Alvida Kalpana Mehta…
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression deeply mourns the passing away of Kalpana Mehta in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The loss of a fellow traveler and a comrade at a time when we are going through a massive public health crisis and continuous clampdown on the right to dissent through arrests and detention is hard to bear. Kalpana has been with WSS ever since its inception in 2009.
Having done B. Tech in Aeronautical Engineering from IIT, Kanpur she had left for the US to pursue a degree in MBA. She came back to India in 1976, as it happened with many other fellow Indians who returned in those times, when the country was reeling under the clampdown of the National Emergency imposed by the Congress-led government in power at the centre. Within a few years in trade union work, she became part of a vibrant and powerful political current that brought to light women’s oppression and subordination in society and the need to organize as women, which was becoming well nigh impossible in the left and socialist movements of those years. Her life and politics have thus been shaped by the emergence of the autonomous women’s movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Kalpana was a co-founder of the autonomous feminist collective Saheli Women’s Resource Centre that was set up in 1981; she continued to remain at the forefront of the women’s movement ever since.
In the early 80s, women’s oppression within marriage and the family as well as a critique of all other social structures perpetuating patriarchy became the rallying point for women across the country. While this trend ideologically drew from Marxism, Socialism as well as the second wave of feminism in the west, it directly took head on many social practices emanating from the feudal and religious social order in India. And it impacted many political formations – party and nonparty – to reconfigure their politics and organizational structures too. Writing about Kalpana is indeed writing about the times because countless people from educated middle-class backgrounds gave themselves entirely to bring this paradigm shift in resistance politics; the organization and the movement mattered most and not individual recognition.
The demand for an egalitarian civil code for all women has been the most uphill struggle. Recognizing women’s oppression as being rooted in the religious-caste hierarchy in our society, a significant contribution of feminist politics has been to address issues faced by women across all communities. Kalpana, like many others, has for years been campaigning against discriminatory personal laws in matters of marriage, divorce, custody, adoption, maintenance and property that continue to not only legitimize male-female inequality but also treat women from different religions differently. The women’s movement has unequivocally challenged communal politics and religious fundamentalism, be it of majority or minority religions. In this way, the struggle against patriarchy interrogated almost all social structures and made alliances with the struggles of other oppressed groups. The women’s movement thus had many fellow travelers simply because we saw women’s liberation incomplete without the emancipation of all oppressed groups. In this tough and formidable journey, Kalpana’s optimism and clarity of vision never once faltered.
In the mid-nineties, Kalpana led a huge initiative named Paridhi with the hope of making safe contraceptive methods available to women, a need brushed aside by the state in its relentless imposition of family planning and population control policies making women’s bodies an instrument of state and patriarchal control. The Paridhi project was aimed at research and manufacture of diaphragms as part of the search for effective barrier methods of contraception that would be healthy, safe and in the control of women themselves. Possibly Kalpana was ahead of her times in envisaging such a project; maybe the contours of this huge project became untenable when she finally had to turn her attention to provision of health care instead. In her search for alternative health care systems that would cater to the needs of the ordinary people, she set up Manasi in Indore along with a group of health activists and doctors. Manasi operated for many years in providing health care from traditional healing systems as well as allopathy, when required. The group was able to give health services for a reasonable fee or free of charge at a time when the medical establishment had become heady with the mantra of profit as the privatization of health care was beginning to hit hard working class families in extracting their last pennies. This holistic approach to health with much emphasis on mental health influenced and inspired many who came in touch with the Manasi collective in Indore.
When she had moved to Indore in 1997, she had also become an active supporter of anti-displacement movements in Madhya Pradesh. She came into close contact with the Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch and other small collectives. Her contribution is tremendous in infusing feminist politics in other working class formations and social movements too.
Kalpana fostered mutual support among fellow activists, especially knowing the difficulties activists encounter whether in turning one’s back to family structures for doing political work or in balancing such work with family responsibilities. She also extended her house and living space to organizational work; thus, the time and space for politics and friendship simply grew exponentially wherever she lived. In these spaces that she created, there’s been so much fun and laughter too. Her most redeeming aspect was the subversive humour in her scathing critiques of the regimes of power. It was intact to the end.
WSS came up in the late 2000s when sexual violence on women in many parts of the country was becoming a direct means of control and repression in the hands of patriarchal and authoritative state forces. The onset of neo liberal economic policies had begun to bear heavy on the lives of marginalized communities. On one hand, the violence on women from adivasi and dalit communities was reaching an all time high, especially in resource rich states in East India. On the other, the impunity accorded to army and security forces in so called “conflict” zones meant exacerbated sexual violence on women in Kashmir and states of the North-East. The need for a new formation like WSS became crucial to rev up feminist resistance to sexual violence and state repression because this was not eliciting much response from the mainstream women’s movement. Kalpana’s role was invaluable in strengthening the WSS journey. Along with the local group, she organized two conventions in Indore in 2014 and 2018. She had also twice been a National Coordinator of the WSS.
So many incidents – big and small – come to our mind. The second convention of WSS had just got over in Raipur in December 2009. A team of 40 women from the meeting traveled to Bastar to meet and express solidarity with women who had filed FIRs against sexual assault by Sulwa Judum and the SPOs. The team was stopped by the police and also heckled by goons. Kalpana went to the Office of the DGP in Raipur with two other WSS members and stayed put until they ensured the safe return of the entire team. She encouraged direct confrontation with the authorities to demand accountability. She was also the one ever willing to initiate protest actions. After one full year of the CBI giving a report covering up the crimes of rape and murder of two young women, Asifa and Nilofer in Shopian in Kashmir, WSS organized an unique protest in New Delhi. On December 13, 2010, over a hundred women and men brought loads of bed sheets to gift to the CBI to cover up their crimes. The bed sheets were sprawled with messages like : Gift For Your Next Cover-Up! CBI Investigate Yourself! Justice For Asiya And Neelofar! Cover-Up Bureau Of Investigation Not Central Bureau Of Investigation! There’s strong recollection of women’s groups storming into the office of the National Commission on Women on October 10, 2012 and demanding justice for Soni Sori who had undergone severe torture and sexual violence at the hands of the Chhattisgarh police and repeatedly humiliated since one long year. The NCW had ordered an enquiry but the files had not yet moved. Women’s groups demanded the reopening of the case. These are all collective actions strengthened even more by Kalpana’s energizing and vibrant role. She had a staunch belief in action politics and upheld collective action over and above rhetoric or petitioning or doing online activism.
In demanding accountability to people’s constitutional rights from elected governments, especially that of marginalized communities, Kalpana’s approach to political and organizing work was fired by a vision that upheld equality and dignity to all in a democracy. Even in our own internal organizing within WSS to give more edge to our collective work, spread as we are across so many states, she upheld democratic processes and put in tremendous hard work and rigor that were needed to actually make democracy work in a collective structure. She would also look into each and every detail of any task or event taken up and see it to completion. In this way she enriched WSS and gave it a firm base from her years of direct experience in organizing and spreading feminist politics.
There have been many losses she faced even as she was bravely battling her own deteriorating health condition. Within a few months of the onset of her illness, Kalpana was overtaken by grief when her close friend and fellow traveler Rajni Tilak passed away. She could also never come to terms with the incarceration of two WSS members, Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen. She urged WSS to garner more support and solidarity and make the campaign for the release of all political prisoners even more vibrant and popular. Just before her death, she had signed a public statement condemning the arrests of anti-CAA protestors in Delhi. To the end, she remained most preoccupied by the challenging times and the direction WSS can take in such tough times.
Kalpana breathed her last on May 27, 2020. In mid-2017, she began getting afflicted with many symptoms of the motor neuron disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Even as her mind was ever active and alert to everything that was happening around her, she gradually had to forego mobility and speech. Until her last breath, Kalpana was tuned in to events around her through the daily newspaper and communicated ideas and suggestions. Her immense capacity for political discussion and organizational matters was inspiring so also her grit and determination to struggle for a different society, a society of our own making.