The Man Who Launched a Thousand Feminists
I scraped through my high school examination in 1986 in third division. So I couldn’t get a government job like others from a poor socio-economic background like I, who had done better. There was family pressure to follow tradition in rural Chhattisgarh and get married. I did not want to become the chattel of a drunkard and get regularly beaten up as was the fate of most other women including my elder sister. So I stubbornly continued to subsist by rolling bidis or handmade tendu leaf cigarettes. This was drudgery as rolling a thousand bidis in one day would bring only Rs 7 at that time. So I also looked around for other opportunities and enrolled for a training programme for rural youth being conducted by the NGO Prayog. As luck would have it I was selected after the training programme to run a creche for children of bonded labourers who had been freed from bondage by legal action undertaken by Prayog in the Supreme Court of India. I was to be paid Rs 300 a month all found which was princely compensation compared to what I was earning breaking my back rolling bidis.
I joined Prayog for a job without any consciousness about the social, economic and political factors responsible for the disempowerment of the poor and especially women in rural India. However, after joining Prayog and attending many training programmes my eyes were opened in this respect. These trainings instilled a resolve in all of us to fight injustice and oppression. Prayog was started by Mr P. V. Rajgopal a Gandhian activist from Kerala who came to central India to inspire youth to work for societal rejuvenation. The great achievement of Rajaji, as he is popularly known, was in mobilising young women from indigent socio-economic backgrounds to work as rural activists in large numbers. He would personally conduct the trainings and listen to the problems being faced by these women in their work. Over the years over a thousand women like I have become feminist activists in this way. Many of us later struck out on our own and are now fighting for women’s rights independently. Rajaji has always been supportive of our efforts to work on our own and so it can verily be said that he has held our hands and launched a thousand feminists to fight the deadening patriarchy that stifles Indian society.