Kamla Bhasin (1946-2021): A freedom-loving feminist par excellence

South Asia was Kamla’s oyster and she travelled across the borders inspiring women in Bangladesh (where she was Kamla di) Nepal (where she was Kamla diju), Pakistan (where she was Kamla apa) , Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other places

Nupur Basu Oct 05, 2021
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Breaking bread with South Asian feminists - India's Kamla Bhasin and late Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir at IAWRT biennial in New Delhi. (Pic by Nupur Basu)

Kamla was just one year old when India gained independence from colonial rule. Little did she know then that the slogan of 'azadi' (freedom) was to haunt and be a constant companion for her for the rest of her life.

The irrepressible feminist Kamla Bhasin embraced the word azadi to the core of her very being. So much so that she infused its passion into women of all generations. In her home, on the street, on a small makeshift stage where women gathered to protest and on the biggest international stage, Kamla’s was a constant rallying cry to women to break the shackles of patriarchy and fight for their azadiAzadi to get education, azadi to get their share of land, azadi from male oppression, azadi from gender-based violence.

It was a term she said she had learnt and embraced from feminists in Pakistan who first raised the slogan of azadi in the Zia regime. Kamla loved it. Borrowed it. Gave it its own Indian flavour – mahilayeen mange azadi  (women demand freedom). In recent years when the term azadi began to be villified as ‘anti national’ Kamla was not one to be even slightly intimidated.

In every event Kamla Bhasin's songs on azadi rallied more new recruits for the feminist movement not only in India but all of South Asia. South Asia was Kamla’s oyster and she travelled across the borders inspiring women in Bangladesh (where she was Kamla di) Nepal (where she was Kamla diju), Pakistan (where she was Kamla apa) , Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other places.

Recalls Sri Lankan journalist Dilrukshi Handunettii : “I saw her last three years ago at Asma Jahangir’s residence. Kamla sang, danced, recited poetry in Urdu…what a pioneering South Asian. Many of us went through Sangat and remain deeply indebted to this powerhouse woman.” 

In her last days from her hospital bed, Kamla is supposed to have made constant inquiries about Afghan women and the efforts at evacuating them to safer places. 

Kamla’s passing has left a huge void for feminists who have all paid rich tributes to her and recalled the rich legacy of this poet, author, activist, feminist par excellence. Like many organisations in South Asia, Kamla was a very good friend of IAWRT, India Chapter and supported the organisation . She will be an irreplaceable mentor. We will miss her warm hugs and her inspiring songs on azadi.

Rest in peace Kamla di, Kamla diju, Kamla apa.

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist-filmmaker. This article first appeared on IAWRT website)