyle of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Premalata defied her family. Now she not only heads the school but has also turned it into an amazingly successful, full-scale educational institute up to the ninth standard.

The state government did want a school in the area, but as a matter of policy, they’d fund a primary one (up to Class V). So it was not only a question of guts but also money. Officially, Rayagada district is only 35 per cent literate, with four per cent tribal female literacy. In the Dongria Kondh tribe, girls are much sought after but—unfortunately—it’s because they look after home, hearth and siblings while parents spend the day at work, and also because of a reverse dowry system. Premalata actually had to bribe people to send their girls to school. Still, they often gheraoed the school demanding jobs, tried to attack Premalata and her teachers, or take the girls forcibly back. They even threatened to kill Premalata. "But every time I was abused, I became more adamant," says Premalata.

Last year, 15 girls from Nalini Vidyamandir wrote the boards and 13 got a first division. This year, all 18 passed in first. It’s an achievement alright, acknowledges additional DM L.C. Patra, admitting that of the 20-odd government-run schools in Rayagada, nine have never had a student clear the board exams. And the much-fought-for upgradation to secondary level may be finally coming through.

Sconi D’Souza

Utan, near Mumbai

Can a young girl single-handedly take on the Mumbai land sharks and the loophole-ridden legal system of the country? Sconi, all of 26, is the living answer to that question.

When her father died in 1995, leaving behind an agricultural landholding of about 1.75 acres held in two pieces on which the family grew vegetables to make a living, she knew that the land was only partially in their name. When she went to the tehsildar’s office to apply for ownership for the other piece, she found that despite being the original tenant of the land, somehow her grandfather and father’s name was missing from some documents.

As land prices rose sharply, land developers targeted the guardian-less family. Joseph John Gonsalves, a local political henchman, forcibly took over the land and walled it up. When Sconi and her brothers protested, they were beaten up. The police registered their complaint only after the intervention of social workers.

But the lowest court ruled in favour of the land-grabber.Yet, Sconi won her appeal in the sessions court and the high court dismissed Gonsalves’ case.

Emboldened by her small victory, Sconi turned protester. A gang led by Ameer Gaffar Sheikh, a local goon and sand-supplier, was illegally dredging off a lot of sea sand at night. After Sconi’s repeated complaints to the police, the trucks were held and the activity stopped.

That burst of courage proved too costly for Sconi. After immense harassment, her family was forced to sell one piece of land for a song: Rs 1.5 lakh, less than a tenth of the market price.

Meanwhile, the upset powers-that-be have opened up the closed file of the other piece of land. By the stroke of a convoluted pen, her family is now no longer the owner and Sconi is battling it out in high court. Why doesn’t she sell it off to a builder, take her money and go? For Sconi, that’s not a viable option: it’s her forefathers’ land. "It’d be a shame to let it go without a fight," she says simply.

Veena Devi

Mukhiya, Loharpura panchayat, Nawada, Bihar

Married at 13, widowed at 16. With one infant, two stepsons and a tough sasural that never allowed Veena to step out of home. Then, life took a strange turn for this illiterate backward-caste woman. She decided to fight fate.

The temptation came in the form of a criminal disguised as her tenant. Threatened with four-letter words and a revolver, her first reaction was to flee to her parents’ home. Then she thought about her house and children and returned to face the odds squarely. She got in touch with women politicians, one of whom, mlc Pramila Devi, was quick to spot her potential. "I knew nothing about being a netayin (female politician). I thought about it as a mother thinks about the marriage of her daughters and decided to jump in. If I have to live in society, I’d much rather join the mainstream," says Veena.

Her in-laws and relatives were outraged, but Veena stepped out. From social functions and political gatherings, it was a short step to becoming the president of the district women’s cell of RJD. Then came the thought of reaching the sky: why not contest the panchayat polls, being held in the state after 25 years?

Pitted against 11 wealthy and resourceful political men, and in the face of opposition from even her own sons, Veena was elected mukhiya of Loharpura panchayat in early 2001. She was 24. "One candidate threatened that if I didn’t withdraw, he’d rape me. One threatened kidnapping. Now they all come to me and say ’sir, sir’," she says, proudly pointing out her achievements: culverts, schools, a community hall, brick roads, handpumps and electricity. Travelling atop a pushcart while colleagues elsewhere drive big cars, she stops in front of a noisy ration-shop crowd and asks: "Any problem?" The dealer bows and replies: "No, sir."

Prakriti Srivastava

Indian Forest Service officer, Kozhikode

On September 24, a Janata Dal (S) leader was sentenced to one-year simple imprisonment for sexual misconduct. The politician, of course, will appeal.

In February 1999, Prakriti Srivastava was the divisional forest officer at Nilambur. A. Neelalohithadasan Nadar was Kerala’s minister of transport and forests. Along with three men, Srivastava was summoned by the minister to the government guesthouse at Kozhikode. At the end of the discussion, after the others had left, Nadar allegedly grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. "Caught unawares, I fell on top of him but I escaped from his clutches and fled," Srivastava informed the Kerala Women’s Commission, the police commissioner and the secretary of forests.

In the course of the year, Srivastava received three phone calls from the minister that were "totally out of context" with her work.Says Srivastava: "I am a single parent living alone with my daughter.Being low in the hierarchy, the fear of professional exile and negative publicity gripped me."

But a fellow victim’s plight gave her the necessary push. In 2000, Nalini Netto, former transport secretary, lodged a similar complaint against Nadar. Srivastava was called for questioning by the investigating officer. Politicians pressured her against speaking to him; abusive and threatening phonecalls at night became a regular affair. When "the tension became unbearable", she threw away the veil of fear. In 2001, she filed a police complaint. Three years later, Nadar was pronounced guilty.

Says Srivastava: "Nobody believes a woman till the judgement is passed. I’m an officer first, then a woman, but fighting the case has made me a stronger woman." Her success, she hopes, will strengthen the voice of many such victims in the dark.

K.K. Rema

Advocate’s clerk, Kochi High Court

A three-pronged attack—by a husband, a sibling and society at large—would have broken even the most hardened back. Not K.K. Rema’s, though. This 40-year-old Dalit woman, who works at the Kochi high court, has firmly put victimhood behind her.

It was a decade of suffering for her and two daughters. Till one day in 1995, things went too far. Her husband, a transport employee, slashed her face with a pen-knife and pointed it at her stomach. A traumatised Rema went back to her parents. Not even a graduate, she took up temporary jobs to support her children. But her husband repeatedly created trouble at her workplaces and the employers sided with him. "My husband believes that woman’s place is in the kitchen even if she has to starve," grimaces Rema. When she finally found a job as a door-to-door salesperson for readymade garments, her husband took her eldest daughter away. Rema managed to secure a loan and set up a garment business. Fine Look Garments prospered, but her husband often waylaid her, threatened to kill her, and spread vicious rumours. Soon, she was left with a closed shop, a debt of Rs 40,000 and mounting interest.

The filial home was no more welcoming than the marital one. Worried that Rema would get a share in the family property, her brother took recourse to mental and physical torture. So far, she has refused to budge. In 2000, she took a judicial separation from her husband and filed for maintenance. Her divorce came through a week ago. "Even four years later, I’m struggling to pay my debts. My husband is now trying to establish that I have a job so he does not have to pay maintenance. He knows I still have a child to support. But my hard work will see me through all this, I know," says Rema with a smile. You want to silently send up a prayer for her.

Rasheda Kausar

Businesswoman, Bhagalpur, Bihar

In her 47 years of existence, Rasheda Kausar’s proudest possession has been a 15-year-old sewing machine. Not a Pentium-era contraption, just a chip of the old block that’s now her life.

Did that life begin that scary day in October 1989 when she scaled a wall to escape frenzied rioters who killed her husband? Or did it begin the day she bought the machine?

Either way, the machine allowed her to stitch her life back together. Out came garments on order that put food into six hungry mouths. The compensation money of Rs 1.1 lakh arrived but almost all of it went in to educate her children—four daughters and a son. "I decided not to spend life crying and begging," she says.She spent a few days in the house of a Hindu neighbour and then a few months in relief camps and then returned to get back on her feet."There was not a single word of encouragement. I got only insults when I was struggling," she says."I faced all kinds of harassment from society.The more they discouraged me, the more determined I became."

Against everybody’s advice, she went ahead with her daughters’ education.And her own, finishing her matriculation with her two elder daughters. Tahseen and Tasneem have now graduated with honours and are preparing for the state public service exams. The rest are in college. Busra and Zeba want to become engineer and doctor. Son Masoom nurses ambitions of joining the IPS. Cliche? No, just a hard-fought victory.

Rasheda today presides over a coaching institute, a computer training centre and a hostel, all in her home. But her journey isn’t yet over. A gentle dream that she cherishes now is to set up an old-age home.


Paromita Shastri with Labonita Ghosh in Rayagada and calcutta, Faizan Ahmed in Nawada and Bhagalpur, Charubala Annuncio in Mumbai, Sugata Srinivasaraju in Bangalore and Minu Ittiype in Kochi

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